It was inevitable, over the last few days of wandering about in eighteenth century food and cookery books, to be reminded of a popular beverage of the time which I have not discussed in any previous posts.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England there was a great fascination with all things Oriental. At the time, tea and coffee were expensive, but a delicious warming beverage (or a good facsimile of it) enjoyed in the mysterious East was so cheap and available that it was sold as street food to the labourers and other workers from the lower class. It was salep (or saloop, salop, salub …).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines salep as ‘a nutritive meal, starch, or jelly made from the dried tubers of various orchidaceous plants, chiefly those of the genus Orchis; formerly also used as a drug.’ The orchid family derives its name from the old Arabic word for testicle, which references the shape of the roots, which are the source of salep powder. The particular type of orchid used in the reference referenced here! In Britain an early substitute was a local orchid with the charming common name of ‘dogstones.’ It is becoming easy to see the connection with the early attribution of salep as an aphrodisiac, is it not?
The original plant became relatively scarce in its native land due to local and global demand, and other starches from corn, potato, sago and the like became used to make the beverage – substitutions being facilitated by the bland flavour of the authentic preparation.
The first reference given in the OED as to the use of the word salep in English is given as occurring in Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Domesticum published in 1736, although I feel it likely that there are earlier references, if but one of us has time to hunt. Luckily for us, Bailey’s book is not a mere collection of word definitions, but a household manual with its topics arranged in alphabetical order – and including abundant recipes. So – here is the first known (so far) published recipe for salep:
Put an ounce of salop or salep into a quart of water; set it on the fire, stirring it till it is as thick as chocolate, and then put to it orange-flower water, rose-water or sack; or you may add a little juice of lemon and sugar.
This is good for weak and consumptive people.
Inevitably, in Britain and Europe, salep was eclipsed and then forgotten under a tidal wave of cheaper tea and coffee (as well as the connotation of sinful, lusty behaviour), and it became once again an uncommon exotic Oriental beverage.