More on Hippocras
Herbs and spices have always been of great importance in the preparation of alcoholic beverages. Since antiquity they have been added to wines, beers and other drinks as flavourings, preservatives, colouring agents and in the case of medicated beverages, for their remedial properties. Before the introduction of the hop, many English ales and ale-cups were given extra relish by the addition of a bunch of aromatic herbs or a mixture of spices. Some local beers were actually brewed from herbs. Ebulon made from elderberries; gale beer from bog myrtle and heather ale from ling blossoms, were all once popular in the North of England. The ancient honey drink metheglin relied for its peculiar flavour on the leaves of borage, bugloss and other aromatic plants.Many of the liqueurs and spirits imbibed in modern times are flavoured with herbs and spices - gin with juniper berries, kummel with caraway and pastis with aniseed are a few well-known examples.
During the mediaeval and early modern period brewers added herbs to their malt liquors in order to improve their keeping properties. Ground ivy, clary, mugwort, tansy, maudlin and costmary were all found to act as preservatives. Iris roots hung in ale were said to prevent it turning sour. The success of some very old methods of preservation depended on a certain amount of divine intervention, since it was thought witches and evil spirits were capable of spoiling ale. One Anglo-Saxon recipe advises: ‘If the ale be spoilt, take lupins, lay them on the four quarters of the dwelling, and over the door, and under the threshold, and under the ale vat, put the herb into the ale with holy water.'
Seventeenth century vintners and wine coopers often thought nothing of ‘amending clarets' and other red wines which had lost their colour by adding dyestuffs. Madder, alkanet, dragon's blood and turnsole were the most commonly employed. Though if these were in short supply, the juices of the sloe, bullace, damson and mulberry were resorted to. Most present day lovers of fine wines would be horrified if the following method of preserving the colour of claret was still used - the recipe is from Merret's Mystery of Vintners (London: 1698):
Take red Beet roots, scrape them clean and cut them into small pieces, then boil them in the Wine, to the consumption of a third part, scum it well, and when cool, decant off what's clear, and use the Rod.
The most important reason for adding herbs and spices to alcoholic drinks was for the benefit of their medicinal properties. Wine was considered an excellent vehicle for administering a herbal drug, since it was found to dissolve more of the active principles than a simple water infusion or decoction. Helleborated wine for epilepsy, wine of squills for evacuating ‘evil humours' and zedeory wine for strengthening the stomach and heart, were all official medicaments in the pharmacopoeias of the seventeenth century. Of eyebright wine, prescribed for ailing sight, the sharp-witted Nicholas Culpeper wrote: ‘A cup of it in the morning is worth a pair of spectacles.' Medicated beers and ales were also much favoured. A herbal ale known as panala was a popular tonic in the days of Evelyn and Pepys. The celebrated Dr Butler's purging ale held sway for many generations as a ‘stomach drink' and aperient. Originated by William Butler, physician to James I, this medicinal brew was made by hanging a thin canvas bag containing senna, polypody of oak, agrimony, maidenhair and scurvy grass in a barrel of strong ale. It was sold at houses displaying the sign of ‘Butler's Head'. Though a few inns of this name have survived into modern times, it is unlikely that any of them continue to do a roaring trade in this strongly laxative ale!
Before citrus fruits became generally available, many English country people warded off scurvy with regular draughts of scurvy-grass ale, a bitter, antiscorbutic brew prepared from Cochlearia officinalis L., a fleshy-leaved member of the cabbage family rich in vitamin C. When the Jacobean poet John Taylor visited Manchester on his penniless walk from London to Edinburgh, he was invited into a house where eight different kinds of ale were offered to him. In his Pennyless Pilgrimage (London: 1618), he relates how,
‘We had at one time set upon the table, Good Ale of Hisope, twas not Esope fable: Then we had Ale of Sage, and Ale of Malt, And Ale of Woorme-wood, that could make one halt, With Ale of Rosemary, and Bettony, And two Ales more, or else I needs must lye, But to conclude this drinking Alye tale, We had a sort of Ale called scurvy Ale.'
Many of these old alcoholic remedies were not strictly ‘herbal'. Besides mistletoe, peony, lily of the valley, lime flowers and cinnamon, one seventeenth century preparation known as Vinum antiepilepticum contained two ounces of ‘man's scull rasped'! The following recipe for an ale with alleged anaesthetic properties was given by Dr Silas Dodd in his Natural History of the Herring (London:1753):
‘Take the oil pressed out of fresh Herrings, a pint, a boar's gall, juices of henbane, hemlock, arsel, lettuce, and wild catmint, each six ounces, mix, boil well, and put into a glass vessel, stoppered. Take three spoonfuls and put into a quart of warm ale, and let the person to undergo any operation drink of this by an ounce at a time, till he falls asleep, which sleep he will continue the space of three or four hours, and all that time he will be unsensible to anything done to him.'
Beverages with less dramatic medicinal qualities than those mentioned above, were also popular. Nothing more was claimed for some brews than an ability to excite appetite and aid digestion. Drinks of this type, half medicine, half inebriant, were the forerunners of our modern digestives. One of the most ancient was wormwood wine , a bitter tonic prepared by steeping a handful of wormwood (Arteinisia absinthium L.) in a gallon of wine. In classical times, the winner of a biennial chariot race round the outskirts of Rome received nothing more than a draught of this vinous infusion for his prize. A bitter, health-giving drink was considered a fit reward for an athlete! This medicinal wine was thought to stimulate the digestive juices, expell flatulence and to prevent colic. Over the years it has evolved into what we now call vermouth (German for wormwood), though the modern version contains very little of the original herb.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the old digestive drinks was a cordial wine known as hippocras, made by digesting a mixture of spices in red or white wine sweetened with sugar or honey. Many forms of this name occur in early recipes, the most common being ypocras, vpocrate, ipocras, ipocrist, hipocras, ippocras, hvpocras, hvppocras, hypocrace, hvpocraze and ippocrass. This strange word has an interesting etymology — it is derived from the Old French name for the Greek physician Hippocrates ypocrate. In Middle English this was ipocras. In The Book of the Duchesse, the 14th century poet Chaucer wrote:
Ne hele me may noo physicien, Nought Ipocras, ne Galyen.
Its Latin name was Vinum Hippocraticum - wine of Hippocrates. Though spiced wines were popular in classical times, Hippocrates was certainly not the inventor of hippocras, which dates from the early rnediaeval period. It was known by this name because it was strained through a filter bag familiar to most vintners and apothecaries as a manicum Hippocraticum - the sleeve of Hippocrates. This was a conical bag used to strain the particles of spice out of the wine. In order to do this effectively, most vintners passed the prepared hippocras through the bag at least three times, or hung three bags one above the other and let the liquid slowly drip into a vessel below. Others preferred to pour milk into the hippocras and then carefully decant the mixture into the filter bag. The milk curdled on contact with the acidic wine, and the curds slowly precipitated to the bottom of the vessel, carrying the gritty spice particles with them. If red wine was used, this filtering process tended to remove a certain amount of the pigment, so a plant dye known as turnsole was often added to restore its original claret colour.
The spice mixture was known as hippocras ‘gyle', and though recipes vary, it usually contained cinnamon, cardamoms, grains of paradise and long pepper. The various ingredients of the gyle were bruised in a mortar and left to steep in the wine, usually for a day and a night. Sometimes they were enclosed in a small bag or bladder weighted with a pebble yo help it sink. Hippocras made in this way did not need to be strained. Some lazy vintners made their hippocras by adding a few drops of the essential oils of the appropriate spices to the wine. Another way was to add to the wine a few drops of a preparation known as ‘essence of hippocras'. This was made by extracting the flavour from the spices by means of spirit of wine or aqua-vitae. The gyle was steeped in a glass vessel of spirit and exposed to the heat of the sun in a bed of sand. Only a little of this strong extract was needed to transform an indifferent wine into a ‘gallant hypocras'. The wines most commonly used, were claret for red hippocras and white Spanish and Portugese wines for white.
The following method of making hippocras is taken from The Booke of Kervinge and Sewing (London: 1508), which in its turn is derived from recipes in fifteenth century sources such as John Russell's The Boke of Nurture, which contains a hippocras recipe in verse.
Take ginger, pepper, graines, canell, sinamon, sugar and tornsole, than looke ye have five or sixe bags for your ipocras to run in, and a pearch that your renners may ren on, than must ye have sixe peuter basins to stand under your bags, than look your spice be ready, and your ginger well pared or if it be beaten to pouder, than looke your stalkes of sinamon be well coloured and sweete: canell is not so gentle in operation, sinamon, is hotte and dry, graines of paradice be hot and moist, ginger, grains, long pepper ben hot and moist, sinamon, canell and redde wine colouring.
Now knowe yee the proportions of your ipocras, than beate your pouders, eache by them selfe, and put them in bladders and hange your bagges sure that no bagge tough other, but let each basinge touch other, let the first basin be of a gallon, and each of the other a pottell, than put in your basin a gallon of red Wine, put these to your pouders, and stire them well, than put them into the firste bage, and let it ren, than put them in the second bagge, than take a peece in your hand and assay if it be stronge of Ginger, and alay it with sinamon, and if it be strong of sinamon, alay it with sugar, and look ye let it ren through sixe renners, and your ipocras into a close Vessel and keep the receit, for it will serve for sewers, than serve your souvraign with wafers and ipocras.
At this time most oriental spices were so expensive, that only the aristocracy and nobility were able to afford to drink hippocras. Taken at the end a meal with wafers and comfits as a digestive, it was most usually brought to table cold. Throughout Europe it was an important item in the court table ritual known as the void or issue de table. Later, when spices were more readily available, it became a popular drink at wedding and christening feasts. During the evolution of the banquet course during the Tudor and Jacobean course it was gradually displaced by stronger distilled and infused cordial waters, the ancestors of modern liqueurs. Because of its associations with rich living, hippocras was the favourite celebration tipple at most important occasions. In the first part of Thomas Heywood's play Edward IV, the army of the rebel Falconbridge plan to celebrate their invasion of London, by drinking draughts of hippocras from the cups chained to the public drinking fountains:
You know in Cheapside there are the Mercers shops, Where we will measure velvet by the pikes: And silks and sattens by the streetes whole bredth: Weele take the Tankards from the Conduit Cockes, To fill with Ipocras and drink carouse. Where chaines of gold and plate shall be as plentie, As wodden dishes in the wild of Kent.
The hippocras of Mediaeval and Elizabethan times was a rather syrupy drink, most usually sweetened with sugar, though honey was occasionally used. Sometimes it was scented with musk and ambergris, and fortified by adding brandy - usually in the proportion of a quarter of a pint to one gallon of wine. By the eighteenth century, it was considered an old-fashioned drink in England, though recipes lingered on in French confectionery books until the time of the Revolution, including one for teetotalers called hippocras sans vin.
Some More Recipes
Ipocras out of an old booke
Take a pottole of white or redd wyne and take a pynt of clarified honye: and mixe well the wyne and honye together in a clean pan, and you take 3 ozs of ginger, of pepper a quarter of an ounce, of good cynnimone 1 oz., saffron 1 oz., Spikenard of Spayn 1 oz., gallingale 1 oz., and make :all into pouder, and put it into the wyne and honye and medell them together, and you colour it with tumsole, and make it as red as you will: and pour it into a bagg and strain it through the bagg often tymes till it be clere, and so serve it forth.
From an early seventeenth century manuscript (Mss. Sloane 3690, ff 26b.).
To make an excellent aromaticall Hyppocras
Take of Cinnamon two ounces, Ginger an ounce, Cloves and Nutmegs of each two drams, of white Pepper half a dram, of Cardamums two drams: of Musk Mallow seed, three ounces. Let these be bruised, and put into a bag and hanged in six gallons of Wine. Note that you must put a weight in the bag to make it sink.
‘Some boyl these spices in Wine, which they then sweeten with sugar, and then let run through a Hyppocras bag, and afterwards bottle it up, and use when they please.
From John French The Art of Distillation (London: 1653)
To make red hippocrass
Pour a Gallon of Claret into an earthen Pan, ‘put in a Blade of Mace, a little long Pepper, four Grains of white Pepper, a Dram of Cinnamon, and a little Coriander-seed, all bruis'd apart; then put in two Pound of Sugar beaten, a Dozen Sweet Almonds stamp'd, and a Quarter of a Pint of Brandy: Cover them close, and let them stand to infuse, stirring them now and then: Then add about a Quarter of a Pint of Milk, and strain all through a Straining-bag; thus let the Bag be hung up, and a Vessel set under it to receive the Liquor; set the Mouth of the Bag open, put the Liquor in to run through three or four Times.'
From John Nott, The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary , (London: 1723).
Take 2 pints of good white wine, a pound of sugar, an ounce of cinnamon, a little Mace, 2 grains of whole white pepper, a lemon cut into quarters:
allow the whole to infuse for some time, then put your hippocras through the Sleeve of Hippocrates, which you should hang over a vessel to catch the liquid and hold it open by means of two small sticks: you let it run through 3 or 4 times: if your liquid does not clear readily add a half glass or glass of milk, which should help it. You can give this Hippocras the smell of Musk and Ambergris, if you wrap a little in a piece of cotton and attach it to the point of the bag while you are passing the liquid.'
A translation of a recipe in Massiolot's ‘Le Confiturier Royal' Paris 1791.
© Ivan Day 1977