Lou Amdur, owner of the wine bar Lou on Vine, sits back on his heels as he peers into the recesses of a low kitchen cupboard. Bottles clink against each other as he rummages in the dark. Finally standing up, he sets an unlabeled bottle on the kitchen counter. “Ratafia,” he says.
The opaque elixir before us has the questionable, slightly brownish hue of oxidized dessert wine. Then Amdur pours a splash into a juice glass, releasing inviting citrus aromas. We take sips. Tart orange and clove flavors infuse the earthy warmth of brandy in a drink dancing with fresh fruit.
In Southwest France, ratafia is a fruit- and spice- infused brandy made at home. Transplanting ratafia to his Southern California kitchen, Amdur marries rustic French traditions with our region’s bountiful supply of backyard citrus. After plenty of kitchen experiments, he’s decided that almost any citrus makes delicious ratafia, so he bottles a batch whenever a new citrus fruit comes into season.
“What’s exciting is how you can capture the essence of fresh fruit in a cordial that will stay fresh for years,” Amdur says. “We’re so jaded about the abundance of the fruit growing all around us. Ratafia is a thrifty way to take advantage of it.”
That’s easy for him to say. A dedicated home cook and wine connoisseur who succumbed to his twin passions and became a restaurateur two years ago, Amdur has been making this stuff since shortly after he first tasted it at a farmhouse outside of Toulouse, France, in 2002.
I’m intrigued, but I’m too nervous to make my first ratafia by myself, so I offer him a Sunday brunch in exchange for a ratafia tutorial.
Amdur’s interest in homemade ratafia started when a Los Angeles neighbor with a backyard bitter (or sour) variety of orange tree deposited a grocery bag of fruit at his door. The ratafia he’d enjoyed in France was made with oranges. “Once you taste ratafia, you realize how commercial liqueurs like Grand Marnier really are. They don’t taste fresh,” he says. “It totally changed my mind about orange-flavored liqueur.”
A celebratory drink
The name ratafia, according to some accounts, comes from the Latin phrase rata fiat, meaning “to ratify.” At the close of a business deal or the signing of a treaty, ratafia -- originally made with unfermented or partially fermented wine-grape juice and distilled grape spirits -- was a celebratory libation. For his first batch of homemade ratafia, Amdur used a Paula Wolfert recipe. He carefully stripped the zest from the oranges, trimming away the last bit of the peel’s white pith. He cut the zest into quarter-inch strips and tossed them into a Mason jar with an equal amount of the fresh squeezed bitter-orange juice and brandy, with half again as much simple syrup.
Traditional ratafia can be made with either brandy or clear distilled spirits, which calls to mind the limoncello liqueurs of southern Italy. The difference is more than the kinds of fruit used to infuse the alcohol. Ratafia includes fresh fruit juice; limoncello typically relies on lemon zest and sugar without incorporating juice.
Amdur closed his ratafia jar, gave it a shake and stashed it under the kitchen sink, returning every few days to give it another shake to help the alcohol maceration of the fruit. After two months, he strained the fruit from the ratafia, then removed the sediment by letting it settle at the bottom and pouring off the liquid while leaving the pulp behind, much like the lees are left in the bottom of a barrel after wine is racked from one barrel to another.
Success with the bitter oranges persuaded Amdur to ignore tradition and try other fruits using a similar equation of proportions for fruit zest, fruit juice, brandy and simple syrup. Kumquat, which produces a racy aperitif with a sophisticated, tart edge, turned out to be a favorite. Meyer lemon was disappointing because the mildness and lower acidity of the fruit made a ratafia that lacked zip. Pomegranate was a disaster, producing a regrettable cough-syrup ratafia.
Tart citrus fruit is best, Amdur says. Blood oranges and sour mandarins (tangerines) are particularly good.
On the morning of my Sunday brunch-meets-ratafia-making session, the farmers market was overflowing with tangerines, so they were my choice.
I invited some neighbors over to help, handing each arrival an apron as well as a sharp paring knife, cutting board, juicer and wide-mouthed rubber-sealed jar. Amdur showed the group how to carefully cut the white pith from the zest, then cut the zest into strips. The painstaking work went slowly even as the kitchen buzzed with the energy of four sets of partners competing to see who could produce the largest pile of zest the fastest.
Sweetening by stages
“The more zest, the better the ratafia,” Amdur said, cheering us on. “The important thing is to remove all of the bitter pith and the seeds.”
The simple syrup added with the fruit juice and zest during maceration reduces any overt tartness. But he suggests going lightly on the simple syrup, and in stages. “You can always add a touch more after it has macerated if you don’t think it is sweet enough,” he says.
Go slowly with the spices. It doesn’t take much to overwhelm the fresh fruit flavors. Every time Amdur makes ratafia, he cuts back the spices a little more. He’s down to one clove -- slightly toasted to bring out the flavors -- and a smashed cardamom pod.
After a frenzied half an hour of zest cutting, we had the ingredients for ratafia and it was time to pour in the spirits.
There are several possibilities for a ratafia base liquor. Wolfert suggests Armagnac, the fine French brandy from the region of the same name southeast of Bordeaux, and it worked beautifully for our ratafia-party batch.
Other recipes call for distilled grape spirits, the clear alcohol made from surplus wine grapes that is readily available in Southwest France. In Southern California, vodka is a reasonable substitute, Amdur says.
He likes the efficiency with which clear spirits suck the fruit flavors out of the zest for a bright, vibrant drink.
Brandy, however, produces a mellower, more complex ratafia. I made a batch using inexpensive brandy instead of Armagnac, and another using vodka, but the ratafia made with Armagnac was best, with deep, complex flavors that supported the fresh fruit.
The ratafia made with the inexpensive California brandy was fun and delicious but lacked the complexity of the Armagnac batch. And though I understand the appeal of the clean, bright fruit flavors of the vodka ratafia, I prefer the warmth brandy brings to these cordials.
But there are still experiments to consider. Since that ratafia-making party, I often find myself staring at my bowl of fruit or pondering the stalls at the farmers market. Blueberries? Kiwis? Grapefruit? The ratafia possibilities seem endless.