Friday, July 27, 2012

Heather Beer.

I note that there has been a revival of interest in Scottish (or is it Irish?) ‘heather beer’ in recent times. The method of preparation of this almost-mythical beverage was said to have been a national secret amongst the ancient Celtic race of Picts, the secret dying out with its last leader, who gave up his sons rather than the recipe to their conquerors. The story was immortalised in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, and I give his version to you at the end of the post. Here is the legend as repeated in Notes and Queries (Oxford University Press, 1863)
“The name of this place is Garrywhin, and a tradition exists in connection with it, which says that here the last of the Picts existed. The story goes on to say that the race of Picts was reduced to three persons - an old blind man and his two sons; but before continuing the story it is necessary to mention that a notion still exists that the Picts made ale from heather, and that it can still be made, only we want the knowledge of any barm or yeast suited for it. Now the Picts were said to have guarded this secret with great care from the race that succeeded them, and it seems that these three poor Picts were much persecuted by their conquerors, who wished to get possession of their secret. At last the old man, worried almost to death by being so frequently urged to reveal what barm would suit ‘heather crop,’ consented to tell on condition that his two sons should first be put to death. To this proposal the cruel conquerors readily consented. The sons were slain, but the old man, wishing some of his oppressors to shake hands after they had completed their bargain, they became suspicious of his intentions, and held out to him the bone of a horse's leg, which, with a firm grasp of his old withered hand, he crushed to powder. Made aware by this that it was not over safe to shake hands with the old fellow, they kept at a respectful distance, but still insisted that he should now reveal his secret according to bargain, but they could get nothing out of him but the doggrel couplet which we often still hear repeated -

'Search Brochwhin well out and well in,
And barm for heather crop you'll find therein,'

The place mentioned here as Brochwhin is a glen close by, and the tradition is still believed."

Another version of the story has it that the old man had but one son, and (fearing that his son would relinquish the secret) made the bargain – and then, the sacrifice done,  ‘the stern Pict told his enemies that they might also put him to death, for he could never be prevailed on to disclose a secret known only to himself’,  in response to which, ‘the enraged Scots, as may be supposed, speedily sacrificed the obstinate captive.’

Other stories say it was the Danes who took the method of making heather beer to Ireland in the ninth century, or that perhaps it was an ancient Roman invention. We will likely never know the truth of its origins, but whatever they were, the concept was remarkably enduring.

It seems that the recipe did not completely die out with the Picts however, as heather beer may still have been made in some isolated regions of Scotland in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Rev. John Lightfoot', author of the extraordinarily comprehensive Flora Scotica in 1777 wrote of the many uses to which the canny Scots put the common heather. He said:

“Formerly the young tops are said to have been used to brew a kind of ale, and even now I was informed that the inhabitants of Isla and Jura still continue to brew a very potable liquor by mixing two-thirds of the tops of hather [sic] to one-third of malt.”

Heather beer persisted yet further. A correspondent to the edition of Notes and Queries mentioned above, published in 1863, said:

“Heather beer, or ale, is still occasionally brewed in Scotland. I have drunk it within these last four years in the Lamermoors. It is brewed from the heather blossoms, and is very light, pleasant, and sparkling.”

I don’t know what happened to the production of heather beer between this mid-nineteenth century report and the present day, so cannot say whether the recently publicised commercial venture to manufacture it represents the resurrection of a completely dead method of beer-making, or the renaissance of an almost-dead one. It has generated sufficient interest however that the Guardian recently published a recipe for what they called a ‘Viking’ heather beer, which you can find here.
As my own recipe offering for the day, I give you a nice take on the idea of Welsh Rarebit, from a classic Scottish cookery book:

Boiled Cheese.
Grate a quarter of a pound of good cheese, put it into a sauce-pan, with a bit of butter the size of a nutmeg, and half a tea-cupful of milk, stir it over the fire till it boil, and then add a well-beaten egg; mix it all together, put it into a small dish, and brown it before the fire; or serve it without being browned.
The Practice of Cookery: Adapted to the Business of Every Day Life (Edinburgh, 1830),
by Mrs. Dalgairns

Quotation for the Day.

The story of heather ale was immortalised by the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings underground.

There rose a king in Scotland,
A fell man to his foes,
He smote the Picts in battle,
He hunted them like roes.
Over miles of the red mountain
He hunted as they fled,
And strewed the dwarfish bodies
Of the dying and the dead.

Summer came in the country,
Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like children's
On many a mountain head,
The Brewsters of the Heather
Lay numbered with the dead.

The king in the red moorland
Rode on a summer's day;
And the bees hummed, and the curlews
Cried beside the way.
The king rode, and was angry,
Black was his brow and pale,
To rule in a land of heather
And lack the Heather Ale.

It fortuned that his vassals,
Riding free on the heath,
Came on a stone that was fallen
And vermin hid beneath.
Rudely plucked from their hiding,
Never a word they spoke:
A son and his aged father -
Last of the dwarfish folk.

The king sat high on his charger,
He looked on the little men;
And the dwarfish and swarthy couple
Looked at the king again.
Down by the shore he had them;
And there on the giddy brink -
"I will give you life, ye vermin,
For the secret of the drink."

There stood the son and father
And they looked high and low;
The heather was red around them,
The sea rumbled below.
And up and spoke the father,
Shrill was his voice to hear:
"I have a word in private,
A word for the royal ear.

"Life is dear to the aged,
And honour a little thing;
I would gladly sell the secret,"
Quoth the Pict to the King.
His voice was small as a sparrow's,
And shrill and wonderful clear:
"I would gladly sell my secret,
Only my son I fear.

"For life is a little matter,
And death is nought to the young;
And I dare not sell my honour
Under the eye of my son.
Take HIM, O king, and bind him,
And cast him far in the deep;
And it's I will tell the secret
That I have sworn to keep."

They took the son and bound him,
Neck and heels in a thong,
And a lad took him and swung him,
And flung him far and strong,
And the sea swallowed his body,
Like that of a child of ten; -
And there on the cliff stood the father,
Last of the dwarfish men.

"True was the word I told you:
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.”

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