Winter—true winter, that is, not whatever it is you get in San Diego or Pensacola or Savannah—is frightening. Light leaches out of the day and the week, and there’s always less of it than you need and so much more darkness. And that darkness isn’t the soft, warm dark of summer, where you can hear the earth unclench and sigh its relief that the rays of an incandescent sun are no longer stabbing into it. It’s a hard, lonely dark, a pitiless light-void that is the negation of joy and community and life itself. To be alone in it is to be truly alone—without friends, without family, without community, without hope.
Okay, maybe I’m laying it on a bit thick. But Lord knows if you peer into the historical record you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that brings humans as low as midwinter dark. But the peoples who have lived in the northern cold the longest have built defenses against the dark and the despair that follows like a Ring-Wraith on its heels.
There’s no big secret to those defenses: people, sitting close together in small, brightly-lit, well-heated rooms, talking and eating and singing and being alive.
But those are passive defenses, a shield that holds off the stabbing fingers of cold and pushes against the darkness. However, a shield needs a sword; something to terrify the darkness; to hack off its icy tentacles and render it harmless.
That sword was discovered in the eighteenth century, in the form of a big communal bowl of leaping blue flames that slashed away at the outer darkness and turned every individual who partook of it—it was, of course, a drink—into a glowing coal that laughed at winter and all its dismal works. The Russians called it “Djonka,” the English sometimes “Snapdragon” and sometimes just plain “Punch.” The French—well, they didn’t really have a special name for it either, other than “Punch au Rhum.” The Germans knew it first as “Crambambuli” and then, in its perfected form, as “Feuerzangenbowle”—“Fire-Tongs Bowl,” which is no more than a literal description of the thing.
The best version of Feuerzangenbowle comes from Mecklenburg, in the northeastern corner of Germany. It involves heating wine, spices and sliced citrus in a big, fireproof pot. Then you lay a pair of fireplace tongs over the top of the bowl and balance a largish loaf of sugar on them. Then you uncork a bottle of strong, funky rum or, even better, batavia arrack—the pungent Indonesian-Dutch rum cousin that is the preferred Punch-fuel of the western Baltic—and saturate the sugar with it, and if a little splashes into the wine so much the better. Then you pour some of the booze into a ladle, set it on fire, and use that to touch off the sugar-bomb. As the flames leap and dance, the sugar melts and drips down into the bowl in melty, fiery gobbets. You can keep adding ladlesful of alcohol to the thing, pulling the flames high into the air. You can ladle the stuff out flaming from the bowl—eventually, the whole surface will be on fire—or wait until it goes out and everything is thoroughly mixed.
In either case, no dark no more.
Feuerzangenbowle, Mecklenburger Style
12 oz strong Jamaican rum, such as Smith & Cross (or 6 oz Smith & Cross and 6 oz Batavia Arrack van Oosten, or 6 oz Plantation OFTD overproof rum and 6 oz Appleton Reserve Jamaican rum; the spirit should be over 50-percent alcohol or it won’t burn properly)
2 bottles dry Red wine, not too oaky
1 half-pound loaf of Sugar (German specialty stores sell these, as “zuckerhut”—250-gram cones of white sugar; Latin-American groceries, however, sell 1-pound discs of “panela,” which is brown and tasty but will need to be cut in half, which takes work)
2 Lemons, sliced thin and seeded
1 Orange, sliced thin and seeded
Peel of 1 Lemon
1 Cinnamon stick
1 whole Nutmeg
Over a low flame, bring the wine, the citrus slices, the lemon peel (which has been studded with the cloves) and the cinnamon to a simmer in a 3- or 4-quart steel or enameled iron pot.
Remove pot from the burner and put it on a trivet resting on a large sheet pan full of water (safety first!).
Lay a pair of fireplace tongs over the top. (Do not use kitchen tongs, as most have hollow legs that will lead a stream of flaming, molten sugar past the edge of the pot and drip it all over the place; ask me how I know.)
Put the sugar loaf on it and soak it thoroughly with the rum, reserving some to light it with (and, if you wish, some to play with).
Fill a wooden-handled metal Punch ladle with rum, light it on fire and use it to touch off the sugar loaf. Stir and ladle as above.
Please have at least one large fire extinguisher close at hand and proceed with great caution. Choose an appropriate venue, we’re talking about flaming punch after all.