COMMUNARDS, CARDINALS AND A CANON
And white wine and cassis and more... The cocktail now known as a Kir (white wine and creme de cassis) was popularized by Canon Felix Kir, priest and politician. He was born in 1876; took Holy Orders in 1901; fought with the Resistance in WW2 (when he was condemned to death but pardoned out of respect for the cloth); and was elected Mayor of Dijon in 1945, a position he held until he died in 1968. Think about it: he was in his 60s in the Resistance; almost 70 when he was elected mayor; and over 90 when he died. A turbulent priest indeed.
Before he started serving it at civic receptions, the same drink was known as a blanc-cassis. This sums it up perfectly: a mixture, in very variable proportions, of white wine (blanc) and (creme de) cassis. Under this name, it dates back far into the 19th century.
It's normally served cool or even downright cold in fairly small doses, maybe 75-90 ml (3 ounces): I keep both the wine and the cassis in the fridge. The usual glass is a small flute, but I've also had bars serve it in small brandy glasses (where you fill the glass all the way up) and small wine glasses. In fact, Kir is normally served in a glass filled to the brim, so you need a steady hand. Always put the cassis in first; if you try to add it afterwards, it just sinks to the bottom.
Traditionally the wine was white Burgundy, Bourgogne Aligoté, but many other wines are also used, often on simple grounds of economy. According to some sources, a rouge-cassis (with red wine) was more usual in the 19th century.
Creme de cassis, usually just called cassis, is a weak liqueur (15-20% alcohol) made from blackcurrants and invented in 1841. It's so sugary that it's only just drinkable on its own with lots of ice, so probably far more of it ends up in Kir than anywhere else. There are many brands; Sisca, seen below, is one of the more common. Prices vary enormously, with fancy "artisanal" brands selling for twice or even three times as much as normal brands. The very cheapest can be a bit nasty and chemical-y, but any decent brand (including many of the supermarkets' own brands( is likely to be perfectly satisfactory. You can even use blackcurrant syrup, such as Ribena: the French do sometimes, but it's rarely as good as proper creme de cassis.
The maximum ratio of cassis to white wine is about 1:2, e.g. one third cassis to two thirds white wine. This was apparently the normal ratio in the 19th century, but most people today find it too sweet. At the other extreme I've seen it asserted (admittedly by an Englishwoman) that you should only ever use just enough cassis to colour the wine faintly pink. The International Bartenders Association apparently recommends 1:9, and (like most French bartenders) I never measure the proportions I use: at a guess my own ratios range from 1:5 to 1:8. In a bar it looks like about 1:6 or 1:7 most of the time. A lot depends on the wine: a higher ratio of cassis is good at disguising inferior wine, or one that's been open too long.
All right: I've explained the canon, but where do the communards and cardinals come into it? Well, the same cocktail made with red wine instead of white is called a Communard or (more rarely) Cardinal. I long thought that it was also known as a Communiste but apparently that's completely different. A Communard is great for disguising indifferent wine, especially if you make it 1:4 or 1:5 instead of 1:7 or 1:8. One recipe I found suggested mixing it 2:9 (1:4.5) but this seems to me excessively precise. My suspicion is that it was a popular drink among restaurant staff, for using up half bottles left on tables.
Many French bars will ask you if you want your Kir made with other liqueurs, too. The usual choices are blackberry (mure), raspberry (framboise) and peach (peche). Blackberry is OK; I can't recall ever trying raspberry; and I find peach pretty disgusting, though some must like it. I've also tried it, inadvertently, with sour cherry liqueur (creme de griottes), which the French sometimes mix with beer. It's a good way of disguising cheap French beer but it's pretty unpleasant with white wine. Apparently creme de cerises (sweet cherry liqueur) is OK in red wine. Cassis is my easy favourite, though Frances prefers blackberry.
Then there's a Kir Breton, made with cider instead of wine. Sounds awful; actually tastes pretty good. A Kir Royal substitutes Champagne for the white wine. Actually, pretty much any decent fermented-in-the-bottle sparkling wine will do: the cassis tends to mask the difference between a vintage Champagne and all but the cheapest bought-in-Spain Cava, though Prosecco generally does taste pretty inferior. This is largely because it is: it's fermented in tanks, not in the bottle, and at much lower pressure. I've never understood why anyone drinks it, on its own or in cocktails, if they can get Cava instead. Or Blanquette de Limoux or Crémant de Loire or Crémant de Bourgogne or Camel Valley.
So next time you drink a Kir, raise your glass to the late reverend gentleman!
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