Believe it or not, you can make wine from camellias

Published 11:52 pm Friday, February 27, 2009

The Feliciana Nature Society has a camellia event every February and I attended the fifth annual event this year in St. Francisville, West Feliciana Parish, La.

Friday night was with the Cajun chef, John Folse. Folse does a weekly radio and television program and is a great entertainer. He lives in Baton Rouge and is not infrequently in St. Francisville, which is only about 20 miles away. He talked about an old friend, Miss Mamie of Catalpa Plantation. She was one of the local women who gave tours of her family home and would always invite guests to have a glass of sherry.

Folse said every time he visited she would say shortly after he arrived, “John, won’t you have a glass of sherry?” John usually demurred and after awhile, Miss Mamie would say, “Well, if you’re not going to have one, I think I will.”

I remember taking a tour of Catalpa several years ago while visiting St. Francisville and was surprised to be invited for a glass of sherry to sip during the tour! After this same story by Folse, I looked back in my journal and there it was: July 2000. I noted the guide was a friend of Miss Mamie, who had then died, and was helping out her daughter by giving the tours. Her daughter, Mary Fort Thompson, was in the audience this night.

Folse told also that he promised to cook Miss Mamie a lobster dinner at her house. “That would be nice, but I would prefer to get dressed up and come to your place!”

Folse thought of this when he heard his friend had died and he had not done that lobster dinner. He sent an arrangement of lobster tails to the funeral (What did that look like?!). Another friend of Folse, Anne Butler, of Butler Greenwood Plantation, had received a recipe for camellia wine in 2008 from a French guest at her bed and breakfast, Docteur Pierre Gausset. She contacted Folse, who was intrigued and agreed to make some and do this night’s presentation for the Nature Society. He took the following recipe to study and created his own version.

Vin de Camélia

Vin—4 litre de vin rouge au blanc

+ ¼ de litre d’eau de vie de fruits

+ 3 fleurs de camélia

+ 4 gousse vanille

+ 200 g. de sucre (+ ou – 50 g.)

(+ or – 50 g.)

laisser maccrer 20 jours, puis filter

mettre en boutelle, bouchée

Camellia Wine

4 liters (about 1 quart) red or white wine

¼ liter brandy

3 camellia flowers

4 vanilla pods

200 grams (almost a cup) sugar

let steep 20 days, filter

bottle, cork

Folse decided this was basically a ratifia, which is an alcohol, flavored with a fruit or flower; cherry bounce being a well known one. Camellia wine is a European style of ratifia brought to Louisiana with the first settlers. It was poured over ice to sip on a hot, humid summer afternoon.

Folse said he already made a vanilla infused Jack Daniels by cutting four vanilla beans in half and placing in a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label and letting it rest for 5 months.

Folse started this project with getting Anne Butler to get him a garbage bag of camellia blooms from her garden. He rinsed them briefly and then pulled off the petals and added them to a bottle of French brandy in a large crock and covered with cheesecloth. He did stir occasionally and did think 20 days was about right. He then made simple syrup with cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla beans. He took the infused brandy (minus the petals), added the simple syrup, strained and added this to several bottles pinot noir. This he bottled and let age until our meeting.

He couldn’t end without also doing a recipe with his camellia wine.

Lamb Chops

Heat olive oil to 375º (that is when it just begins to smoke)

Fry the chops briefly on each side (medium-rare is the optimum). He then added pepper, thyme, granulated garlic, green onions, whole garlic, salt, elderberry jam, sautéed briefly and flambéed with the camellia wine.

I stood in line to buy a bottle of his wine but he sold out before I could get any! If I want some I guess I will have to make my own. I may just use the camellia blooms for decorating the table instead. There they do reign supreme this time of year.

Saturday I did the camellia symposium at Rosedown Plantation. Rosedown is one of the finest early Southern gardens. It is thought that the idea for the gardens was inspired by the Grand Tour the Turnbulls made during their wedding trip to Europe in 1828. The oak avenue was planted in 1830 before the house was built. Martha Turnbull kept extensive notes and her diary spans several decades from 1836 to 1896. On Feb. 8, 1836, Martha received 14 azaleas. An invoice dated 27 February 1837 recorded the first camellias. Although not restored to their former grandeur like Rosedown, the gardens at Catalpa were extensive with a magnificent park, a lake, an oak lined driveway also lined with conch shells and a huge multistoried greenhouse. Sally Stewart Fort, (the great-grandmother of Mary Fort Thompson), who created the gardens at Catalpa, grew up at Holly Grove where I now live in Mississippi.

Bon chance avec le vin de camélia.