Food and drink 

The art of personal restoration - From toddies to bouillon to weather an autumn storm

With slooshy wet snow pelting down on Saturday night, you may have been shivering in your boots on your way to somewhere, all the while wishing you were cozied up at home in a nest of wool or fleece, depending on your style parameters for warmth, with a cup of some hot restorative.

The idea of food and drink as a physical and psychological restorative left us about the time central heating and omni-present groceries kicked in. But if you can picture yourself in a stone-cold 13th century manor house in dead of winter, knocking about the hollow, drafty rooms in search of a lit hearth, or in a wee cottage with thatched roof and packed earthen floor where a small cooking fire and a tallow candle were your only hope of salvation (and heat and light), the joy taken in a hot restorative becomes much more palpable.

In more modern parlance, the concept of restorative has come to mean a “hot toddy” — “toddy” possibly from the days of the Raj and the British East India Company and subsequent familiarity with the juice of certain palms, called toddy (arrack, the stuff of many romantic Victorian novels, if it was fermented), or from a facetious play on Edinburgh’s word for “water” supplied by Tod’s Well.

Hot toddies presuppose an alcoholic measure of some sort (whisky, brandy, a liqueur or three), some kind of hot beverage (tea, coffee, hot chocolate or apple cider, fermented or not) and, if sweetening agents aren’t already built in to the above, then a sweetener, along with some sort of spice with aromatic qualities — cloves or cinnamon and the like — and possibly a dash of citrus, adding vitamin C to the restorative formula, and/or butter for a few extra calories on a cold winter’s night. And so hot buttered rum, mulled wine, hot apple cider and company were born.

But I was bent over a piping hot bowl of vegetable soup the other unseasonably cool, grey day, and while inhaling its delicious, steamy aroma it struck me that this, too, was a terrific restorative.

I could easily picture long wooden tables and benches set up in a plain hall in Paris or the back room of an appartmento in Venice, say a hundred years ago, where woolen-garbed workers and ordinary people would come on a cold wintry day for a bowl of hot soup and chunk of heavy bread to restore themselves with food and, ideally, the conviviality of like-minded souls.

This, it turns out, was not a wholly original thought and, had it occurred to me in the middle of the 18th century, say, it might have had legs. For it was around 1765 in Paris that a bouillon seller named Boulanger made a little sign for his business that read: “Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”

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