Two of my favorite characters in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's last completed novel, are Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, a couple of young, under-employed barristers-at-law who spend all day doing nothing in empty offices, then spend their evenings going to society gatherings that bore the crap out of them. They're a part of the upper-class world, but they aren't impressed by it, or the people in it, and drift through the parties casually making fun of everyone. One of my favorite conversations between them comes when they're in a carriage leaving a party:
'I hate,' said Eugene, putting his legs up on the opposite seat, 'I hate my profession.'
'Shall I incommode you, if I put mine up too?' returned Mortimer. 'Thank you. I hate mine.'
'It was forced upon me,' said the gloomy Eugene, 'because it was understood that we wanted a barrister in the family. We have got a precious one.'
'It was forced upon me,' said Mortimer, 'because it was understood that we wanted a solicitor in the family. And we have got a precious one.' '
After a few more minutes of describing their dull jobs, they go on:
'Then idiots talk,' said Eugene, leaning back, folding his arms, smoking with his eyes shut, and speaking slightly through his nose, 'of Energy. If there is a word in the dictionary under any letter from A to Z that I abominate, it is energy. It is such a conventional superstition, such parrot gabble! What the deuce! Am I to rush out into the street, collar the first man of a wealthy appearance that I meet, shake him, and say, "Go to law upon the spot, you dog, and retain me, or I'll be the death of you"? Yet that would be energy.'
'Precisely my view of the case, Eugene. But show me a good opportunity, show me something really worth being energetic about, and I'll show you energy.'
'And so will I,' said Eugene.
And it is likely enough that ten thousand other young men, within the limits of the London Post-office town delivery, made the same hopeful remark in the course of the same evening.
When these two heroes find themselves wrapped up in a murder case, the inspector takes them to the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, that smelly riverside tavern where the sailors and wharf rats go for port negus, purl, and dog's nose, which have already come up in this blog. It has to be the most versatile tavern in the whole of Dickens, where Lightwood and Wrayburn go undercover (even though no one is around to eavesdrop) by pretending to be lime merchants. They have a LOT of fun pretending to be lime merchants.
The inspector tells the two that "they burn sherry very well here," and they order up a bottle of burnt sherry. A man named Bob brings it out, and from the passage, we get a distinct idea that there's a real trick to burning sherry:
...although the jug steamed forth a delicious perfume, its contents had not received that last happy touch which the surpassing finish of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters imparted on such momentous occasions. Bob carried in his left hand one of those iron models of sugar-loaf hats, before mentioned, into which he emptied the jug, and the pointed end of which he thrust deep down into the fire, so leaving it for a few moments while he disappeared and reappeared with three bright drinking-glasses. Placing these on the table and bending over the fire, meritoriously sensible of the trying nature of his duty, he watched the wreaths of steam, until at the special instant of projection he caught up the iron vessel and gave it one delicate twirl, causing it to send forth one gentle hiss. Then he restored the contents to the jug; held over the steam of the jug, each of the three bright glasses in succession; finally filled them all, and with a clear conscience awaited the applause of his fellow-creatures.
The three men drink a toast to the lime trade.
This isn't the only time the drink appears in Dickens - Mr. Pickwick and his cell-mates drink some burnt sherry in the debtors prison, so it appears in both the first and last full Dickens novels.
But here's the thing: I could find no recipe for burned sherry. I asked the Dickens-L mailing list if it was just sherry served hot or what - the fact that a pub could be said to do it "very well" implied to me that it must have been spiced or something.
However, as far as anyone knows, "burnt sherry" wasn't really a drink at all - Dickens's references to it are just about the only evidence that anyone ever drank such a concoction at all. "Burned" often just meant "hot" back in the old days - Falstaff refers to drinking "burned sack" when he's just talking about hot wine in Shakespeare - so it's probably just heated sherry. The reference to them burning sherry very well at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters simply refers to the neat way they have of heating it up in the sugarloaf hat-shaped pot and making it hiss.
I can say, though, that it DOES make some neat hissing noises when you heat it up.
Also, it can catch fire when you heat it. So there's that. I don't know if it's sheer luck that got mine to burn, or if starting the fire takes some skill that I haven't quite mastered, but I could see it making for a really good spectacle.
1 glass of sherry
Heat the sherry. That's about it; this is as simple as recipes get. I used a cream sherry from Trader Joe's - a dry sherry might have been a bit closer to what they had at the Porters. If you really want to be "authentic," you can heat it up in your fireplace in a pot shaped like a sugar-loaf hat, which is also known as a "capotain" or "pilgrim hat" - they show up in one of the "Stupid Hats from History" sidebars in The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History, in which they're described as "a top hat that wasn't trying very hard."
Or, if you don't have a pot shaped like one of those, some say it was heated by putting a red hot poker into the tankard. Or, if you have no fireplace, poker, or pot shaped like a sugarloaf hat, you can do what I did the first time and just pour some sherry into a mug and put it in the microwave.
That made for a tasty drink, but the next time I tried it, I "burned" it on the stove in a metal saucepan. It began to hiss splendidly before it even started to bubble, and then, to my surprise and utter delight, caught fire right there in the pot, without me doing anything to ignite it. It was pretty awesome, but I couldn't get it to work again, and, hence, lack photos to prove it. But if the guy with the hat-shaped pot had gotten it to catch fire, then twirled it around, I can certainly imagine that it would look very impressive.
As to the drink itself, first thing I noticed about burnt sherry upon pouring a glass was the smell - the fumes seemed particularly strong. It did, as Dickens said, "Steam forth a delicious perfurme," which worked its way right into my nostrils and made me think it might be a wise drink to order when you're in a tavern right next to a really smelly river. Being by the river, after all, was a dangerous proposition in those days, when there were not yet any embankments and the river was full of raw sewage, not to mention the dead bodies that some patrons of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters fished out of it for a living. At high tides, the water probably game right up to the door of the place. Dickens describes this happening to an affluent house in Dombey and Son:
Sir Barnet and Lady Skettles, very good people, resided in a pretty villa at Fulham, on the banks of the Thames; which was one of the most desirable residences in the world when a rowing-match happened to be going past, but had its little inconveniences at other times, among which may be enumerated the occasional appearance of the river in the drawing-room, and the contemporaneous disappearance of the lawn and shrubbery.
Anyway, it's a tasty drink; the stovetop version that had caught fire was thicker than the microwave version, and featured prominent raisin notes (which is fancy wine talk for "it tasted like raisins.") It was also a bit darker in color after "burning."
Thanks to the readers of Dickens-L for weighing in on the topic. Burnt sherry is a tasty, warming drink that'll probably keep the smell of sewage out of your nostrils very well, and gives you the added thrill of knowing that you might just set fire to your apartment when you make it. I haven't had a chance to actually test its powers against the smell of the Victorian Thames, but, well, really, that's just as well.