“Over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop”—An Attempt at Dickens’s Christmas Punch | Dustin Lovell
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”
Thus does Charles Dickens conclude the novella that made modern Christmas. He also immortalizes the ruby port based Victorian Christmas punch, smoking bishop, as one of the markers that, for all his scroogeness, Scrooge remembers enough from Christmases past to know how to have a good time for the holidays.
Far be it from me, an American (worse, a Californian whose Christmases rarely drop below 0°C) to try and speak knowledgeably about mulled wine to a predominantly British readership. This is why I want to emphasize that this is not a recipe, but a recounting of my latest batch—made this past weekend for my in-laws’ early Christmas party.
I’ll leave the explanations and formal recipes of the drink to the histories and recipes upon which I loosely based this year’s batch. While I’ve made smoking bishop for the past few Christmases, trying different variations with each attempt, this was my first time cooking it for my wife’s family. While I was tempted to overemphasize the sweetness, I decided to maintain the sour and bitter elements, trusting that the recipe—and the sour-tending palette of my wife’s Filipino family—would carry the drink. Nonetheless, the final product tended quite sour (still great with added sugar), so in the future I will probably use sweeter elements.
As is the case with recipes like smoking bishop, pretty much all ingredients can be adjusted for taste, and others can be included that I’ve left out. Below are the basic steps I took, snapshots of the process, and reflections on what I will do the same or differently in the future. Now, without further ado:
Time: <1/2 hr prep, 1 hr cooking, ~24 hrs resting (optional)
Ingredients (measurements US | metric):
- 7 oranges (3 valencia, 3 blood, 1 navel for garnish)
- 30-36 cloves (6/orange, can do fewer)
- ¼ tsp | ~0.7g cinnamon
- ¼ tsp | ~0.7g allspice
- 2 tbsp | ~12g of ginger root, diced
- ½ cup | ~100g Demarara sugar, plus more to taste
- 2 cinnamon sticks (Mexican canela)
- Bottle of red wine (2018 Revelation Cabernet-Merlot blend)
- Bottle of ruby port (Quinta Do Infantado Ruby Porto)
Step 1: Stud, cook, and cool the oranges
-stud oranges with cloves (5-6 each)
-cook at 150-200°C, 60-90 mins or until oranges start to brown
-return any cloves that fall out and set oranges aside to cool
First I studded the oranges with six cloves each. The 19th-century recipe allegedly calls for seville oranges, which are sour but also harder to find. I used three valencia and three blood oranges to compensate for the lack of sevilles. I opted to slow roast the oranges at 150°C for 90 mins (Picture 3) before turning the oven up to 200°C for 20 mins (Picture 4). While my home smelled like Christmas, I worry I cooked them for too long. In the future I’ll probably cook them hotter for a shorter amount of time (175°C for 45-60 mins, etc).
After cooking the oranges I returned any cloves that had fallen out and set the oranges aside to cool.
Step 2: Prepare spices mix and heat red wine
-add cinnamon, allspice, and diced ginger to 1 cup / 250ml of water; boil until reduced by ~half
-add bottle of red wine to pot (minus a glass for tasting); heat until simmering
-add 1/2 cup / 100g of sugar to wine, stir until dissolved
-combine spice mixture with wine; simmer for ~10 mins
While the oranges cooled, I prepared the spice mixture and wine. I reduced a solution of cinnamon, allspice, and ginger down by half. in the future I may add more allspice and ginger. I may also add mace and carraway. One of the best things about recipes like this is that one can, of course, add spices to taste.
For the base wine, I used a blended French cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It may be ironic to use a French wine in smoking bishop, which was apparently popularized when a tariff war between England and France brought a taste for Spanish port to England. However, I thought it fitting because this particular bottle was, itself, a Christmas gift from a friend, and such gifts deserve to be shared.
While I usually prefer more tart wines, in the end this wine’s tartness contributed to the batch’s final sour taste; in future attempts I’ll probably go with a sweeter, more full-bodied wine, like a pinot noir, a malbec, or a full merlot.
Step 3: Soak oranges in wine
-half the cooled oranges (optional), place in pot
-pour wine solution over oranges
-set aside overnight (room temperature or warmer)
Once the oranges had cooled, I sliced them and placed them in a large pot to rest overnight. Because I’d slow roasted the oranges, the pulp had dried a bit, and it came right off the rinds. In the future I will probably put the roasted oranges right into the punch without resting, as I’ve done in previous years; if I do let the mixture rest overnight, I may remove some or all of the rinds, or not slice the oranges until the next day.
Step 4: Strain and prepare wine for final mix
-using a sieve, strain out orange and ginger chunks
-juice orange pulp
-if transporting, add to receptacle
The next day, I strained the wine mixture, using a wide sieve to keep from removing the spices. I ended up running the pulp through a machine juicer, which returned a third of the bottle to the mix. As I was taking the drink to a party, funneled it into one of my mead carboys to be combined with the final ingredients later.
Step 5: Combine with ruby port and garnishes; heat and enjoy
-combine wine mixture with ruby port and garnishes (orange or lemon slices, cinnamon sticks)
-add sugar to taste
-heat until “smoking” and enjoy
Once at the party, I plugged in a heating pot and combined the prepared wine mix with the bottle of port, three navel orange rounds, and two cinnamon sticks. I added ~50g more sugar to balance the tang of the mixture, and soon the final product was smoking and read to drink. And, as I hoped, my wife’s family loved it, with members calling it “the dark horse star of the show” and encouraging me to cook it again next year.
All photos owned by the author.