I drew great pleasure from my beer and wine making efforts earlier this year (despite my somewhat hapless first attempts). And drawing on the chattily described, whimsically illustrated directives that abound in Mary Aylett’s Country Wines, I predict a lot more exploded glass and funny smells in my kitchen in 2009. First published in 1953, Aylett’s book sets down, in extraordinary detail, the processes for making wines from nearly anything that grows: cowslip, parsnip, oranges, currants, primroses, beets and a sort of kvass called “kisslyschtschy.”
Most of the recipes came to her from old, often hand-written cookbooks, or through conversations over farm gates with a dying breed of people who remembered or actually had made these wines themselves. As this all took place more than fifty years ago and most people had already given up even then on these ancient recipes, the people still keeping them now up must now be very few indeed.
Still, half a century alter, Aylett’s enthusiasm has lost none of its sparkle. “Even the most dynamic [country wine] never produces a hangover,” she claims. “That is a product of science, it has nothing to do with the art of wine-making.” (As if good will were enough to prevent a hangover! I wish!)
She’s witty, too: The seventeenth-century herbalist, Gerard, recommends the use of the red-currant “to extinguish or mitigate fevers, repress choler, temper the over-hot blood and to resist putrefaction. Is it not the greatest pity that our politicians cannot be liberally dosed with it? The matter should be brought at once before the United Nations.” Her directions are straightforward but thorough, and read as if they’ve been tested many times, despite the original recipe Aylett sourced from the back doors of Kentish cottages probably being pretty vague.
Wine-making, of course, is at its base a fairly simple process that can be applied to a great many different ingredients. Once the basics have been mastered, variations are infinite. And taste, of course, is subjective. Not to mention that the brain tricks people into thinking that the things they labor to make themselves taste better. This can actually be mapped on an exponential curve. Don’t let anyone burst your bubble, lest you discover this disastrous calculus on your own; I’m still in unyielding denial.
“I feel that it is time to save what is left of such a simple, valuable, and once widely-practiced art, which can be a source of innocent pleasure to all, a wholesome addition to a woefully depleted diet and a new stimulus to a sadly waning hospitality,” Aylett writes. Armed with her meticulous, clever handbook, I feel brave enough to keep trying.
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By Nathalie Jordi, Plenty magazine