Saturday 22 December 2012

HIPPOCRAS, by Jane Borodale

The first day of the holidays, and in celebration of the winter feast I thought I'd look at recipes for hippocras - that stalwart festive cordial wine popular since medieval times.

Taking its name from the conical bag shaped like the Sleeve of Hippocrates (used by apothecaries, vintners or housewives) to strain the spice from the liquor, hippocras (hypocras, ipocras) was drunk at the end of a high-status feast to balance the humours, as a sweet and efficacious digestive and carminative. It could be made with red or white wine, sugar and cinnamon being the main constituents, and often a variety of other ingredients.

I’d be the first to admit that mulled wine made badly can be truly horrible (am thinking of the sour, mouthcurdling addition of a carton of orange juice, which is surely one of the most vile culinary perversions ever to be concocted, and which resulting clouded and sickly purple looks exactly like the colour of painters’ turpentine when the brushes have been rinsed too much in it, and probably tastes worse). But these recipes sounded like a beautiful aromatic treat, and after reading quite a few, I experimented, trying to be fairly accurate but according mostly to the ingredients already in my cupboard (no spikenard...).

Here’s an example: ‘To make powdered hippocras, take a quarter of very fine cinnamon selected by tasting it, and half a quarter of fine flour of cinnamon, an ounce of selected string ginger (gingembre de mesche), fine and white, and an ounce of grain [of paradise], a sixth of nutmegs and galingale together, and bray them all together. And when you would make your hippocras, take a good half ounce of this powder and two quarters of sugar and mix them with a quart of wine, by Paris measure.

I’d always laboured under the impression that hippocras was more-or-less the same as mulled wine. But rolling up my (unHippocratic) sleeves has reminded me of the need to keep properly looking afresh at the past. In short – I was really surprised. Not just by the flavour, (unexpectedly, utterly fabulous and unlike anything else I’d had before) but that some of the recipes were not heated at all, neither in the making, nor the serving. Some ingredients included milk or cream. (I can also report on the relative merits of warming the wine in a saucepan ‘on the fire’ or with a hot poker plunged into the vessel itself. In order to heat a quantity of liquor, you need an exceedingly hot poker. The hiss, bubble and spit of it going in is exciting, and the caramelising scent, but it was hard to get it actually hot. You though may have more luck.)

'Circe Mulling Wine', Gioacchino Assereto

The Goodman of Paris tells us that after dessert of fruit and compotes came the ‘departure from the table’ – hippocras and wafers called mestier. ‘…Waffurs to ete, ypocras to drynke with delite. Now this fest is fynysched, voyd the table quyte.’  (1393) In his suggested menus for dinner for a Meat Day for great lords and others, one sixth course was hippocras with wafers (rich batter cooked between hot iron moulds on a chafing dish, and sweetened with honey and rosewater), pears and comfits, medlars and peeled nuts. Another includes sugared flawns and larded milk, cooked pears and hippocras.

He also mentions the purchase of ready-made hippocras from the spicer, buying 3 quarts at 10s. the quart (which surely seems very expensive?) Lump sugar could also come from the spicer, grocer or mercer, or would have been bought, along with dried fruit and other items for the banquet course, at fairs such as Lenton. Hippocras is not, apparently, to be confused with piment or clary, which were similar but made with honey instead of sugar, but there are very many differing methods and quantities to be found, according to personal taste and availability of spices. Sugar itself was considered a spice, and to have medicinal qualities. Lower orders, perhaps yeoman farmers, merchants and the like may have used honey in its stead.

John Russell’s 15th-century Boke of Nurture gives a detailed, rhyming method for hippocras, you can read it here at Project Gutenberg.

'The Spice Shop', 1637, Paolo Antonio Barbieri
It wasn’t universally loved – William Harrison (1535-1593) gives it only a rather offhanded mention of ‘sundry sorts of artificial stuff, as hippocras and wormwood wine’. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is disapproving, saying that ‘overhot, compound, strong thick drinks,’ including ‘all those hot spiced strong drinks’ are to be neglected by those who suffer this malady, as ‘spices cause hot and head melancholy, and are for that cause forbidden by our physicians. Sweets turn into bile, they are obstructive.’ As a balancer of humours, whether it worked would clearly depend on your natural temperament; sanguine, melancholic, choleric or phlegmatic. I imagine this is also why it is a solely winter beverage, not drunk in the warm months of the year. The Goodman points out for a wedding feast in May, ‘apples and cheese without hippocras, because it is out of season.’

It is generally said to have fallen out of favour by the 18th century, though James Boswell notes in his diary on the 19 Jan 1763 that he ‘went into a little public house and drank some warm white wine with aromatic spices, pepper and cinnamon’.

In case you fancy trying it out too; to save you time I’ve converted the pottles and quarts and drams etc, into two recipes. Don’t baulk at the amount of sugar, it’s weird but it does work. This isn’t a drink to consume by the gallon – it’s a dessert. I didn’t adjust quantities for modern tastes, and am very glad I didn’t because these were delicious as they were, and it really felt like drinking a little bit of something from the otherworld. If you do try either of these, I’d love to know what you think:

red Hippocras (after the Goodman of Paris, 1393).
1 pint red wine
2 sticks of cinnamon
piece of fresh root ginger (about the size of man’s big toe)
7 cloves
4-5 cardamom pods
large pinch of mace
quarter of a nutmeg, freshly grated
7 oz caster sugar

Peel and chop ginger, break cinnamon into pieces and grind as finely as possible with other spices in pestle and mortar until small, then add sugar and grind until thoroughly combined. Add red wine and heat gently in a pan for about 5 min then remove from heat, strain through jelly bag or muslin and serve in tiny glasses. Sipped hot straightaway, it has an extraordinarily warming hit. Cold the following day, it’s pungent, with the consistency of green ginger wine, but a much more complex flavour.

white Hippocras (after Hannah Woolley, 1675).
1 pint white wine
2 fat sticks cinnamon
piece of fresh root ginger (just a little less than above)
3 cloves
4 peppercorns
half a nutmeg, freshly grated
4cm stem fresh rosemary
6 oz caster sugar
half pint of single cream

Grind spices as above, then add and grind sugar, then rosemary. Stir into white wine and leave to steep for 12 hours or overnight. (NB – the mixture is not heated.) Strain, then stir in cream before serving in aforementioned tiny glasses. This one really is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted – perhaps like a rich, exotic lassi? Very fine and scrumptious. If I could only use one adjective to describe it, I would say it was exquisite.

And if you needed any more persuasion, for anyone already set to feel guilty about their levels of consumption over the next Twelve Days, hippocras may be your answer, at least according to Samuel Pepys who, on 29 Oct 1663, protests:
‘It being Lord Mayor’s Day… at noon I went forth, and by coach to Guildhall and there was admitted… and there wine was offered and they drunk, I only drinking some hypocras, which doth not break my vowe, it being, to the best of my present judgement, only a mixed compound drink, and not any wine.’ (My italics)

Your good health!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds delicious! I have some of those things in my pantry, not all. I tend to buy powdered spices, though I do have fresh ginger. Will try at least one of those two. Mind you, where I am it's summer, not really time for spicy stuff.

Imogen said...

I am so having these on Christmas Eve! Lovely post.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Oh what a fab post! Am off to make myself a hogshead of it now.

But what are "sugared flawns"!!

Happy Xmas!

Jane Borodale said...

Sue - If you can get hold of it, I think it would be vital to use cinnamon in stick form, as 'floure of cinamon' might make a very gritty hippocras, and the volatile oils probably need to be freshly released? However Gervase Markham does give a recipe without cinnamon, he uses fresh ginger, nutmeg, cloves, sugar and claret or white wine...

Caroline - sugared flawns would be like our flan; custard tarts.

Merry Christmas!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Mnn, yummy! That's what we can do on New Year's Eve ... but which one? Of the two, which do you prefer, Jane? Thank you so much for all the research (hic!) that has gone into this post!

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for the festive recipes. I shall enjoy having a good try-out of these - desserts, I think you said?

Happy Christmas, one and all.

Jane Borodale said...

Pippa - ooh, that's a hard choice! The red one when it was hot and freshly-made was seriously, cockle-warmingly good, though the white (cold) one with cream was the most delicious historical curiosity, and really fine of flavour. The white one has to be made a day in advance. The red one is still good the second day but remember to stir it because the ginger settles a bit...

Penny - dessert wine, I meant - any typos can be attributed to the enthusiasm with which I tackled this experiment...

Sue Bursztynski said...

Not a problem, Jane, I do have cinnamon sticks ND bark! :-)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Oh, Jane, those recipes look a-m-a-z-i-n-g! Must try them. Happy Christmas!