After talking to Lindsay Middleton about her online resource Dishes for the Sick Room, an exciting deep dive into the invalid cookery recipes found in the cookery books of Glasgow Caledonian University, I decided to have a go at making some barley water.
If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Podcast episode Invalid Cookery with Lindsay Middleton, you can do so below:
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Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been yet another long and arduous year, but now it is time to kick back your heels – even if it is only for a short time – and to aid you in this I present my annual Christmas boozy drink post. This year, it one of my favourites: eggnog (regular readers will know of my love of anything custardy).
Eggnog isn’t really drunk that much in Britain, but it is very popular in the United States. Indeed, it is where I discovered it; I remember walking through the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the winter term seeing several students chugging big cartons of the stuff on their way to lectures (it’s worth pointing out that the bought stuff in cartons contains no alcohol; you add your own later, should you wish to).
For those not in the know, eggnog is a thick, creamy drink made from a dark spirit, usually rum (though brandy, whisk(e)y or sherry can be used), cream or milk, eggs, sugar and spices. The ingredients are either whisked up and served chilled and frothy, or cooked like a custard and drunk hot or cold. Here’s a description of the process from nineteenth century American historian and politician Nathaniel Bouton, writing about the US in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:
Another favourite drink was egg-nog, which was composed of an egg beaten and stirred together with sugar, milk and spirit…The stick used for this purpose was split at the end and a transverse piece of wood inserted, which was rapidly whirled around, back and forward, between the palms of the hands. Skilful men made graceful flourishes with…“egg-nog” sticks in those days.
The drink was invented in the late colonial era, and was enjoyed all year round; it became associated with Christmas because two of the primary ingredients – eggs and cream – were expensive in wintertime and so could only be enjoyed as a treat. Therefore, it was saved for Christmastide (unless you were rich, then it didn’t matter). A tradition, one I whole-heartedly agree with, was quickly established to breakfast upon eggnog on Christmas morning. This was extended, for those who could afford it, to the full twelve days of Christmas. So ubiquitous was it that eggnog was ‘consumed heartily by slave owners, slaves and children alike.’
There was a drop in popularity during Prohibition, but it has certainly since recovered because according to Indiana University ‘[i]n 2007, eggnog consumption nationwide was 122 million pounds with peak sales occurring the week before Thanksgiving, the weeks of Christmas, and just after Christmas.’
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You may be wondering: “Er, why are you telling me about an American drink on a blog about British food history?”
Well first you could argue that colonial America was a part of Britain, being part of its proto-empire; and second, eggnog is part of the evolution of a British drink called posset, something I have already written about. Possets were made by beating or whisking alcohol – usually sweet wines and sack – with hot milk or cream, sugar and spices. Sound familiar? There was a problem for anyone making a posset in North America because sweet, imported wines were very expensive, prohibitively so for many, and so a cheap alternative was required. In eighteenth century America this was rum, and so the posset was adapted and became eggnog.
You can make your eggnog hot or cold. The hot version is a wonderful, luscious silky-thick custard, and with freshly grated nutmeg it’s just like a boozy, liquid custard tart. This you can enjoy cold too. The uncooked cold one is very different, the eggs, milk and cream froth up after a good shaking, to produce a surprisingly light and refreshing drink.
My recipe makes enough for two people so that if you are going for the uncooked version you can fit the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. If you want to make more, you’ll have to froth the mixture in a bowl with your best eggnog stick, or failing that, a whisk.
If you want to make a cold eggnog, use sugar syrup, if hot can use sugar syrup or caster sugar. Note that the cold one uses raw eggs, so buy good quality free-range eggs, and avoid giving the drink to anyone immunosuppressed.
4 shots (100 ml) dark rum (or brandy, whisk(e)y, sherry etc.)
50 ml sugar syrup or 25-30 g caster sugar
150 ml whole milk
150 ml double cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
Ice cubes (if drinking cold)
To make cold: In a cocktail shaker filled with cubed ice, add the alcohol, sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream. Shake very well indeed and strain the eggnog through a fine sieve into two glasses filled with more ice cubes. Grate some nutmeg over the top and serve.
To make hot: place the alcohol, three-quarters of the sugar or sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream in a saucepan and place over a medium-low heat and beat with a small whisk. When fully mixed, keep stirring until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat but continue to stir. Taste, and add more sugar if desired.
Pass through a fine sieve into two glasses, grate nutmeg over the top and serve.
 Bouton, N. The History of Concord From Its First Grant in 1725, to the Organization of the City Government in 1853. (Benning W. Sanborn, 1856).
 Wondrich, D. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. (Oxford University Press, 2021).
 Shanahan, M. Christmas Food and Feasting: A History. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019).
Last post I gave you a potted history of sowans, the Scots drink or flummery made from the starch left clinging to oat husks after the oats were threshed after harvest. Well, since then I have been doing a little experimenting, and have – I think – successfully made some. It’s taken a couple of goes, but I reckon I have a good practical method for you, should you fancy having a crack of making it yourself.
In the main, oat husks are used, but I saw other accounts of sowans making and I saw that some recipes used a proportion of whole oat groats, oatmeal or porridge oats. Other recipes – and it turns out that a similar dish in Wales is made1,2 – using buttermilk or whey instead of water to kickstart the fermentation. One modern recipe by Scotland-based chef Craig Grozier uses whey and salt3; the salt providing an excellent environment for the lactic acid bacteria present in the oats and the whey, hastening the fermentation and ensuring the sowans would not be infiltrated by some other spoilage organism. I’ve made sourdough starters enough times to trust the oats and water to work their own magic, to test this, I designed a simple experiment with three conditions:
Oat husks and water;
Medium cut organic oatmeal and water; and
Oat husks plus one tablespoon of the oatmeal, to make up for the fact that the husks may be lacking in healthy bacteria and fungi. Adding some organic oats might help things out.
I left the sowans to ferment for seven days, after which I tasted the liquid and it was far too sour for my liking, but I was impressed with how well it all worked: the sour-sweet oaty smell give off was certainly not unpleasant. It turned out that actually one is not supposed to drink the sour liquid: it should be poured away and fresh water mixed in.4 I was rather surprised as to how much starch came out of the husks.
Emboldened, I tried again, this time with two conditions: one with water and organic oatmeal and the other exactly the same, except for a couple of tablespoons of the sour liquid from the first experiment, to give the sowans a boost. Note I didn’t use oat husks, and there are three reasons for this:
You get very little starch from them, and we are no longer living in the kind of poverty that existed in Scotland two or three centuries ago;
Oat husks are difficult to buy – though I did manage to get some from the Malt Miller – these oats weren’t organic however, and may have had traces of pesticide and fungicide that might kill the natural community of microbes living on the oats;
Because they were so light, it was very difficult to keep them submerged under the water, and consequently, mould grew on any husks floating on, or touching the water’s surface.
I gave it a shorter fermentation time and the results were great: sowans as a drink, i.e. the sour water decantated off and the sediment mixed into fresh water. It was tart, surprisingly sweet (especially the one with the starter) and had a good, raw oat flavour. It would be great to use in a smoothie, or just sweetened with a little maple or agave syrup. However it was the settled sediment that I was more interested in and was looking forward to making the sowans porridge and the cold flummery.
I was very pleased with the results, and I present them for you below. Whether you make the drink, the porridge or the flummery, the basic recipe is the same. It makes 550ml of drinking sowans or around 450 ml of porridge or flummery. I ate the porridge with treacle and milk, and I ate the flummery with raspberry jam, and I enjoyed them both. I think the flummery would be great flavoured with sweetened raspberry purée or orange flower water.
150 g organic medium oatmeal
650 ml cool water
2 tbs of the clear liquid from a previous batch (optional)
For sowans porridge or flummery:
2 dsp sugar
½ tsp salt
A smidge of oil (for the flummery)
Place the oats, water and starter (if using) into a tub or jar and stir well. Cover the jar with a square of fabric secured with an elastic band. Leave to ferment for four days, giving the mixture a good stir every other day: give the liquid a sniff or a taste; it needs to have a definite acid tang.
When you are ready to strain your sowans, set a fine sieve or a colander lined with a sheet of muslin over a bowl and pour in the mixture. You might have to add a little water to rinse out all of the meal. Make sure you press the meal with a ladle to get as much sediment out as possible.
If you want drinking sowans you are now done, and it can be used now or stored in the fridge.
For the porridge or flummery, leave the sowans to settle for 1 or 2 days, pour away the liquid, reserving it to use like buttermilk in another recipe. Don’t worry if there is a small layer of liquid remaining. Give it a good stir and pour into a saucepan; you should have around 150 ml of sediment. Add double the volume of water, plus the sugar and salt, and cook over a medium setting, stirring all the time until the sowans thickens – it will soon become very thick and glossy. If it seems too thick, add a little more water. It should be ready in 7 or 8 minutes.
For porridge: pour into bowls and eat with treacle and milk, or whatever you usually eat with your porridge.
For flummery: pour into a mould or moulds, I used teacups brushed lightly with oil. Cover them and refrigerate overnight before turning onto plates.
Live-fermented foods are becoming more and more popular here in the UK. We seem to have embraced sourdough bread and its heady community of wild yeasts and bacteria; a community of microbes that not only leaven the dough but also provide that distinctive flavour. They also digest the gluten and other constituents in the flour, making it easier on our own stomachs. The microbes also create nutrients such as vitamins and essential amino acids, and make the food inhospitable to other microbes which would otherwise spoil it; a necessity in a world before refrigerators and freezers. Another live-fermented food is sauerkraut, traditionally made with cabbage, flavoured with caraway, and there are also fermented drinks like kefir (fermented milk) and kombucha (fermented sugar or honey, and tea) which are available in almost every supermarket and grocer’s shop around the country.
I think for many of us in the UK, all of this enthusiasm for live ferments looks like a bit of a fad, despite the growing evidence that foods that contain live cultures of fermenting microbes are very good for us. One reason why some regard them with suspicion is that in the UK we have never had a culture – as it were – of consuming these sorts of foods, except perhaps yoghurt, which unfortunately is all too often laced with sugar, had its fat skimmed away and its healthy microbes killed by pasteurisation.
But the thing is, we did have a culture of eating live-fermented foods, we have simply lost it; but the more I read old cookery books or manuscripts, the more I come across examples of these types of foods and drinks. One of these foods has recently captured my imagination, and that is the Scots fermented oat ‘milk’ or porridge called sowans (sometimes spelt sowens, and pronounced ‘soo-ans’). Sowans goes by a couple of other names; it is called subhan or súghan in Gaelic, and is known as virpa on the Shetland Isles.1
I discovered it leafing through the classic The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill.2 She describes how it was made: steeping the inner husks of the whole oat grains in water for several days in a large jar called a sowans-bowie until it soured, before being passed through a sieve.3 The resulting liquid would be left to settle for a day or so, where there would be a layer of white starch at the bottom. The liquid would be decanted off, and the starch cooked and eaten like porridge. Reading it, I simply could not understand how a foodstuff could be made just from the oat husks, known as sids in Scots.2 The husks are obviously inedible so how could a porridge or oat milk be made from them?
After a little more detective work, I found that the husks do contain some residual starch. As the oats are threshed to remove their husks, which is a quite violent process, inevitably some of the seed would be left attached to the husks. By mixing the husks in water, the starchy seed residue becomes suspended in the liquid and the natural yeasts and bacteria present on the husks begin to ferment it. After a few days – anywhere between 3 and 14 days depending upon time of year – the mixture becomes sour, rather like, I suppose, a sourdough starter, and then passed through a fine sieve. The milky liquid was drunk as it was, or the starch was allowed to settle so it could be used to make a porridge and eaten with salt, treacle or sugar. The decanted liquid wasn’t wasted, by the way, it was used to make sowans scones, where it was used rather like the buttermilk in regular scones.2 The fermented husks would sometimes be formed into cakes and baked. More often, though, they were fed to pigs or chickens.4
As a foodstuff, sowans is associated with harvesttime and commonly eaten by oat farmers. It is also associated with Hallowe’en, which falls not too long after harvest and the harvest festival. By making sowans, farmers were able to extract every scrap of carbohydrate from the sids that were left behind, after they had sold their crop. In Ireland, sowans was drunk or eaten in some parts of Ireland on St. Brigid’s Day in February.5
It was regarded as good for one’s health – and no doubt it was! The starch would be a precious source of energy and the microbes, and the products of the microbes’ metabolism, provided a whole suite of nutrients. ‘Some authorities claim it had sexual qualities.’ This seems to be because of its resemblance to semen when taken as a drink, which went by the name ‘Bull’s Semen’ or ‘White Bull’s Milk’ in some places. I’ve found one mention of farmlads teasing and goading young women, saying “I’ll be at you wi’ me sowans.”6,7
Sowans was particularly associated with Christmas. I found an article in The Family Friend, published in 1861, describing sowans drinking on ‘Auld Yule morning’. The author is simply known as ‘A.H.’. It says it was enjoyed all year round, but at Yuletide it was consumed only as a milky drink. In fact it was customary, and everyone was expected to drink some sowans out of bickers (beakers), “[n]ot that any of us were immoderately fond of sowans”, said one. That said, folk did get a taste for it and ‘there was a good rivalry, too, amongst the sowans makers.’8
After finding all of this out, I hope you can see why I was so intrigued by this unusual food. Determined to make some, I managed to get hold of some oat husks – and they are not easy to get hold of these days! I am currently part way through having a go at making sowans. They are not quite ready to drink or eat, but things seem to be working well. I shall report back soon with the results of my little experiment and hopefully a usable recipe.
Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud.12, 41–47 (2013).
McNeill, F. M. The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. (Blackie & Son Limited, 1968).
Dawson, W. F. Christmas: Its Origin and Associations (Illustrated Edition). (e-artnow, 2018).
Macdonald, F. Christmas, A Very Peculiar History. (Salariya Book Company Limited, 2010).
Nic Philibín, C. & Iomaire, M. C. M. An exploratory study of food traditions associated with Imbolg (St. Brigid’s Day) from The Irish Schools’. Folk Life59, 141–160 (2021).
Douglas, H. The Hogmanay Companion. (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2011).
Asala, J. Celtic Folklore Cooking. (Llewellyn Publications, 1998).
A.H. Auld Yule; Or Christmas in Scotland. Fam. Friend Ed. by R.K. Philp (1861).
Merry Christmas! I hope you are all able to have some fun in yet another strange Yuletide.
At Christmas we often receive bottles of booze we don’t really like as gifts. My most hated alcoholic drink is whisky, but it is delicious in a hot toddy. Well I was recently gifted some and that’s why it is this year’s Christmas boozy drink post.
What do you think of when imagine a toddy? I think of Scotland, whisky. I think of lemons and spices, and its warming effects on those who have just come in from the cold.
There is a popular myth that the drink was invented in the early 18th century at Tod’s Well Tavern, Edinburgh, to warm up the very cold patrons1, but I found that the hot toddy’s history is a little more complicated. The trouble is, toddies were not created in Scotland, not were they hot, and nor were they laced with whisky.
Whenever I am researching the vintage of a recipe, I always visit The Foods of England website – even if the recipe is Welsh, Scots, or Irish. It’s definition is I would say standard: ‘Spirit such as whisky with hot water, sugar, lemon and sometimes spices such as cloves.’ On the webpage is a quote from the 1788 book Grose Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which states: ‘Toddy, originally the juice of the cocoa tree, and afterwards rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg.’2
Going by that quote, the drink looks like it has its origins in the West Indian plantations. Note it is not a hot drink.
It turns out, however, to have its roots in the East, rather than the West, Indies, or rather the British Raj. There was a Hindi drink known as taddy, which was made from slightly fermented palm sap since at least the early 17th century. During the British occupation of the country in the 18th century, the fermented juice was used to ‘water down’ expensive beer3: expensive because at the time it was difficult to make in hot climates, and therefore had to be imported (this is before the invention of Indian pale ale, or IPA).
By 1820 the drink had evolved into a mixture of alcohol, sugar, ginger and lime.4 It wasn’t hot, but the delicious drink spread through the British Empire, changing depending upon what was available. The palm sap swapped for ‘the juice of the cocoa tree’ in the West Indies, and perhaps the Scots were the first to think of warming it up? Who knows?
However it became the classic whisky-based drink, it certainly became popular as a cure-all for colds and flu. And why not? There’s the lemon with its vitamin C, honey or sugar making the drink viscous and soothing, and hard liquor – nature’s anaesthetic. There may be an element of practical truth to this; those who drink a moderate amount of alcohol are able – on average – to fend off colds better than those who drink heavily, and those who do not drink at all.5
So what should I put in my recipe? I turned to another favourite of mine: the classic and comprehensive Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). Disappointingly, there are just three toddy recipes, and of those only one is hot and contains no whisky (Calvados is the booze of choice) and uses roasted apples. The cold toddies contain whisky only as an option.6 In the end I came up with my own, I had a play around and I think I have the proportions of ingredients just right. I also tried the Calvados toddy, which was also a great success.
Here are my recipes for both cocktails. Let me know if you give them a go.
Whatever you do, be safe, eat and drink plenty, and do as little as possible this Christmas. Thanks for reading my posts, trying the recipes, leaving comments, listening to the podcast, and for supporting me this year. I have the best followers! I’ll be back on 1 Jan 2022 with my usual review of the year.
Put whiskey, honey or sugar, lemon juice and most of the hot water, or tea, into a small glass or coffee cup. Stir with a cinnamon stick, or a spoon, to dissolve the honey.
Taste and see if you need to add more water (I go with the full 100 ml).
Garnish with a lemon slice, the cinnamon stick and a few rasps of freshly-grated nutmeg.
Calvados hot toddy
This is adapted from the entry in The Savoy Cocktail Book. I always buy a bottle of Calvados at Christmastime, but I think rum or brandy would be good substitutes.
1 dessert apple
400 ml hot water or tea
2 tbs sugar
4 shots (100-120 ml Calvados)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Take your apple and make an incision around the apple two-thirds of the way up, cutting just the skin. Place on a baking sheet and roast until, pale brown and the juices have begun to caramelise, around 40 minutes.
In a small saucepan add the hot water, sugar and cloves. Slice the apple in half, roughly chop one half and place in the pan. Keeping the heat very low, allow the flavours to steep in the hot water for around 10 minutes.
Place a shot of calvados in four small glasses, and divide the hot steeped liquid between the four cups, passing through a tea strainer or small sieve.
Garnish each with a clove and a neat piece of roasted apple cut from the reserved piece. Grate a little nutmeg over the top and serve.
Schofield, J. & Schofield, D. Schofield’s Fine and Classic Cocktails: Celebrated Libations & Other Fancy Drinks. (Octopus, 2019).
Merry Christmas readers! It’s time for my annual Yuletide boozy drink recipe.
This year Christmas is a very different one, of course, scaled back so much many of us are spending it on our own of the first time, and there’s no chance of getting to a pub any time soon. But we’re a resolute lot, and I am sure we all plan to make the best of it.
If you need a bit of extra comfort this year (and I suspect you do), you could do a lot worse than making scáiltín, a delicious Irish milk punch. It’s very simple to make and you probably already have the ingredients at home.
I came across this delightful drink a few years ago inside The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook and served it up at my little restaurant in the wintertime where it was very popular. Scáiltín is a hot punch made with milk and Irish whiskey; we can agree on this. However, the flavourings vary quite a lot. I’ve scoured my books and the internet and, as so often is the case, found that there is a lot of disagreement. Some insist it should be sweetened with honey, others brown sugar; some say it’s not scáiltín unless it is flavoured with caraway, yet many claim that ginger and cinnamon must be used. Butter is added to enrich it, but only sometimes.
Of course, all of these variations are correct: by nature, regional foods vary within and between towns, and many of the differences probably came down to class. Spices were costly, so many had to miss them out altogether; though some of middling wealth would have reached for the caraway because it was one of the few spices that could be grown in Europe and was relatively cheap.
It seems to be a very old drink, probably mediaeval. However, there is very little information about this delicious drink out there, so if you know anything about this drink’s pedigree or have a recipe for it of your own, please leave a comment.
I have settled on the recipe below, essentially cherry-picking my favourite ingredients, but feel free to change them. I do insist you add the small knob of butter though. I think it makes all the difference. If you are not a fan of whiskey, you can substitute dark rum, but I must urge you to try it with the whiskey; I hate the bloody stuff usually, but somehow, combined with the ingredients below it is perfect. How many of us have received a bottle of it as a gift in the past only for it to collect dust on a shelf? Put it to good use, I say.
I hope you have a great Christmas despite everything that is going on, and if you are feeling a little too much like Scrooge this year, knock back a couple of these, I guarantee they will warm your cockles, and get you in the Christmas spirit.
See you on the other side! Neil xxx
240 ml full-fat milk
1 to 2 shots (25 to 50 ml) Irish whiskey, dark rum or (heaven forbid!) Scotch whisky
1 tbs honey
Good pinch of mixed spice
1 tsp salted butter
A few rasps of freshly ground nutmeg
Place everything in a small saucepan except the nutmeg and heat gently whisking with a small whisk to get a good froth. Even better, if you have a proper coffee machine, heat it with the milk froth attachment for an extra silky scáiltín.
Pour the scáiltín into cups or mugs spooning the froth on top and quickly grate a little nutmeg over the top. Serve immediately.
There is no hedgerow glory finer than the elderflower
One benefit of lockdown life is my daily hour-long meander around the green areas of Levenshulme. And at this time of year there is a real treat for those who like to forage; all I needed to do was to wait for a few dry, sunny and hot days in a row – something not that common in Manchester – and I could get my paws on probably the best foraged food, the elderflower. Patience was a virtue and last week the planets aligned, and I filled my boots. Well, my tote bag.
I love the taste of them so much and I am always disappointed if I don’t get hold of some at least once per year. The smell is heady with that earthy Muscat fragrance, and is a potent addition to many foods, classically partnered with the gooseberry. Elderflower syrups and cordials stretch back to at least Tudor times, and classic elderflower champagne seems to have become popular in the late Victorian era, peaking in popularity in the 1920s. If you have never cooked with them then you are missing a treat, but don’t worry, there is a good few weeks left of the season if you want to get hold of some – all we need are some more sunny days.
The elder has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and has a very interesting folklore; I plan to write a post on the Elder tree later in the year, so for now I’ll just talk about the flowers. Because the foliage and green stalks are mildly poisonous, elderflowers and leaves together have been used as a purgative since the days of Hippocrates. In Britain, it is traditionally used to sooth sore throats and reduce the intensity of flu symptoms. I don’t know if there is truth in any of that, but what I do know is that it has a positive effect on my mental health, so delicious is the uplifting aroma when introduced to all sorts of foods; and in these strange times we all need a mental health boost I’m sure you’ll agree.
The elder is one of Europe’s most common trees and is an almost ubiquitous member of hedgerows and scrubland throughout Britain, only thinning out sparsely in the north of Scotland. It flowers between the months of late May and early July, the precise dates changing with latitude: the north being a good two weeks behind the south. At this time there are few trees you could confuse it with: the bark is pale, gnarly and often spindly and looks old beyond its years. At this time of year though, you smell it before you see it.
The flat arrangement of tiny cream coloured flowerheads are called ‘plates’ that also go under the name of curds, hands or (my favourite) slices of bread depending on where you are in the country. Pick them in the late afternoon after two or three days of dry sunny weather and give the flowers a good sniff to check they are full of fragrance. Snip the heads off with some scissors – aim to get between twelve and eighteen hands. Once collected, head on home and use them before their fragrance begins to dissipate.
What you do with your elderflowers once home depends upon what you want to make. If they are not going to be heated up or cooked in any way, it’s important to snip away as much green stalk as possible because as mentioned the foliage is slightly poisonous. Whatever you do, don’t wash them; you’ll wash away the scent. Just check over them and pick off any insects that may be residing in amongst the blooms.
Elderflowers are normally used to flavour foods, rather than as a food themselves, the only example I can think of where they are actually eaten is the elderflower fritter. When introducing them to hot liquids, snip away the stalks and tie the flowers up loosely in muslin and use it to flavour scalding hot cream or milk to make a delicious elderflower custard to pour over gooseberry pudding – or freeze it to make ice cream. I have made elderflower syllabub, blancmange and even Irish carrageen pudding, which once made it onto a seaside-themed pop-up restaurant back in the day. You can add it to cooking gooseberries if making a crumble, or pop some in toward the end of the cooking time when making gooseberry jam.
The best thing you can make by a country mile is elderflower gin and it is the simplest and quickest of the cold infusions. Because it doesn’t require any cooking, the true taste of the springtime hedgerow is perfectly preserved.
Snip between 12 and 18 elderflower heads into a large jar with a two tablespoons of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Seal the jar and give it a good swirl twice a day to dissolve the sugar. After three days, strain through a muslin-lined sieve into bottles and you are done. You can then enjoy the best gin and tonic of your life.
Elderflower Tom Collins:
We have now reached the pinnacle of deliciousness. This was not my idea, but my ex-business husband Mr Brian Mulhearn’s and it is very delicious. For one drink, you will need:
2 shots of elderflower gin
1 shot fresh lemon juice
½ – 1 shot gomme (stock sugar syrup)
Place some ice in a cocktail shaker with the gin, juice and gomme to taste. Shake well and strain into a glass generously filled with ice. Top up with soda water. Bliss.
For a liqueur far superior to St Germaine, make as for the gin, but use vodka and add between 120 and 150 g of sugar, depending upon the sweetness of your tooth.
For elderflower vinegar, make as for gin, using 500 ml of cider vinegar. Leave in a sunny spot for a week, swirling regularly. For a great salad, dress some rocket leaves and a few halved or quartered strawberries with the vinegar plus salt and plenty of black pepper. It makes an excellent accompaniment for poached salmon.
Collins Tree Guide (2004), Owen Johnson & David More
Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabeth Country Cooking at Home (1986), Hilary Spurling
Food in England (1954), Dorothy Hartley
River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow (2010), John Wright
As you may know, I like to write a boozy post at this time of year and this year’s is small but perfectly formed: the Christmassy and rather kitsch classic, the Snowball, a blend of the Dutch egg yolk-based liqueur Advocaat and lemonade.
A lot of people think Snowballs are a bit naff, but I love them. The problem is that they can be too sweet and cloying, but that’s because folk don’t realise that there are two other very important ingredients – brandy and fresh lime juice. They both cut through the custardy sweet Advocaat and subtly transform it. I recommend you go out and buy the ingredients right now!
The Snowball cocktail was invented in the 1940s but didn’t become popular until the 1970s, where it was stripped of all sophistication by those who used only Advocaat and lemonade, missing out the ingredients they supposed to be superfluous producing the sickly cocktail we all know today.
Advocaat is a Dutch liqueur. Its name is a bit of a mystery; most reckon it comes from the Dutch word for advocate or lawyer. The 1882 edition of the Dictionary of the Dutch Language says it is ‘…a good lubricant for the throat and thus considered especially useful for a lawyer, who must speak in public.’
There is another theory that it was originally made by 17th-Century Dutch settlers in the Americas using creamy avocados, sugar and rum. I am assuming that because this is the most exciting story of the two that it is the apocryphal one. Occam’s Razor and all that…
Anyway, I hope you have a great Christmas – and a good few PROPER Snowballs.
25 ml (1 shot) Advocaat
12.5 ml (a ½ shot) brandy
Juice ¼ of a lime
Around 75 ml lemonade
To garnish: a thin slice of lime
Pour the Advocaat, brandy and lime juice in a cocktail shaker and add plenty of ice.
Shake well and strain into glasses. Add a single ice cube per glass and top up with a little lemon (it will fizz up!).
Fine oranges well roasted with sugar and wine in a cup, they’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolk sup.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
I spent part of the week in London this week and made sure I had a wander around the Tower Bridge area, my favourite part of the great city. The tiny roads are still so very evocative of Dickens with many of the street names and yards appearing in his writings. Much of Little Dorrit takes place in this area of London, but it was such a bitingly-cold day that it put me more in mind of the winter scenes described in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.
At the very end of the story, when it dawns upon the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s nice to be nice, he offers his long-suffering clerk a well-deserved pay rise and some delicious steaming-hot smoking bishop:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
The Christmas Bowl:
Original illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a heady hot boozy snifter and smoking bishop is the best of all, in my opinion. Everyone is sick of mulled wine these days – or at least I am – this is the way to go; a marvellous mixture of port, oranges and spices.
The drink is smoking because the oranges – preferably bitter Seville oranges – are roasted until blackened. The drink is a bishop because it is one of several drinks once known as ‘ecclesiasticals’; drinks named after various orders within the Catholic church. Indeed, if you substitute the port for claret, you have a smoking cardinal; better still, use champagne and you’ve got yourself a smoking pope! I have never tried these, but I think I might give smoking pope a go but using Prosecco instead. There was a spate of these somewhat anti-Catholic snifters during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was just a wry dig, compared to what had happened in the past (e.g. this post). If you look up the recipe for a smoking bishop in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, inset is an illustration of a mitre-shaped punch bowl into which it should be served!
A mitre-shaped punchbowl, from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845
Many port drinks were created around this time too because France and England were tied into an out-of-control tit-for-tat game with tariffs for exports between the two countries, making French wine – the preferred drink at the time – too expensive for most people, and so eyes moved to Spain and it was soon Cheerio! Chateau Neuf de Pape and Hello! lovely port wine.
One of the reasons I don’t always like mulled wine is that it can be a little heavy on the spices. A smoking bishop uses fewer spices, in fact my recipe uses only one: cloves. The only other aromatics being the oils released from the burnt bitter orange rinds. Aside from that, just a little water and some dark brown sugar are added to taste.
It’s a delicious and easy drink to make, and you will never go back to mulled red wine again once you’ve tried it, so please give it a go; you won’t be disappointed!
Smoking bishop can be made ahead of time, strained, and reheated with great success.
One 750 ml bottle of port
3 oranges (Seville, if possible)
Dark brown sugar to taste
Place the oranges on a tray and bake at 200°C for around 25 minutes until they have started to blacken and give off their delicious burnt aroma. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before slicing them up.
Next, pour the full bottle of port into a saucepan (very satisfying to do) along with the oranges and any orange juicy bits, as well as the cloves and water.
Bring to a bare simmer – don’t let it boil! – and let it gently tick away at a scalding temperature (around 80°C) for around 20 minutes.
Add sugar to taste – if the oranges are very bitter and black, you might need quite a bit. If you don’t want bits of orange pulp and clove floating about in the drink, strain into a clean pan before adding the sugar.
If, in the unlikely event, you do not have a mitre-shaped punch bowl, you can simply ladle straight from the saucepan into punch glasses or small mugs.
As promised in my previous post, a few recipes from the Forme of Cury. I have translated them into modern English, so you can follow them a bit easier. For the hippocras drink, I have given you my interpretation of the recipe as there are some hard-to-find ingredients. All the recipes are easy to make and taste delicious.
A very simple dish – not everything Richard II ate was ostentatious. This is a very simple recipe with ingredients we use today. The addition of the saffron give it an interesting earthy flavour. Powder douce was a mixture of sweet spices – the spices we would associate with desserts like apple pie – shop-bought mixed spice is good substitute. The base of the soup is broth or stock, use any you like, though I think chicken is the best for this soup.
Caboches in Potage. Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns yminced and the whyte of Lekes yslyt and ycorue smale. And do þerto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.
Cabbage Soup. Take cabbages and quarter them and seethe (simmer) them in good broth with chopped onions and the white of leeks, slit and diced small. Add saffron and salt, and season it with powder douce.
The Forme of Cury with stitching where a new piece of parchment was added to the scroll (British museum)
If you want to know more: this blog post complements this podcast episode.
Rabbit or Kid in a Sweet and Sour Sauce
Any kind of meat can be used here really, chicken legs or diced lamb are the best substitutes. Sweet and sour sauce was called egurdouce; -douce meaning sweet and egur- meaning sour, e.g. vin-egur was sour wine, in other words vinegar! The meat is browned in lard, removed, so the onions and dried fruit can be fried, the meat is replaced with the liquid ingredients and spices and simmered just like a modern casserole or stew.
Egurdouce. Take connynges or kydde, and smyte hem on pecys rawe, and fry hem in white grece. Take raysouns of coraunce and fry hem. Take oynouns, perboile hem and hewe them small and fry them. Take rede wyne and a lytel vynegur, sugur with powdour of pepr, of ginger, of canel, salt; and cast þerto, and lat it seeþ with a gode quantite of white grece, & serue it forth.
Take young rabbits or kid and cut them into pieces and fry them in lard. Take currants and fry them. Take onions, parboil them, and chop them small and fry them. Take red wine and red wine vinegar, sugar and powdered pepper, ginger, cinnamon, salt and add them, let it simmer gently in a good quantity of lard and serve it forth.
Straining hippograss through a bag
This is a really excellent recipe for spiced wine; mulled drinks were drunk throughout the year and could be served hot or cold. There are some tricky to get hold of spices, but I’ve added alternatives where appropriate. If you have to omit a spice or two, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.
Pur fait ypocras. Troys vnces de canell & iii vneces de gyngeuer; spykenard de Spayn, le pays dun denerer; garyngale, clowes gylofre, poeure long, noieȝ mugadeȝ, maȝioȝame, cardemonii, de chescun dm. vnce; de toutes soit fsait powdour &c.
To make hippocras. Three ounces of cinnamon and three ounces of ginger, spikenard of Spain, a pennysworth; galingale, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, of each a quarter of an ounce; grain of paradise, flour of cinnamon, of each half an ounce; of all, powder is to be made etc.
There are a couple of tricky spices in the list: long pepper and grains of paradise are available to buy online quite easily, but are very expensive, so you can get away with regular black pepper as a substitute. Galangal is easier to find fresh than dried these days, as it is used extensively in Thai cuisine as part of their delicious red and green curries, however, seek and ye shall find the dried variety.
Spikenard of Spain is the extract of the root of a valerian plant and was used in the church as an anointing oil, it also appears very commonly in recipes. I’ve never had the opportunity to taste it.
Here’s my version of the recipe:
1 bottle of red wine
1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger
¼ tsp each ground galingale, ground black pepper, ground nutmeg, dried marjoram, ground cardamom
honey to taste
Pour the wine into a saucepan with all of the spices and bring slowly to a scalding temperature. Don’t let the wine boil as there’ll be no alcohol left in it! Let the spices steep in the hot wine for around 10 minutes.
Meanwhile spread a piece of muslin, or any other suitable cloth, over a sieve and pour the spiced wine through it into another pan or serving jug. Add honey to sweeten. Serve hot or cold.