Today, January 13 …
Samuel Pepys spared no expense on a “noble” dinner for friends on this day in 1663. His guests arrived around midday, and stayed on till supper, when they had “a good sack-posset and cold meat” before leaving around 10 o’clock at night.
A “posset” was a hot, sweet drink made by heating alcohol in a bowl, then pouring hot cream or milk in from a great height. It was a popular supper dish, a comfort food or treat, considered to have a restorative or medicinal benefit. It was often made with “sack” (sherry), which was also sometime called “Canary”, as the best came from those islands.
In Pepys’ day every good housewife, though she employed a cook to prepare daily meals, was expected to take responsibility herself for making preserves and simple household remedies, and books of “receipts” for these were enormously popular. One written by a contemporary of Pepys, Sir Kenelm Digby, and published posthumously in 1669 is the earliest collection of fermented drink recipes that we know. He was a colourful character – amateur scientist, linguist, privateer, diplomat, and according to some a “great mountebank”. When his beloved wife Venetia died suddenly it was widely believed that he had accidentally poisoned her with the viper wine that he gave her to preserve her beauty. There is no recipe for viper wine amongst the possets, meads, hydromels and metheglins of Digby’s book, as this was more properly in the domain of the alchemists such as John French. He published his book “The Art of Distillation” in 1651.
Posset recipes being easily available, I give you French’s instructions for viper wine. Conveniently, sherry is the basis for both.
Viper Wine is Made Thus
Take of the best fat vipers, cut off their heads, take off their skins, and unbowel them. Then put them into the best canary sack, four or six according to their bigness into a gallon. Let them stand two or three months. Then draw off your wine as you drink it.Some put them alive into the wine, and there suffocate them, and afterwards take them out, and cut off their heads, take off their skins, and unbowel them, and then put them into the same wine again, and do as before.This wine has the same virtues as the foregoing quintessence. It also provokes to venery, cures the leprosy and such like corruptions of the blood.
On Monday: Peace and Plenty.