Hot Toddy Weather and No Mistake – Okay, One Mistake

It’s freezing here in New York. Freezing! Yesterday, it didn’t get above 26F/-3C. Just the kind of weather when you need something to warm (as they say in London’s East End) the cockles of your heart. Years ago, on a freezing January day I took a walk with a friend around Alexandra Palace in north London – one of the highest (and therefore windiest) points in the capital. Formerly the home of the BBC, Ally Pally (as it’s known) is now a conference and event center with a small ice rink, a lovely winter garden and a pub/cafe with (on a rare clear day) glorious views of the full sweep of central London.

That day, my friend and I popped into said pub and sought something warming to take the chill off. The specials’ board told of a “South African hot toddy” – something I had never heard of. I was familiar, as many of us are, with the typical hot toddy – whiskey or brandy, with hot water, sugar and lemon juice, (and there are many variations on that theme – some including tea, some not) but this one contained brandy, hot water, ginger, rooibosh (red bush) tea, honey and lemon juice, the rooibosh tea making it particularly South African. It was delicious, simultaneously intoxicating, soothing and warming. The ginger and lemon enlivened the sense and the palate, the red bush tea is a restorative, the honey offered energy, and the brandy rounded everything out with a boozy smoothness that engendered warmth and relaxation. After two, or was it three, of them, we were ready to venture home in the cold, but instead, and very mistakenly, decided to have a go at ice-skating. We didn’t break any limbs or endanger anyone with our drunken attempts at toe-loops and salcos (we were the only ones on the ice), but when the alcohol wore off and the bruises came through, it became clear that it had been a mistake.

However, the drink really is a treat if you’ve got chill in your bones you just can’t shake, just please don’t go ice-skating afterwards. Before perhaps, but definitely not after.

South African Hot Toddies Recipe (serves two):

4oz brandy (doesn’t have to be good stuff ’cause you’re adding lots of flavor to it)
10oz boiling water
2 bags or 2tbsp red bush tea
4oz lemon juice (juice of 2 or 3 lemons)
4tbsp runny (clear) honey
2tbsp ginger root (stem ginger), sliced into thin rounds

Divide brandy, lemon juice and honey into two mugs. Toss in the ginger and red bush tea. Fill mugs up with hot water and stir vigorously until honey has mixed in and you can smell the ginger. Allow to steep for three to four minutes before removing red bush tea bags (or tea strainer with loose tea), put your feet up and enjoy!

P.S. – in case you were wondering, like I was, why it’s called a hot toddy, here’s what I found the explanation to be. During the British Raj in India, the British came upon a sweet sap, and a liquor fermented from the sap, from tropical Asian palm trees (the so-called toddy palm – genus Borassus), called toddy by the locals. The British then added this sap to their cups of tea as a sweetener, making it a hot toddy. In many cases, the fermented sap (which was alcoholic) was also added to these cups of tiffin. British sailors (who are not famous tee-totallers) picked up on this idea and began making their cups of tea in this way, substituting the sugar and their rations of rum for the toddy. Quite how whiskey or brandy became involved, I didn’t discover, but there you are, a little history with your recipe.