Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On Capillaire.

May 13 ...

Dr. Kitchener (yesterday’s post) could give us enough interesting material for years, but too much of a good thing keeps us away from other good things, so we will only stick with him for a week.

In yesterday’s recipe, Dr. Kitchiner used ‘capillaire’ in his pudding catsup. Capillaire is not a common ingredient in the pantry these days – there is certainly a dearth of it in mine, which is otherwise well stocked. What is it?

In its original incarnation, capillaire was ‘a syrup or infusion of maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus Veneris).’ It was used for medicinal purposes for a range of problems such as pectoral complaints and pulmonary catarrhs, the King's Evil and other hard swellings, and the very inconvenient problem of hair loss. A spoonful of orange-flower water and some honey was often added to make the medicine go down more tastefully, and eventually the fern became optional and capillaire became ‘a syrup flavoured with orange-flower water’. If orange flavouring is good, then orange-flavoured alcohol must surely be better – and it was Dr. Kitchener’s choice in his version of capillaire.

To a pint of Clarified Syrup add a wine-glass of Curaçoa, or dissolve a drachm of Oil of Neroli in two ounces of Rectified Spirit, and add a few drops of it to Clarified Syrup.
[Cook’s Oracle, Wm. Kitchener]

The real thing was slightly more tedious to make. The best fern was reputed to come from Canada, although the following instructions come from an American book.

Capillaire, Syrup of.
Take some good capillaire, chop it up, not so very small, put it upon a sieve, pour upon it some boiling water, and let it infuse for ten hours in a vessel well covered; strain this infusion, and put into it some sugar boiled au casse; clarify this syrup with the whites of eggs whipped; skim it till it is very clear; when it rises, take it off the fire, and leave it to cool, then put it into bottles.
[Cook’s Own Book
America, Lee & Leslie, 1840]

I am not sure how to recommend that you use these syrups – apart from in your pudding catsup. Perhaps to flavour fruit salad, or to soak pound cake? I leave it to your imagination.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Instant flavouring.

Quotation for the Day …

Rhubarb: essence of stomach ache. Ambrose Bierce.


Chris Stanley said...

On uses for Capillaire, if you enjoy cocktails you might reference J. Thomas's How to Mix Drinks (transcribed online here) for a few uses.

Fantastic blog by the by (are you familiar with the SCA perchance?)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello "rookie". I know of the SCA - but am not involved. Sounds like great fun. I will check out Thomas; book - thanks for the link.

Columbine Quillen said...

Where do I get capillaire?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Columbine - I have no idea where capillaire can be sourced - I dont know which country you are in, so I cant even hazard a guess! If you are in the USA, many of the universities have advisory or extension services that might be able to help.

Deborah Horn said...

I was playing a facebook game this morning that required me to post the fifth sentence on the 56th page of the book that was physically nearest to me at that moment.
That book was my copy of John Hll Brown's "Early American Beverages".
The sentence referred to two words I didn't recognize. One of them was 'capillaire'.
Through a google search that word let me to your blog---LUCKY ME!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Deborah - lucky me to have a new reader! I do hope you keep coming back for more food history stories.

Talia Felix said...

I think this post must be one of the first search results for capillaire -- I am fond of old cpokboks and other kinds of old recipes (in fact I keep a blog at http://gibsonglamor.blogspot.com which began as a vehicle for my Edwardian era beauty recipes.) But anyway, I have a terrible tendency to forget what some of the more obscure ingredients are/how to make them. This post has come to my assistance many times.

john purser said...

Thomas Alexander Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie, composed a Capillaire Minuet in the later 18th-century, for his Capillaire Club - a drinking and dancing club in Edinburgh for which he had specially engraved glasses. Given Kellie's reputation as a bon viveur, we can be certain that his capillaire was well laced with alcohol. The Club appears to have met on Sundays. John

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks John! What a marvellous story! I had no idea of the club or the piece of music.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this is an error, or if I'm betraying my own ignorance, but you seem to be indicating that orange flower water tastes like orange, which it does not. I'm sure that Curacoa syrup would be delicious, but it doesn't have anything in common with the capillaire with which I'm familiar, whose smell and taste is decidedly floral.