One of the more adventurous amongst my present clients is an ex-services association who arrange social events, usually around wine tastings, over the length and breadth of the British Isles. Their excellent work and the serious nature of their provision for all aspects of the charitable needs of their members means I tend to bend over backwards a little further to accommodate them than perhaps with other clients. From simple wine sampling to gastro-quiz, from blind tasting to full blown lectures I conduct them all willingly and as a result they are always met with generous enthusiasm and enjoyment. So a call to arms for a seasonal event at Liverpool cathedral came as no surprise, it was duly pencilled into the increasing busy December diary and forgotten until further details were forthcoming. Well forthcoming they were. “How many?” is one of my normal questions as ten can often be intense, thirty can be fun and sixty plus tends to get out of hand especially if one is asking the audience to sniff, swirl and spit in unison. Regents Park zoo  often springs to mind on such evenings. I have even conducted, albeit unsuccessfully, a bash with a one hundred and fifty strong audience of financial high flyers using a megaphone. When the answer returned casually: “about two thousand, maybe more” I was uncharacteristically speechless. “You don’t have to do much, just bring the wine along”.  “Can I get back to you?” was my much rehearsed reply used in such moments of panic. I considered the problem for some time, two thousand people, approaching the Christmas season, in the grounds of a Cathedral, the taking of red wine. Was this something of a biblical re-enactment, can miracles really happen? I certainly needed one as I returned the call later that day. I was calmly assured that little of my oratory talents were required, the wine was to be simply delicious, as per usual, and  ”oh yes”  did I by any chance “have some tea urns to mull it in?” I was tossed from the frying pan into the fire, almost literally on this occasion. Now I do not want to appear churlish here, but the culmination of honing my life-time skills incorporating wine assessment and selection were about to be blown as dust to the desert.

Yet, having mentioned before about bending over backwards this was a plea to which I was clearly offered little choice, hoisted by my own petard one might add. Although I am acutely aware of the seasonal familiarity of the mulled wine cup and the many jolly occasions I have personally attended on Winter evenings where mulled wine was the preferred alternative to perma-frost, I have never been a fan. As a result I have never been skilled at the construction of such a bevy, knowing little of the ingredients apart from hessian posies available in better shops or the plastic sachets which appear on supermarket spice shelves at this time of year. Both to be avoided in my opinion.

So if nothing else I needed to provide or at the very least advise on the matter ahead. Once a little research was undertaken I eased into the task with a more relaxed point of view . After all I use wine all the time in European cooking dishes, where would Beef Bourguignon be without red Burgundy, Coq au Vin without a general purpose claret, or Moules Marinières without white wine. Come to think of it blending spices and herbs with wine has given us some of our most pleasurable moments with anything from Dubonnet to Martini on a warm evening or the obligatory Pimms as the wedding guests arrive. Although from bitter experience I tend to draw the line at the ‘Holy’ wine of Buckfast Abbey however close I am to their West country retreat. Yet herein lies the legacy, we can trace the habit of mulling wine as well as infusing it with herbs, spices and even brandy, back to the middle ages. It is generally assumed that the wine having been poorly kept, was not usually at its finest some months after the harvest, so the addition of spices and even honey were deemed to overcome what to the modern palate would have tasted more like vinegar than today’s well conditioned wines. The additional process of heating, one surmises, would clearly have put paid to the predictable assortment of bugs and nasties that may well have been in evidence.

The final recipe of choice for me then. Well a cross between Mrs Beeton and Delia are going to cover most bases, so fresh oranges and lemons coupled with cinnamon, root ginger, and nutmeg will be travelling north with my team, along with a good measure of Brandy and jars of local honey alongside the litres of fulsome red wine from the Languedoc. All that I hope will be needed to warm the hearts of the scores of local souls, alongside the chilly banks of the Liver this coming December.

Anyone got a spare megaphone not in use next month?