You can have too much mulled wine.

It was Maljie who spoke those words, and I tend to agree with her. In her case it was an observation, spoken as we watched yet another mendicant struggle to pull him or herself upright, having crawled across the refectory floor to the heavy table at the front from which the wine had been served. Yet even as she spoke the tale of Sophie Ganal came to mind.

Sophie was one of those young ladies who was never entirely satisfied. Whatever it was, it was good enough for now, but future iterations would have to be better. She had a gentleman admirer, a fellow called Talcin, who was something in lady’s small clothes. I remember discussing him with Shena. She described him as the most feared man in the city. I begged leave to doubt this. After all I could list a score of racketeers, murderers, slavers and similar. But Shena insisted. After all, Talcin knew the true proportions of every lady. He knew which ladies didn’t lace the tops of their corsets lest a tell-tale roll of flesh appeared above it; or who purchased their drawers in ‘Large’ but who had their maids sew tabs in which read, ‘Medium.’

Yet he wore his power lightly. I never heard any woman complain that he had actually raised the issue, and certainly no-one ever heard him let slip any of this information. Even Sophie doesn’t seem to have been able to extract it from him. Personally I suspect he realised the danger he was in and acted with absolute discretion.

Indeed for the most feared man in the city, he was totally dominated by Sophie. Now I’ve seen young men who have been so utterly smitten by a young lady to an extent that they appear to have lost any willpower they once had. I’ve seen men so terrified by a lady that they instinctively agreed with everything she said. But Talcin seemed to be utterly bemused. I was left feeling that Sophie had appointed him to the post as her gentleman admirer and he was left running, metaphorically, to catch up with her interpretation of the role.

One problem he had to face was that, once he was appointed, Sophie assumed that he would share her enthusiasms and would fall in line with her plans. Now to be fair to Talcin, he was by nature an obliging individual. After all, even the ladies who feared him, also doted on him because of his ability to ensure any lady appeared almost as slim as she claimed to be. Nothing was ever too much trouble.

But in a commercial establishment, this attitude was reflected, eventually, in the bill. Whilst never mercenary in his dealings, Talcin could work away, secure in the knowledge that he was going to be adequately compensated. With Sophie he was faced with the dawning realisation that whilst on this occasion his efforts were adequate, she expected improvement.

It was at this point that we come to the point of the story, the mulled wine. For some reason, Sophie became interested in mulled wine. Now I am perfectly willing to agree that mulled wine has its place. In the right place, the right season, with the right company, mulled wine is the perfect drink. Also let us be brutally honest here, there are some wines (just as there are some ales) which cry out for mulling. Indeed, off the top of my head I could list a score of lesser vintages which really need mulling to make them drinkable. Indeed some of them could with advantage have honey, pure spirit, or even bicarbonate of soda added in a desperate attempt to make them potable. But in all honesty, why oh why would anybody mull decent wine? And as for burning sugar in Urlan plum brandy and allowing the residue to run into your bowl? If the wine is that bad, save it until the end of an evening and then serve it to less favoured guests.

But Sophie would mull wine, and of course she would seek to achieve the best. Every recipe was studied. She grated cinnamon sticks, chopped cardamom pods remarkably fine, crushed peppercorns and ground them up into a paste with strawberries. She experimented with wines, she burned a range of different sugars using everything from brandy to pure spirit. Some she served hot, too hot in my opinion as she drove the alcohol off. Some she served at a more sensible temperature, some she even chilled and served with crushed ice.

And then there were the glasses she served it out of. To be honest, if you’re attempting to create an air of convivial hospitality, it doesn’t hurt to serve it in tankards. If you’re worried about your guests falling over too early in the evening you have two options. One is to apply a little more heat, the other is to invite more robust guests.

Then there are those who serve it in quite small glasses. These too have their place. They’re better with a somewhat more refined company, and even those who are wary of partaking will allow themselves to succumb to a small glass. Indeed provided the glasses can be refilled, and the person doing the refilling is not a forbidding termagant who gives the impression she is ladling out her own life’s blood, the smaller glasses can produce a more convivial company than the larger ones.

But this takes us into other areas of controversy. Some swear that mulled wine should be sipped from glasses with handles. A more elegant version of the tankard perhaps. Some on the other hand decree that mulled wine should be drunk from a glass with a stem, so one can hold the stem and not the hot glass. But even if you’ve decided between handle and stem, do you want globular? Bulbous? Fluted? Frankly I think Sophie had them all. Indeed I would swear to her having one set that was bulbous but fluted, with a stem and a handle.

And Talcin? How did he take to this? Remember that he was a young man who in happier times probably never drank mulled wine more than once or twice a year. There would be the glass the others in the shop would press upon him in their annual solstice celebration. Then later, when he returned home, he would share a glass with his mother. She made some to her mother’s recipe and between ourselves, that was worth drinking. Now he was drinking the stuff every time he was invited to call upon Sophie. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

But it wasn’t just the drink, it was the ambiance Sophie was determined to create. It was apparently ‘in tune’ with thewine. She would have him arrayed in a toga, a man-at-arm’s tunic and cloak, or perhaps a long flowing evening coat. And there was often a hat, or even a wig to go with it. In my experience, small girls have taken fewer liberties with a devoted pet dog than Sophie took with Talcin.

But on one, never to be forgotten occasion, Sophie invited me to declaim some verses. She didn’t offer to pay but suggested that Shena and I, ‘dropped round the next time you’re going out somewhere together.’ Shena commented dryly that Sophie might have to wait some time, so we agreed to make an expedition of it. We arrived, were shown in to the dining room, and there sat Talcin. His face was rouged, his hair was somehow woven into a head dress of some sort and he was dressed in an off the shoulder robe. In all candour I didn’t look too closely, fearing to embarrass him as he drank he mulled wine from what appeared to me to be a cake stand.

I declaimed my poem, Sophie was genuinely delighted, as much because I had gone along with whatever she had in mind, and Shena never took her eyes of Talcin. As we stood up to go, Shena actually went across and kissed Talcin on the cheek and said how well he looked.

As we walked down the street back to the barge she couldn’t stop smiling. Finally I asked her what she found so amusing. She gestured back towards Sophie’s house.

“Now I’ve seen Talcin like that, I could be twice the woman I am now, and he’d still swear to my willowy figure, lest I told the world about his garb this evening.”


Would you like to spend more time in Port Naain?


As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”

34 thoughts on “You can have too much mulled wine.

      1. It was at our friend’s place who is a bit of a hippy and into alternative medicines. The month was December and I thought how bizarre it was that we were walking around a labyrinth in the dark with the smell of chip fat in the air. My son and Sam got terrible giggles when we got to the centre, as we had to sit in a ring around a cauldron, hold hands and chant ‘ohm’. They had to leave the labyrinth and collapse in a heap a safe distance away. I stayed the distance and transferred all my troubles to the cauldron, and then we made our way around the chip fat labyrinth again to drink mulled wine, which tasted quite disgusting. My son and Sam were exhausted from laughing so much.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. She had invited other hippy friends too, who were more into this sort of thing than us. They couldn’t understand why Sam and Marc had collapsed on the floor, unable to breathe with laughing and with their legs in the air.

        Liked by 1 person

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