In Regency England ratafia was considered a ladies’ drink. Men preferred claret, burgundy and port. So what is ratafia? Georgette Heyer describes it as a liqueur flavoured with the kernels of apricots, peaches or cherries. While Cooley’s Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts, 6th edition 1864, defines ratafia as a ‘generic name in France of liqueurs compounded of spirits, sugar and … the juices of fruits or kernels [thereof].”
This brings me to my home-made version of Blackberry Ratafia. It’s been a good year for blackberries. I pop a sun-warmed berry into my mouth and wait for the burst of flavours – sweet, tart, juicy – with a crunch added by the seeds. I pick as many as I can before my scratched arms and legs rebel. The vines are incredibly tenacious. They put down roots wherever they touch the ground and will trip you when you’re not expecting it.
Now about my blackberries. I freeze most of them for pies, muffins etc. But I put aside a goodly portion for my ratafia. Then I assemble the ingredients: sugar, vodka and a jar with a sealing lid. My recipe is flexible. If the summer has been hot, the berries will be sweeter so I use less sugar, sometimes up to half a cup less. Here is my basic recipe:
7 cups of berries – 2 & 1/2 cups sugar – 4 cups of vodka
When assembled I let the mixture sit on my kitchen counter for at least two months, stirring the contents of the jar, occasionally with a sterilized spoon. As we approach the Christmas season I decant my brew. I use a sieve lined with cheesecloth but you can also use a coffee filter. The result is a clear purple liqueur with an earthy blackberry flavour. It makes a lovely gift in a small decanter but I usually keep most of it for my own family. I have even been known to smuggle a bottle onto an airplane in my suitcase. I think the Regency ladies would have enjoyed sipping this luscious potion and likely they did.
Two little girls in long gowns and ruffled bonnets danced with their grandmother to the music of the Old Time Fiddlers of Port Alberni. They squealed with delight and tried to follow the puzzling steps, big smiles on their faces. They had come to the family dance, the first event of the Jane Austen Festival. Rosemary, a talented instructor guided us all through the English country dances. With her generous praise and clear instructions everyone felt they could do it.
The next morning, at the Glenwood Centre, the Guinness World Record count was held to determine how many people were dressed in Regency attire. The record is held by Bath, England, at 409. Sadly our numbers stopped at 286 but people-watching was fascinating. This year more men in top hats, vests and knee high boots made the count. The ladies, whose empire waist gowns and bonnets, are easier to assemble, always outnumber the men.
The highlight of the festival was the candlelit Masquerade Ball on Saturday evening. It began with the Grand March so that everyone could admire the exquisite costumes. Satins, lace, long white gloves, fans and jewelled masks abounded. A live orchestra of dedicated musicians performed period music for the dancing. Rosemary again cued the evening, the movements a little more complex than the night before, but never beyond anyone’s abilities. One piece dated from the early 1800’s and we were assured that Jane Austen herself had danced it.
To put up your hair, wear a long gown and curtsey to your partner as he bows gracefully before you, is a magical moment which carries you back in time and is priceless for an author who writes historical romances…
Today I’m going to travel two hundred years forward in time to the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s death July 17th 2017.There will be celebrations in many parts of England but the little town of Port Alberni, B.C. situated in the middle of Vancouver Island, Canada, is having its own. Each Tuesday I drive forty minutes past a lake nestled in pristine forests and over the hairpin curves of a mountain highway to attend their English country dance classes.
The Centennial Belles of Port Alberni are not just putting on a festival. They want to break the Guinness Book of World Records set for the most people dressed in Regency costume at one gathering. Bath, England, holds that record with a count of 409. Last year Port Alberni, managed a head count of 265. Everyone is expected to return this year – and bring a friend. The dress code is quite specific but coming up with the perfect costume is a lot of fun.
Last year a good friend of mine sewed my costume, an empire waist gown which I wore with long gloves, shawl and carried a fan. I let my hair grow out for the event and suffered the back-combing and stabbing of at least six hundred hair pins needed to put up my hair. I felt like a true Regency lady with an elegant chignon – but this year I’m going to use a hair piece.
The citizens of Port Alberni are very warm and friendly. They try to make it easy for you to acquire a costume. There are hat-making workshops, thrift shop adjustments, children’s and gentlemen’s easy-fix solutions. The Festival includes readings by authors, myself included, and scenes performed from Jane Austen’s Emma and Persuasion. There are also afternoon teas, Jane Austen style murder mysteries, a family dance, a Masquerade Ball and a picnic – in full costume.
I encourage you to come out, enjoy the beautiful scenery and take part in Port Alberni’s Jane Austen Festival. When you do, come to my table at the readings. I’d love to meet you and you could buy a paperback copy of ‘an Orchid for Penelope’. If you do not live in this area I would encourage you to hunt up a branch of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America and see what they have planned for this July. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.
I look out of my window at my less than perfect lawn and overgrown flower beds and compare them to the manicured gardens created in England’s history. Capability Brown, 1716-1783, focused on the big picture. He transformed the English countryside by creating sweeping vistas of lawns and parkland stretching as far as the eye could see, out of the existing formal gardens and agricultural land.
Humphry Repton, 1752-1818, his successor, often fine-tuned the earlier work of Brown. He was skilled with water colours and used this in his unique marketing technique. He produced ‘Red Books’ so named for their red covers. In these he explained in text and a series of water colour overlays, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of his proposed garden designs. Another technique unique to Repton was his use of borrowed items, such as church towers. He would cut vistas through existing trees to make the towers appear to be part of his design.
One criticism of Brown’s work was the lack of a formal setting for the country mansion. Repton reintroduced the use of trellis work, balustrades, flower gardens, ornate garden seats and formal terraces around the house itself. At Woburn Abbey he turned open gardens into themed ‘rooms’ such as a Chinese garden, an arboretum and an American garden through the use of shrubs, thickets and herbaceous borders.
I would dearly love to invite Repton to assess my garden and have him present me with a water colour painting of his proposal. Perhaps he could suggest a unique garden seat or a trellis for the new rose bush I received on Mother’s Day.