DESPITE a few abberations like the Prohibition era, wines and spirits have had a long and respectable acquaintance with food. Over 5,000 years ago wine was allocated its own goddess, and the Chinese preceded the French by centuries in seasoning their foods with alcoholic beverages. Apparently, however, there was intermittent concern through the ages about the acceptability of wine, for Goehte sounded slightly defensive when he wrote, "Wine rejoices the heart of men, and joy is the mother of virtue." And that abomination called cooking wine was developed not because it was more appropriate for cooking than table wine, but because adding salt to the kitchen's alcohol supply kept the servants from drinking it before it got to the pot. But our early settlers brought their boozy recipes with them even if they left home in Europe the booze itself and had to substitute home brews. And Thomas Jefferson saw to it that alcohoic beverages were used in White House cooking, so extensively that his French chef, Etienne Lemaire, left us America's first written record of wine cookery. -- Phyllis C. Richman
IN THE 17th century, before England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland had been consolidated into the United Kingdom, relations between the English and the Welsh were not nearly as cordial as they are today. Dirty words and border fighting were the norm back then. The English, fond of calling the Welsh chintzy and mean, claimed that even if a Welsh housewife had a newly shot wild rabbit hanging in her larder (then considered a delicacy), she would not serve it to a guest but would offer melted cheese on toast instead. So, Welsh rabbit became a term of abuse not meaning real rabbit but a cheap substitute. In the long run, however, the Welsh got the better of them: Welsh rabbit was so good to eat that it became known and loved around the world.
Now I have discovered that the English did fight back -- inventing a dish of their own with the amusing name of the English drunken loaf. The authentic recipe, which includes red wine, creame, and vermicelli, as well as the basic blend of melted cheeses and bread, was sent to me by R. A. MacEwen, general manager of London's Paxton & Whitfield cheese shop.
In the 17th-century wording, the method calls for "grated cheese of Parmesana," but when I prepared it, I found that today's extra-hard, aged and concentrated parmesan is too strong in flavor for the delicate balance of this dish. I prefer a mixture of Swiss emmenthaler and English cheddar. (Editor's note: Parmesan as a toppping, however, adds extra flavor and a nice browning effect.)
As to the best wine for inebriating the bread, I prefer either a fine California sauvignon or a good French burgundy. I prepare my version in a copper au gratin dish with a lid -- the lid being used only during the preliminary inebriation of the bread with the wine. You can cut and trim the bread to fit any shape and size au gratin dish. When melting the cheese remember not to let it get too hot too fast, or to stir it too vigorously; otherwise the cheese suddenly may become stringy. With care, the the problem is easy to avoid.
When my drunken loaf came from the broiler, it looked quite nice with its bubbly-sizzling, golden-browned top in a handsome copper pan. It is a midnight snack extrodinaire! It also is outstandingly good as a main dish for lunch, or for supper. It is almost as good cold, the next day -- a kind of soft, cheesy-winey, savory cake. The Welsh rabbit has certainly found a worthy competitor.
To make "Ye English Drunken Loaf:" take a French loaf, hot out of the oven, rasp it, and pour a pint of good wine on it and cover it for half an hour. Boil one ounce of vermicelli in water until it is soft and set on a sieve to drain. Then put butter the size of a walnut into it and as much thick cream as it will take. Scrape in six ounces of grated cheese from Parmesana, shake it about in your tothing pan, with vermicelli, until it be almost like a fine custard. Pourit hot, upon your loaf, brown with a salamander and serve it up. "Tis a very pretty dish for midnight supper and giveth much strength for the playing of love games in bed! MODERN VERSION OF ENGLISH DRUNKEN LOAF (4 servings) 1 (6-inch) length of a very fresh French baguette loaf, about 3 inches in diameter 1 cup hearty red dry wine, possibly California cabernet sauvignon, French burgundy, or beaujolais Coarse crystal sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 ounces thin wholewheat vermicelli, broken into 1-inch lengths 2 tablespoons of fine butter 3/4 cup whipping cream, or half and half 3/4 cup of a 50-50 mixture of shredded Swiss emmenthaler and English cheddar 1/4 cup grated parmesan Chopped parsley, paprika for garnish
Heat oven to 300 degrees and warm bread until hot to the touch, about 5 minutes. Turn off oven. Cut the bread in half lenghtwise. Fit these, cut sides up, tightly into a shallow baking pan, about 6 inches by 6 and about 2 or 3 inches deep. Trim to make it fit perfectly, if needed. (The fit prevents wine from slipping around.) Dribble as much wine as the bread will easily absorb. Cover tightly; let sit 30 minutes so bread gets throughly drunk.
Meanwhile, in a 2-quart saucepan, heat to a rolling boil 3 cups lightly salted water; cook vermicelli until nicely soft, about 5 minutes. Drain; place in a skillet over gentle heat. Stir in butter, cream and the mix of cheeses. Slowly heat, and stir, but never steadily in one direction or it may suddenly become ropey. The trick is to shake the pan, while poking at the mixture in different directions and scraping it this way and that. Eventually, the cheese mixture should be creamy. Lower heat and keep it barely warm until the bread is ready. Heat broiler.
Pour cheese-vermicelli sauce over bread. Scatter grated cheese on top and place it low in the oven to heat without browning for about 5 minutes. Then move it to within about 3 inches from the heat and broil until top is browned dark golden, but watch carefully to make sure it does not burn. Garnish with parsley and paprika. Serve very hot, on very hot plates, as a midnight snack or at any hour of the day or night when you feel peckish!