Ratafia, a fruit-infused brandy liqeuer, has long been popular among Cajun and Creole families in Louisiana, but the history of this sweet beverage dates back even further than the settling of the Bayou State to the Middle Ages in Europe.
The word ratafia comes from the Latin phrase rata fiat, which translates to “let it be ratified.” It is commonly believed that the term can be traced back hundreds of years to a toast traditionally given at the end of Catholic marriage ceremonies with a sweet liqueur.
The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 1999) defines ratafia as “a cordial or a brandy-based liqueur flavoured with almonds, peach, cherry, or apricot kernels, or soft fruits.” European and Mediterranean wine-producing countries—including France, Spain, and Italy—each have their own version of the sweet liqueur.
In France, ratafia is a combination of the leftover juice of Champagne grapes and brandy. Spanish ratafia is made by mashing various fruits, herbs, and spices in alcohol. England even created a version of ratafia with sloe gin, the red liqueur made with the tart berries of the sloe plant.
With Louisiana’s French and Spanish heritage, it should come as no surprise that ratafia caught on here. Brandy came to Louisiana through the Port of New Orleans, and with the accessibility of wild fruit throughout the southern part of the state, ratafia became a popular drink among Cajun and Creole families. Nearly every Cajun family made black cherry bounce and other varieties from the abundance of fresh fruit, including blackberries, muscadines, and persimmons.
“I can certainly say that New Orleans was the perfect place not only to preserve but reinvent ratafia,” says Chef John Folse, noting that access to seasonal ingredients in the woods and swamplands played a significant role in ratafia’s popularity here.
The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2013), which dates to 1901, states, “Our Louisiana fruits are very juicy, and therefore no other liquor than good French brandy is or should ever be used in preparing a fruit Ratafia.” Recipes for ratafia call for fruit to be steeped in brandy for one month before adding simple syrup, filtering, and bottling in pint bottles.
Chef Folse’s memories of ratafia stretch back to his childhood, when he remembers shaking black cherry trees and filling buckets with blackberries to make ratafias for Christmas. As the ratafia-making process took six months, summer was the perfect time to make it so that it would be ready for the holidays.
“I remember coming back from Midnight Mass as a child, and before the meal, everybody got a little bitty shot glass of ratafia in whatever flavors we had made that year, and it became to me an expression of Christmas. I couldn’t think of Christmas without ratafia, even today,” Chef Folse says.
When Chef Folse opened Restaurant R’evolution, he made ratafia a major part of the cocktail program. It is part of the restaurant’s signature cocktail, the Belle Epoque (along with bourbon and sparkling wine), and is also available as a digestif.