I first heard of vin brulé before L’Oro di Spello, Spello’s celebration of the freshly pressed olive oil. It’s actually two holidays in one, as it also honors the role that bruschetta plays in the history of towns like Spello. As my Italian teacher said, when he was telling me about L’Oro di Spello, every Italian town makes olive oil, but how many celebrate bruschetta? He told me that’s what makes L’Oro di Spello not just a festa, but a sagra. A sagra, he intoned, honored the deep roots of a community. He told me that since time immemorial, Spellani children would come home from school with bellies howling in hunger, and mammas would fire up some bread, and brush the green, peppery oil on with their fingers. That was important. Only by spreading the olive oil with their fingers would their love transfer to the food.
My teacher went on to tell me that during L’Oro di Spello, people decorate olive trees with fish and bread and cheese and those spangled trees wend their way through town. Just when I was frowning and thinking that my Italian wasn’t nearly as developed as I had hoped, he told me that people would also pass out warm cups of vin brulé.
That stalled me.
Is that like crème brûlée?
No, it’s a warm and spiced wine.
A few days later, we stood with neighbors on the streets while the olive trees made their way down the hill. Were they decorated with fish and bread and cheese? You’ll have to see my photojourney to find out.
I will tell you that farmers were handing out cups of vin brulé, and it was amazing. I drank it all over town, as long as people would hand me cups, which luckily they did, freely and often.
Now that we are back Stateside, I make vin brulé as soon as the weather turns crisp (I especially love sipping it while sitting on my porch, handing out Halloween candy—why should kids get all the treats?).
I can make it with a cheap wine I pick up at Costco (some people suggest that a Barbera or others from the north of Italy where vin brulé was born, or lower-tannic options like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, but I suspect it’s not fussy) and it comes together in about five minutes.
Here is the recipe that comes closest to what I enjoyed in Spello, but try adding your own spin!
Spello’s Vin Brulé
one liter of red wine
3 juniper berries
1/2 cup of sugar
1 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
4 cloves and a shaving of nutmeg
(I like a little cardamom and/or allspice)
Stir until sugar is dissolved, and keep warm over low flame. Adjust the spices, to suit your taste. I usually take out the star anise at this point, so it doesn’t overpower the other spices.
I make mine on the sautè function on my InstantPot, and then keep it warm on the slow-cooker option.