Researching the little details that add color and texture to a story is one of my favorite parts of writing a book. I’m one of those peculiar people who can hours in a museum examining the gold-threaded stitching on a military uniform or the get down on hands and knees to study the shape of a tea cabinet leg. Most of the things I learn never actually end up in the story. But reading about various subjects—or better yet, seeing objects and places in real life—help me, er, drink in the ambiance of the era.
Sometimes literally. Yes, research can be intoxicating!
Too Wicked To WED, my new book, which came out last week, has a number of scenes set in a gaming hell. Now, last week I talked about cards. (The history of them, not how to gamble away your family fortune in a single night. I do draw the line just how far I’ll go to experience authenticity.) So it seemed only natural to take a look at the other staple of a gaming hell—wines and spirits!
"Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter . . .” —Lord Byron
We all know our Regency bucks of the ton liked to tipple. Brandy, port, claret were among the favorites, And when talking about Regency drinking, one name comes to mind—Berry Brothers, the quintessential purveyor of spirits to anyone who was anyone. So during a recent trip to London, I decided to take a stroll down St, James’s Street and pay a call at Number Three.
You have only to look at the outside of the shop to know you are seeing something special. It’s been in the very same spot since its founding in 1698. Notice the low sloping shape of the building? That’s because it was originally a part of Henry VIII’s tennis court. Another thing that may catch your eye is the sign of the coffee mill hanging above the front door. It, too, has an interesting history, for you see, the business was originally opened by the Widow Bourne (hmm, any relation, Joanna?) as a grocer’s shop named the Coffee Mill.
The business was passed down through the family and by 1768 was a major supplier of coffee to the fashionable coffee houses and clubs—White’s and Boodles among them. Being on that date, they already began a unique tradition that lasted until the early twentieth century. The charming fellow who showed me around the present-day Berry Brothers explained that scales large enough to weigh a person were not household items in the aristocratic townhouses of London. And so, many of the gentlemen of the time began stopping by to weigh themselves on the huge coffee scale in the main room. (It is still there today.) The weights were duly recorded in a ledger, and it apparently became a fashionable tradition. Many gentlemen came regularly for their entire lives. (Public weighings, with the exact number inscribed in a book that anyone could peruse? Honestly—only a man could have come up with THAT idea.) The thick ledgers are still on shelf, and Byron and Beau Brummell are among the illustrious names that can be found within their dusty morocco-bound covers.
The shop began selling wine to King George III, and its trade soon began to outpace coffee
sales. It was in 1803 that the first Berry—sixteen-year-old George—set foot on the hallowed floors. A distant relative of the Widow, he worked diligently to learn the business and the rest, as they say is history.
Many wonderful pieces of art and memorabilia decorated the walls of Berry Brothers (Mr. Rudd was added right after WWI.) One of my favorites is a “certificate of loss” from White Star Lines, apologizing for the sinking of 69 cases of the company’s wine when the titanic went down. And of course, there are some marvelous old vintages on display as well. (As a sidenote, the shop still sells coffee, though few people are aware of it.) After this delightful stroll through history, I left the premises extremely happy (and entirely sober—I promise!)
So do you have a favorite shop that is steeped in history? Or getting into the “spirit” of wines, have you ever had a memorable wine or port? I once tasted a 1938 port and an 1898 Madeira that were sublime. Lastly—how about a drink or punch recipe for the upcoming holidays. I’ll be giving away a signed copy of TOO WICKED TO WED to one randomly selected person who leaves a comment between now and Saturday evening!