Novelista Annie Burrows writes historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon. This month she shares how research doesn't stop, even when she's on holiday...
One of the great things about being a writer of historical romance is that it gives me the perfect excuse to visit the many historical sites of England - under the guise of research.
But even when I go abroad on holiday, I can't resist poking around in museums to find out about the history of wherever I am.
This year I went to Madeira, and took a look behind the scenes at Blandy's wine merchants. Not being in England, there were no scones, but I managed to tempt my husband onto the tour by pointing out we got a tasting session of the various wines at the end.
Our tour guide told us that John Blandy (whose life could serve as an example of how Regency men made their fortunes) was first posted to the island in 1807, as part of the British garrison which was guarding the island from Napoleon. But there is also a letter to some wine merchants of the day, giving another explanation:
‘Sirs! At the desire of our particular friend, Richard Fuller Esq., Banker in this City, we beg leave to introduce Mr John Blandy who visits your Island on account of ill health, and wishes to obtain employment in a Counting House. We shall be obliged if you can promote his views, and accordingly recommend him to your attention.’
The letter is dated 23 December 1807
Well, however the company started, Blandy's is now world famous as a producer of Madeira - which is a type of fortified wine.
The island of Madeira started supplying wine to the New World (or the United States as we like to call it nowadays) almost as soon as it was discovered. But the voyage across the tropics sometimes caused the wine to "cook" in the barrels. Although early customers complained this had spoiled the wine, and returned it, the suppliers realized that in fact it preserved it. In its "cooked" state it would keep almost indefinitely. Our tour guide told us that an opened bottle would last eighteen months. (Not in our house it didn't!) It soon became very popular in America, particularly in the hotter states where it was difficult to store wines in the cool conditions most of them require. Madeira wine was the drink used to toast the Declaration of Independence. George Washington apparently drank a pint of Madeira at dinner daily. (Which made me feel less bad about getting through our souvenir bottle in less than a fortnight).
Nowadays the wine is not sent on a long voyage across the tropics to "cook" it. Instead the process is done in the winery itself. In fact the day we went round, they were pumping wine from the massive holding casks into the smaller oak barrels where it is naturally heated by the power of the sun. The air smelled so rich and fruity it was like inhaling Christmas cake.
They've also made some changes to the process of making the wine. The early growers of grapes used to be scattered all over the island. They would each have their own press, and would send the juice down the mountainside in goatskins, carried on the backs of farm labourers.
When they set out, each goatskin would hold about 40 litres of juice...but there was often hardly anything like that on arrival as the thirsty labourers would drink it on the way down.
Hence the expression "having a skinful"
Nowadays, growers send grapes down the mountainside to be pressed at a central location.
(Annie's next book to be released in the UK is a short, spicy story in an anthology called "A Scandalous Regency Christmas" For more details, visit Annie's website )