It was nearly Christmas, a few months after I had first moved to Paris, and I was dating my first French boyfriend.
On a weekend trip to his hometown, we had somehow found ourselves entangled in a group of locals—friends and friends of friends from the area—spending the afternoon hanging around the flower farm where they worked. It seemed almost impossibly quaint to me, an American transplant with barely a year of expatriation under my belt, but I was about to be charmed even further.
As the sky began to dim, we piled into cars and drove down the road. There, boxes upon boxes of fairy lights and cedar wood paneling were slowly being unpacked, a Christmas market just beginning to take form.
We lent a hand where we could: building stalls, decorating stands, and just as my hands were starting to grow too cold for comfort, I was offered a steaming cup of something that smelled of spices and cherry and something else I couldn’t identify.
“C’est quoi?” I asked, as I took a sip, finding the beverage slightly sweet and tantalizingly warming.
“Vin chaud,” I was told. Hot wine.
Mulled wine: a history
Mulled wine is far from unique to France. Popular since Ancient Roman times, 13th century recipes have been attributed to a myriad of places in Europe from France to Germany to Scandinavia. Sweden is particularly well known for its Glögg, made with honey, cardamom, and clove; in France, the drink is popular on ski slopes and at Christmas markets.
It’s been almost a decade since the citrus- and spice-spiked wine captivated me, imbuing that yet-to-be-built Christmas market with magic. In that time, Paris has shed some of its sparkle, transforming itself into a home: a city like any other, with its ups and downs. In that time, I’m sorry to admit, Christmas markets, too, have lost some of their luster. In Paris, the Alpine- or Alsatian-influenced stands are popular tourist attractions, often peddling the same Christmas decorations and jewelry to crowds all pretending not to be bothered by the cold.
The drinks that keep us warm
I was no stranger to cold winters when I first moved to France. Born and raised in New York, I spent winters skiing in Vermont and, later, hiking through snow to class at my New England boarding school. As a child, cold winter days were battled with cups of cocoa with marshmallows. As I got older, I deviated to peppermint tea, to black coffee. But while all are delicious and certainly took some of the chill off, none have the quality of vin chaud, which warms you twice: first, with its distinct smell of spices, its steam warming your nose, and then with the slow burn of alcohol.
These days, while Christmas markets may have become a bit banal, vin chaud somehow has the ability to send me back in time, to that very first one, all those years ago. I stop by a market and, ignoring the kitsch, seek out the stand with spicy steam wafting out. My hands wrapped around the cup, I’m able to see the market transform into what it was all those years ago: something new, something exciting, something festive. Vin chaud has become my own nostalgic tradition, my own Christmas time capsule.