What the devil is Smoking Bishop?

Well might you ask, and well might you deserve an apology.

There is a connection between the exclamation and the question – and they both serve to introduce an early invitation to a seasonal entertainment, from the Friends of Kingsbridge Library. Details of this early December event will become apparent in the content of this article.

Firstly the apology….the expletive What the Dickens! It hasn’t really got any connection with Charles Dickens – unless you wish it to do so.

It was actually used by Shakespeare, perhaps a euphemism for the Devil in the line ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I remember in my childhood it was used by my father in expressions like ‘What the dickens are you up to now?’

There’s also another story from 1599 about a man called Dickins or Dickson, who made and sold wooden bowls.

He who was in the habit of losing money by poor salesmanship - ‘who buying them five for twopence solde six for a peny’(R Galis). We might well ask ‘Where the Dickins was HIS financial acumen?’

However, returning to Charles Dickens, it seemed like a great strap-line to introduce a presentation about his Christmas books – and indeed his connections with the South west, including Exeter and Plymouth, which will be taking place on Thursday December 7, at 7.30pm in Kingsbridge Library. With songs and readings from his novels, music, facts and fictions, and displays of Dickensian memorabilia this promises to be a lively introduction to the festive season.

To continue…..what the devil, or what on earth is Smoking Bishop?

Well, it’s not a literal meaning – not a Bishop trying to give up cigars by vaping. It’s a drink – one of a group of exciting alcoholic beverages well-known to the Victorians, including Charles Dickens, who was not averse to a glass of this sweet alcoholic punch, in moderation of course. Smoking Bishop has become famous through its inclusion at the end of A Christmas Carol, when the formerly miserly Scrooge invites his clerk Bob Cratchit to join him in a glass of this port-based brew, to celebrate his new found bonhomie.

You could choose however between other ‘smoking’ recipes.

These including Smoking Archbishop (made with Claret) Smoking Cardinal (made with Champagne or Rhine wine) and, at the top of the list even Smoking Pope (made with Burgundy). I’m afraid that if Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist is included, he’d be drinking Smoking Beadle, when on duty. That was made with ginger wine and raisins!

There are several references to these ‘clerical’ beverages, the first actual written recipe being found in a Georgian cookery book of 1829. It’s by a writer with the unlikely name of Dick Humelbergius Secundus, and it’s entitled Apician Morsels – Tales of tabl, kitchen and larder.

Among the ‘Oxford-night caps’ bishop appears to be one of the oldest winter beverages on record, not only by the youthful votary of Bacchus, but also by the grave Don by way of a nightcap. This delicious sounding punch, whose reference to ‘smoking’ refers to the alcoholic blueish haze rising from the pan, will be available for tasting at the Library event, along with Mrs. Cratchit’s mince pies – but not unfortunately her legendary Christmas pudding.