Christmas GREAT BRITISH FOOD HOME Special Occasions Traditional Food

Packing A Punch

to pack a punch – to have power or strength, often that people do not expect. You can be small, but still pack a punch; meaning you can hit someone very hard despite your size. A curry that packs a punch would be particularly hot or spicy.

In Britain, a punch is not always a smack-in-the-face.

The word punch , when referring to a hot, celebratory drink, originally comes from the Marathi word for “five” (pañc), as the drink is supposed to be made with five ingredients; booze, sugar, lemon, water (or tea) and spices. It was brought to the UK from India in the early 1600s, and while the contents of a punch are supposed to show the generosity of the host, (“Hey everyone! I’m giving you a drink with FIVE things in it! I’m generous!” etc) it is supposed to have a lower alcoholic content than a cocktail. You shouldn’t, tradition says, actually be able to get drunk on punch.  In my experience, however, most Brits ignore that bit.

Indeed, they probably always have. The earliest British punches seem to have been made of cider and brandy, but as more of the world opened up, the alcohol became more varied. By the 18th century, punch was the most fashionable of drinks.  Punch parties were held all over London, with the punch being served in expensive, specially designed bowls with matching cups hanging off the side. The British painter William Hogarth’s engraving A Modern Midnight Conversation (1732) is rather helpful, as it shows us not only the huge sort of punch bowl used at the time, but also how people at punch parties used to look by the end of the evening.

It’s not always very different today.

Hogarth's 'A Modern Midnight Conversation'


If you’ve ever read Dickens’ Oliver Twist, (1843) you might remember the part when the newly-nice Scrooge invites Bob Cratchit to a chat over a bowl of Smoking Bishop. Smoking Bishop has been around since the 1600s and though there are many different recipes, most agree on one thing: roast your fruit the day before.


  • 6 oranges
  • 2 lemons
  • 120g of brown sugar
  • 1 bottle of red wine
  • 1 bottle of ruby port
  • Handful of cloves
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/4 tsp each of ground ginger, all spice, mace and cinnamon

To serve:

  • 1 or 2 lemons, cut into wedges to serve
  • 1 or 2 oranges, cut into wedges to serve
  • Sugar if needed




It’s a bit of a faff1 but worth it in the end.


  1. The day before you want to drink it, roast the oranges and lemons in a very low oven, on a baking tray to catch any escaping juice.
  2. Once they have cooled, stud each with a clove.
  3. Put them into a bowl and pour over the wine, the sugar and the spices.  Leave in a warmish2 place for 24 hours.
  4. The next day, cut open the fruit and squeeze all the juice into the wine.
  5. Pour it through a sieve into a saucepan, simmer hard for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down.
  6. Add the port and heat for 20 minutes very gently, so as not to boil away the alcohol. God forbid3 that should happen.

And that’s it.  Smokin’…4



The final product should be dark purple in colour, similar to the colours traditionally worn by bishops. The “smoke” is the steam that comes from the pan.  That is apparently why.  There are a few rumours that it refers to the burning of Protestant bishops during the reign of Queen Mary I, but I can’t find absolute proof and am quite glad, because that wouldn’t give a Christmassy feel to your punch at all.


There are also variations: if you take out the oranges, you have an Oxford University Bishop. Use claret and you have a Smoking Archbishop;  burgundy for a Smoking Pope and champagne for a Smoking Cardinal.  Altogether quite an almighty5 party then.


1) faff (n) – something that requires extra effort, often to an annoying extent:

“It’s not far to my office but I have to take three trains, which is a bit of a faff”.


(2)  – ish (adj) – one of the most useful suffixes in British English. Stick it on to the end of any adjective to mean “kind of”, “sort of” or “a little bit”. Put it on to a time to mean “approximately”. If someone invites you to supper at 7-ish, it would be weird to turn up at 7.  And even though none of us really know when “7-ish” actually is, we just know it’s not 7.


(3) God Forbid (that should happen!)” – that would be the very worst thing that could ever happen. You can simply say “God forbid!”… and everyone will know what you mean.

(4) “Smokin’! “ – sexy, hot, attractive; usually in reference to a woman. (Sexist language, English) And a bit 1990s if I’m honest. Only used jokingly; usually in a funny voice. Like Jim Carrey in The Mask. 

(8) almighty (adj) – as a noun, it should refer to God.  As an adjective it means extreme, enormous, or strong. Often goes together with “hangover”.  Drink too much of this punch and you will have “an almighty hangover”.  For example.


© 2016 Kayte & Nicer Kayte – authors assert moral rights


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