February has rolled in and with it the proliferation of sniffing, sneezing and hacking coughs ubiquitous in your local environment. If you are unlucky enough to have befallen this dreadful predicament, Rob Bidder offers an archaic remedy: the medieval posset.
Although you can’t visit our Medicine Man gallery at the moment (due to the development project currently underway) you can still enjoy some of its objects. Normally, among the erstwhile chamber pots and bleeding bowls, you’d see a very unassuming piece of crockery resembling a cross between a teapot and a biscuit jar. This is our Posset Pot. Henry Wellcome collected many such objects that were at one time a common household item. But what exactly is a posset?
These days, the word has come to describe a lemony, blancmange style desert, but the posset of antiquity was a hot, milky, medicinal drink used to treat maladies as varied as malarial fevers, smallpox, the common cold and sleeping problems. The drink contains eggs, a sweetener such as syrup and usually some kind of ale or wine to separate and curdle the mixture. After the curdling, the liquid part can be poured out of the pot’s spout, leaving the sweet omelette solid (or “spoonmeat”) to be eaten separately.
You may be familiar with this elixir from various cultural sources. They are mentioned in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth drugs the bedtime drinks of Duncan’s guards. In John Masefield’s mystical children’s book Box of Delights, Kay Harker drinks a posset to clear his head before bed. It remained a popular choice of beverage from the 14th to 18th century, often being a staple at celebrations such as weddings.
One of the most famous posset recipes available is that of Sir Kenelm Digby from his posthumously published 17th century recipe book The Cabinet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Digby himself is an interesting character: he was the son of an executed gunpowder plotter but still managed to find respect and renown as a courtier to King Charles I and II. He was a privateer of note, a patron of the arts (notably to Van Dyke), a devout catholic (when it was controversial, even dangerous, to be one), a natural philosopher and considered to be one of the deepest thinkers and brightest scientific minds of his time, despite his penchant for scrapping.
The whole of Sir Digby’s recipe book is on Project Gutenberg and provides an intriguing insight into 17th century eating habits among the wealthy, providing evidence of recipe swapping and variations on many edibles, drinkables and esoteric potions such as the Powder of Sympathy, a magic-alchemical mixture that was used to heal wounds by applying it to the weapon used to cause the injury.
There are many posset recipes in the book but here is one I tried personally:
TO MAKE A SACK POSSET
Boil two wine-quarts of Sweet-cream in a Possnet; when it hath boiled a little, take it from the fire, and beat the yolks of nine or ten fresh Eggs, and the whites of four with it, beginning with two or three spoonfuls, and adding more till all be incorporated; then set it over the fire, to recover a good degree of heat, but not so much as to boil; and always stir it one way, least you break the consistence. In the mean time, let half a pint of Sack or White muscadin boil a very little in a bason, upon a Chafing-dish of Coals, with three quarters of a pound of Sugar, and three or four quartered Nutmegs, and as many pretty big pieces of sticks of Cinnamon. When this is well scummed, and still very hot, take it from the fire, and immediately pour into it the cream, beginning to pour neer it, but raising by degrees your hand so that it may fall down from a good height; and without anymore to be done, it will then be fit to eat. It is very good kept cold as well as eaten hot. It doth very well with it, to put into the Sack (immediately before you put in the cream) some Ambergreece, or Ambered-sugar, or Pastils. When it is made, you may put powder of Cinnamon and Sugar upon it, if you like it.
A few terms used in the above recipe may need explaining.
- Sack is a fortified wine; you can use Sherry or Madeira as a substitute.
- A possnet is a type of metal boiling pot with feet; I used a normal saucepan.
- Ambergreece (or ambergris) will be very difficult to find, so just forget about that. For those not in the know, ambergris is a waxy grey excretion from the digestive system of a sperm whale. Speculation is that it is made up of all the hard matter that a whale can’t digest (such as the beaks of squid) and is thus extremely rare. I can’t think of anything that could be used as a substitute for this strange material.
I found the drink a bit too rich and sweet for my taste so I used full-fat milk instead of cream and reduced the amounts used to half volumes, but after drinking I felt both energised and satisfied. I’d highly recommend making yourself a posset on a cold and grotty day.
I also paid heed to the uni-directional stirring technique though and opted for clockwise; it’s up to you if you go anti-clockwise, but I can’t be responsible for any foul consequences that result from that decision.
Rob Bidder is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and the illustrator of our #CuriousConversations.