The first recorded year that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 was in 336 CE in Rome, a day that the Romans marked as the winter solstice.
Since that initial celebration, Christmas has, with a few slight hiccups over the last two millennia, occurred annually and has been a prominent observation amongst the Orthodox and Christian religions.
First introduced in the Byzantine Empire during the 12th century CE, the Nativity Fast is an important part of the celebration of the Nativity (birth) of Jesus. The fast begins either on November 14 or November 28, depending on whether Christmas is observed on December 25 or January 7.
Fasting rules, for those who observed, meant that no red meat, poultry, meat products, fish, dairy products, eggs, wine and oil could be consumed. On Saturdays and Sunday, fish, wine and oil were allowed, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays allowed for oil and wine.
So what would you eat? Well, popular foods in Constantinople (excluding the list above) included vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, shellfish, herbs and spices.
While there are food recipes dating from the Byzantine Empire (which spanned over a millennium) that have survived, we’ll be taking a look at how to make a spiced wine to accompany the holiday season. Wine recipes often are mentioned in surviving cookery books and generally marked the beginning of a meal. In ancient Roman and Byzantine cuisine, spiced wine was known as conditum or koniton.
To make a fine spiced wine (conditum paradoxum), we look to Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes, to give us the steps.
Fine Spice Wine*
- 750ml red or white wine
- 100g honey
- 7.5g crushed pepper or allspice**
- 240mg mastic gum***
- 320mg bay laurel leaf
- 320mg saffron
- 200mg roasted date pits (optional)****
- Charcoal (optional)*****
- Mortar and pestle
- Wooden spoon
- 2 large bowls
- 4-5 smaller bowls or 1 larger plate
- 2 glass measuring cups
- Coffee filter paper OR paper towels
If you’re using the date pits, first soak them in wine until softened, then crush them using a mortar and pestle.
Measure out all of your spices using the scale, grind them separately and then place them on a plate or in separate bowls. If you are using pre-ground spices, then skip this step, however freshly ground spices have a greater flavour.
Measure out your honey in a glass measuring cup and 70ml of your wine in another.
Place the 70ml of wine and the honey in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. The mixture should begin to boil and show small bubbles after roughly 10 minutes. As soon as the mixture begins to boil, take it off the heat, add a dash of cool wine (optional), and let the mixture cool down until the bubbling has stopped. Repeat this process 3 times, each time returning the saucepan onto the heat for 10 minutes until at boil and then removing until cooled. Remove from heat and let it cool completely. Your mixture should begin to solidify into the thicker texture of honey.
Pour the rest of your wine (670ml) into a large bowl. Once your honey-wine mixture has cooled completely, return it to the heat for a few minutes to warm and liquefy it - don’t bring it to the boil.
Pour the honey-wine mixture into the bowl with the rest of the wine and add in all of the spices. Using a clean wooden spoon, slowly stir the mixture for at least 5 minutes until all ingredients and flavours have combined.
Place either coffee filter paper or a paper towel in a strainer over another large bowl and then slowly pour your spiced wine through the strainer or filter, letting the wine drip through. Once complete, this should leave you with a clear wine. The process may take an hour or more. Traditionally, charcoal was used to purify the wine.
After your spiced wine has finished filtering, you can serve it immediately or store it.
NOTE - The original recipe in Apicius directs to leave the honey-wine mixture to sit for a day before mixing with the rest of the wine and the spices. The flavours, however, combine more nicely when the mixture is warm/hot.
*The measurements given in Apicius are quite large, so an amended version has been given here based on a recipe done by Ancient Recipes for 750ml (or one bottle of wine).
**Generally black or white pepper grains, however “pepper” when used with honey or other sweets might also be allspice. Feel free to use either.
*** If you are unable to find mastic gum, vanilla bean may be used as a substitute.
**** The inclusion of the date pits adds more sweetness to the wine, so depending on your preference, you can choose to not include this step. The amount of honey included also effects sweetness, so you can always add more if preferred.
***** Charcoal can be substituted with coffee filter paper or a paper towel in a strainer for ease of access.
If you’re interested in a simple spiced wine, follow one of Oribasius’ recipes from his Medical Collections.
- 1 litre wine (of your choice)
- 350ml honey
- 3g pepper (or allspice if you prefer)
- Mortar and pestle
- Wooden spoon
Grind the pepper or allspice using a mortar and pestle. Place the ground spice into your wine and mix the ingredients.
Heat your honey in a saucepan over low heat until it has liquified.
Blend the honey with the wine and then store or drink as desired.
And remember - you can only drink your spiced wine on weekends, Tuesdays and Thursdays!