Chef John Folse brings a bottle of old-world delight back to the table.
It’s called “a cordial kissed by the fruits,” and it’s only natural that Chef John Folse, with his Renaissance-era enthusiasm for everything under the sun, should begin experimenting with making this Old World delight.
The name Ratafia comes from Latin, “rata fiat” or “it is ratified,” a celebratory libation enjoyed after the signing of an important treaty or the sealing of Catholic marriage vows. All of the great wine-making countries of Europe and the Mediterranean had their own versions of ratafia recipes, and in this country the Creoles embraced the process with gusto, adding locally available aromatic fruits to enhance the flavor of the sweetened alcohol base.
In Spain ratafia was traditionally made by mashing in alcohol dozens of ingredients—fruits like lemon peels, cherries, red carnations, unripe walnuts; herbs like mint; and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg; even pine cones and bramble branches to impart “a little piece of the Catalan forests.” Fairs and fiestas celebrate the drink with competitions and tastings of treasured family recipes passed down through generations.
In France, naturally sweet grape juice is mixed unfermented with regional wine—cognac in the Cognac region, apple brandy in Normandy. The leftover juice of grapes used to make champagne is mixed with brandy and various macerated fruits or fruit kernels—peach and cherry pits, bitter almonds, cloves. In Italy, pears are a common ingredient.
England relishes its sloe gin made by infusing gin with sloe (blackthorn) drupes—small fruits related to plums—plucked from bushes after the first frost, then each berry pricked with a thorn from the same blackthorn bush to release the essence.
As the French and Spanish colonized early Louisiana, they brought with them this ratafia tradition. Second-generation Creoles and later the Acadians, English and Italians adapted Old World recipes to take advantage of the bounties of this semi-tropical climate, the fresh citrus and native berries dancing with the earthy brandy to produce divine aromas and tastes, the essence of the fresh fruit captured in a mellow, complex cordial capable of staying fresh for years. Every Cajun family made black cherry bounce and plenty of other fruit-infused wines from bountiful crops of wild blackberries, mayhaws, persimmons and muscadines.
Early ratafia recipes, like ones included in the 1881 Household Cyclopedia of General Information, recommended utilizing “fruits gathered when in their greatest perfection, and the largest and most beautiful of them chosen,” picking the fruits—gooseberries, mulberries, black-heart cherries—from their stalks and “bruising them,” letting them stand “but do not suffer them to ferment,” then straining through a flannel bag before combining with sugar and “proof spirit.”
Now Folse is making small batches to serve in one-ounce tastings at his New Orleans eatery, Restaurant R’evolution. He infuses French brandy with raspberry, kumquat, blueberry, peach, apple, blackberry, persimmon, blood orange from his harvest at White Oak Plantation, as well as satsuma and plum. He is also making black cherry bounce, raspberry “sleaux” gin, and even a camellia ratafia from petals harvested in the nineteenth-century formal gardens of Butler Greenwood Plantation in St. Francisville.
Similar to a “digestive” after a rich meal or a liqueur beforehand, the small servings of ratafia are receiving such an enthusiastic response from restaurant patrons that Chef Folse has begun to think bigger, as is his habit!
With Louisiana’s emerging market for craft beer and locally made rum and wines, he reasons, “Now might be the perfect time to look at ratafia making for a larger market.” The production process is not difficult, just the addition of fruit to sweetened liquor so that the liquor is infused with the flavor of whatever fruit is used. It only takes six weeks or perhaps a bit more, depending on the ripeness of the fruit; no fermenting or lengthy aging as for wine.
“This taste of ratafia,” he explains at Restaurant R’evolution, “is just another way for us to share an understanding of our culture.” It’s just Chef John Folse doing what he does best, using his fertile imagination and noted culinary skills to share our fascinating heritage, in a place where so many diverse ethnic influences blend to make Louisiana cuisine unique.
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Restaurant R’evolution 777 Bienville Street New Orleans, La. (504) 553-2277 www.revolutionnola.com