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FOOD & DRINK

Four things you need to know about Vin chaud in France

Sipping mulled wine - or Vin chaud - is one of France's most popular cold-weather traditions. Here is what you need to know about the warm, winter drink.

Four things you need to know about Vin chaud in France
A stall tenant serves mulled wine at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, in 2019. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP)

Where it came from

Mulled wine has been a European tradition for centuries – with first evidence of the beverage dating all the way back to the Roman Empire, when it was called “Conditum Paradoxum.”

The Romans had their own special recipe for Vin chaud – they combined wine with honey and then added spices, like pepper, bay leaf, saffron and dates.

As you can imagine this version of mulled wine would have tasted very different from what French people love to drink during the holiday season, but the French have been sipping some version of it since at least the 12th century. 

The popularity of Vin chaud, which was known at the time as “spicy wine,” spread through France and Spain. During the Middle Ages, it was often prescribed as a healing treatment. 

In the 13th century, the mulled wine made its way to England, becoming popular with the English king of the time, Henry III, who supposedly enjoyed the drink.

By the 1400s, Vin chaud was being drunk in Germany and the Nordic countries too, where it remains popular and was incorporated into local customs. 

As for France, mulled wine remained prevalent over the centuries, and during the 19th century it was particularly known for being served in inns. 

When and where to enjoy it

France has its own specific Vin chaud traditions that set it apart from other European countries who enjoy the warm beverage, and it is particularly popular in the French Alps and in Alsace. 

In France, Vin chaud is drunk all winter-long, often starting as early as November. It is particularly known for being part of the après ski tradition. After having spent the day skiing or enjoying winter sports, the French typically end the day by joining their friends and stretching out by the fire, enjoying raclette. This is also the perfect time to drink a warm glass of Vin chaud.

READ MORE: Rules of Raclette: How to make France’s cheesy winter classic

There is another moment when Vin chaud is particularly popular in France, and that is when one is walking along a Christmas Market, or marché de Noël.

It is almost guaranteed that every French Christmas market will include at least one stand selling Vin chaud, so market-goers can enjoy the beverage as they walk through the market, admiring the other stalls.

As the weather gets sufficiently cold, it is also common to find Vin chaud at local bars across the northern half of the country. 

What other countries have their own mulled wine traditions?

In terms of other mulled wine traditions, Sweden and the Scandinavian countries are known for their mulled wine which is called Glögg. The Swedish version of mulled wine tends to use different spices from the French version, and almonds and raisons are often placed at the bottom of the glass.

As for German-speaking countries, Vin chaud is referred to as Glühwein, which is also commonly found in Christmas markets. 

While the ingredients vary from country to country – with some places like Sweden using white wine, and others like Canada adding in maple syrup – the French version of the beverage is known for sweet (but not too sweet) and for including honey, cinnamon and orange. 

How you can make it

French mulled wine is typically made with red wine, but it can also be made with white wine, as is done in Alsace.

As the wine will be warmed and mixed with spices, it is not necessary to pick a very fancy or expensive bottle. The French cooking website, Cuisine AZ, recommends seeking out a wine that already has more of a fruity flavour, so you might consider a Merlot or a Gamay from Savoie.

Most French cooking sites recommend the same few ingredients: red wine, orange (usually two), honey, a few stars anise or Badiane, sugar, cinnamon sticks (one to two), and cloves (clous de girofle).

Some people might also recommend adding in a dash of cardamom or a small piece of ginger. You can also drop in a dash of liqueur: either Pear Williams, or another eau-de-vie, or Cognac, brandy or port, as recommended by chef David Lebovitz.

To prepare the beverage, first cut the oranges into slices, and then add them to the saucepan. Next, add wine, sugar, and spices. 

Heat on low and dissolve the sugar, and then keep warm for fifteen to twenty minutes before serving. Be careful to only bring the Vin chaud to a simmer, not a boil.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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