Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Roasted Crabs Hiss In the Bowl - The Cup That Cheers, 17th Century Style

by M.J. Logue

What historical fiction, and what winter's evening, would be complete without the traditional foaming mug of mulled ale?

On those short, dark winter days - on those even shorter, darker, wintrier days of the Little Ice Age that was seveneteenth-century England - a brief social excursion could be a whole day's trip on horseback, or a perilous, freezing trip in a draughty carriage. Cold, wet stockings - there is no evidence to suggest that women wore anything so sensible as boots - and heavy, clinging cold wool cloaks. No central heating, nothing but an inadequate fire in houses bedevilled by draughts and inadequately insulated. Unbearable, no?

Well, no. Because in a rather civilised manner, one was provided with one's own, internal central heating.

I have blogged before on the dubious delights of buttered ale, much beloved of one fictional Parliamentarian officer's wife as a cure-all for every ill. Samuel Pepys is inclined to agree with her -

"Thence home and to the office, and so home having a great cold, and so my wife and Mrs. Barbary have very great ones, we are at a loss how we all come by it together, so to bed, drinking butter-ale."

Robert May in "The Accomplish't Cook" in 1660 described it as

... Take beer or ale and boil it, then scum it, and put to it some liquorish and anniseeds, boil them well together; then have in a clean flaggon or quart pot some yolks of eggs well beaten with some of the foresaid beer, and some good butter; strain your butter'd beer, put it in the flaggon, and brew it with the butter and eggs.

Het Babbitt's recipe is a late Tudor one and contains ginger and cloves as well as nutmeg, and (mercifully) no licquorice. There's a traditional folk song called either "The Owl" or "Who Gave Thee Thy Jolly Red Nose?" - which often turns up, rather wonderfully, in children's songbooks - the chorus of which goes

"Nose, nose, jolly red nose
and who gave thee that jolly red nose
Cinamin, ginger, nutmeg and cloves
and that gave me my jolly red nose!"

- and now you know in what capacity they were being taken!

Now, I will be honest, and say that having tried buttered ale it did nothing for me at all. Hippocras, on the other hand, is much nicer. Somewhere between a medicine, a syrup and a celebration drink, it was a spiced, sweetened wine served - possibly heated, and possibly not always - at the end of meals.

These two recipes are transcriptions from the Historic Food website, as an illustration of just how exotic - and expensive - a good hippocras would be:

Ipocras out of an old booke

Take a pottole of white or redd wyne and take a pynt of clarified honye: and mixe well the wyne and honye together in a clean pan, and you take 3 ozs of ginger, of pepper a quarter of an ounce, of good cynnimone 1 oz., saffron 1 oz., Spikenard of Spayn 1 oz., gallingale 1 oz., and make :all into pouder, and put it into the wyne and honye and medell them together, and you colour it with tumsole, and make it as red as you will: and pour it into a bagg and strain it through the bagg often tymes till it be clere, and so serve it forth.

From an early seveneteenth century manuscript (Mss. Sloane 3690, ff 26b.).
To make an excellent aromaticall Hyppocras
Take of Cinnamon two ounces, Ginger an ounce, Cloves and Nutmegs of each two drams, of white Pepper half a dram, of Cardamums two drams: of Musk Mallow seed, three ounces. Let these be bruised, and put into a bag and hanged in six gallons of Wine. Note that you must put a weight in the bag to make it sink.
‘Some boyl these spices in Wine, which they then sweeten with sugar, and then let run through a Hyppocras bag, and afterwards bottle it up, and use when they please.
A little too expensive for my plain Essex goodwife in 1645. and so her recipe is much plainer. taken from the same Elizabethan cookbook as her buttered ale:
2 quarts red wine
1 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
6 whole peppercorns
9 whole cloves
1/2 tsp rosemary
1 cup sugar
Boil it all up, remove from the boil, allow to steep for 12 hours and longer if you can. Heady stuff, so drink cautiously - but very warming...

Of course, if you are in need of something more substantial, I will leave you with the very housewifely Elizabeth Cromwell's recipe for sack posset. I will say nothing about Oliver's much-vaunted tendency to start throwing this substance about in jest (he is reported to have spent a happy afternoon at his daughter's wedding in November 1657 chucking posset over the ladies' gowns - an interesting sense of humour, the Lord Protector.)

I think this may have been the recipe she used for the wedding, because it starts with

"Set a Gallon of Milk on the Fire, with whole Cinamon and large Mace, when it boyls stir in a half, or whole pound of Naples-bisket grated very small, keeping it stirring till it boyls, then beat eight Eggs together, casting of the whites away; beat them well with a Ladle-ful of Milk, then take the Milk off the fire, and stir in the Eggs; then put it on again, but keep it stirring for fear of curdling; then make ready a pint of Sack, warming it upon the coals, with a little Rose-water, season your Milk with sugar, and pour it into the Sack in a large bason, and stir it a pace, then throw on a good deal of beaten Cinamon, and so serve it up."

Aren't you glad we can just put the kettle on?


 MJ Logue can be found lurking at, and is currently working on the week-by-week run up to Christmas of that hard-done-to Essex goodwife Het Babbitt. and the first four books in her bestselling series featuring the (mis)adventures of sweary Parliamentarian cavalry officer Hollie Babbitt and his rebel rabble are available here.


  1. Sounds delicious, all of it! Buttered beer, eh? I'm suspecting a certain Ms Rowling knew all about it and had it in mind when writing her fiction...

  2. Its chilly this morning and I have to say the line

    "I have blogged before on the dubious delights of buttered ale"

    Gave me pause....sounds good!

  3. Can hardly wait to try buttered ale! Reminds me of Tibetan yak-butter tea, though I've never tried either.

  4. Fabulous insights into an age-old problem, By the way, I think you missed the attribution that goes with "Samuel Pepys is inclined to agree with her -" As a Pepys fan I'd love to try his buttered ale. My doctor still says that a cold takes 14 days to end if you take medicine, but only a fortnight if you take nothing. One of life's great miseries.


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