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A Guide to Hippocras Spices


A survey by the author of a large number of hippocras recipes has revealed that in addition to the commonly used spices; cinnamon, pepper, cloves, grains of paradise and ginger, sometimes other ingredients were added to the gyle mixture. The following is a guide to these spices.

Bay leaves are the evergreen leaves of the bay laurel (Launis nobiis L.). This well-known herb was some­times used to flavour hippocras.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum L.). The dried unripe berries (peppercorns) of a handsome, climbing shrub native to Southern India and Malabar, but cultivated throughout Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago. They are black and wrinkled on the outside and contain a single, greyish, starchy seed with a pungent taste and aromatic odour. A resin called chavicin, a volatile oil and a substance known as pipenne give pepper its distinctive odour and hot biting taste. Black peppercorns have been used as a condiment in Europe since the fifth century AD, and were added to hippocras for their ability to stimulate appetite and aid digestion.

Calamus — also known as sweet flag, sweet sedge, Calamus aromaticus and gladdon — is a reed-like member of the cuckoo-pint family with aromatic rhizomes and foliage, known to botanists as Acorus calamus L. It grows along riverbanks in Southern England and was once gathered as a strewing herb. In Norfolk, where it flourishes, it is still sometimes used for thatching cottages and churches. Its sweet fragrant odour is due to a bitter volatile oil, which is extracted from the rhizomes and used in the perfume industry. A celebrated drug since ancient times, calamus is still prescribed in India and China for dyspepsia. The bruised rhizome was probably included in hippocras gyle for its fragrance and carminative properties.

Canella, white cinnamon, white wood, West Indian wild cinnamon (Canella alba Murr.). A pale fawny brown bark — usually sold in quills — with an agreeable cinnamon-like aroma and bitter taste. It is stripped from the trunk and branches of a tree native to the Bahamas and Florida. The canell mentioned in the hippocras recipe from The Booke of Carving and Sewing could not have been white cinnamon, as it was not introduced into Britain until 1600. At this period canell referred to cinnamon or cassia bark. True canella was formerly used for treating dyspepsia.

Caraway seeds , or Alcaravea , are the slightly curved, brownish fruits of the umbelliferous herb Carum carvi L . They release an agreeable, aromatic odour when crushed and have a quick, distinctive taste. They are often used to flavour ‘seed cake', and were once the chief ingredient of sugared comfits. Cara­way seeds were added to hippocras, though only rarely, for their carminative and stimulating properties.

Cardamoms are the aromatic fruits of Eleterria cardamomum (Maton.), a reed-like member of the ginger family with large, fleshy rhizomes, cultivated in India. The pale, brownish-green fruits are divided into three cells, each containing two rows of small, dark brown seeds, which possess a powerful, aromatic odour. In mediaeval and renaissance times, the fruits of other members of the ginger family were also known as cardamoms — notably Amomum globosum, A. subulatum and augustifolia. True cardamoms contain an aromatic volatile oil, which is much valued as a flavouring agent. One of the most important ingredients of hippocras gyle, they were esteemed for their distinctive aroma and stomachic properties.

Carpobalsamum, balsam seed, balsam fruits. This exotic spice has always been rare, and is almost impossible to obtain nowadays. It consists of the reddish-grey, pea-sized fruits of the balsam tree (Commiphora opobalsamum Engi.), a member of the Burseraceae native to Saudi Arabia and Somalia. They have an agreeable balsamic odour and taste, and were sometimes used to flavour hippocras.

The small shrubby tree, which produces carpo­balsamum is also the source of an extremely fragrant resin, formerly known as Balsam of Judaea or Balm of Gilead. This white liquid balsam was once very much esteemed by the Turks, who controlled its distribution and sale. It was considered such a valu­able commodity, that the trees were guarded at night by armed jamsaries. ‘A Friend of mine,' wrote Pomet in his History of Druggs (1737), ‘who had been at Grand Cairo, assu'rd me, that they could not get a sight of these Shrubs, which are defended with very high Walls, as well as Soldiers, from any Christians entering.'

Cassia, cassia bark, Cassia lignea, Chinese cinnamon. A reddish-brown bark with a cinnamon-like odour, but a hotter taste. It is peeled from a kind of laurel tree native to China (Cinnamomum cassia Blume), and is used as a substitute for true cinnamon. It was added to hippocras for its spicy flavour and carmina­tive qualities. This type of cassia must not be confused with Cassia fistula L., a close relative which provides the long, dark brown pods known as pudding pipes, esteemed for their mild laxative properties. The dried unripe fruits of C. cassia - cassia buds were occasionally employed as a hippocras spice.

Cinnamon . The laurel-like tree which provides us with cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum Nees.) is a native of Sri-Lanka, but is now cultivated in many other tropical countries. Its fine aromatic odour was an essential requisite of a good hippocras, and there are very few recipes which do not include it. Its delicious flavour and aroma is almost entirely due to the presence of an essential oil.

Cloves, Cariophyllorum . This well known spice consists of the dried, immature flower buds of Eugenia caryophyllata Thunb, a small, evergreen tree native to the Molluca Islands, though a large proportion of the world's supply now comes from Zanzibar and Madagascar. It is an important in­gredient of hippocras, but if used in large quantities, tends to dominate the flavours of the other spices.

Coriander seeds are the small spherical fruits of the umbelliferous plant Coriandrum sativum L. They have a distinctive odour and were often included as an ingredient of hippocras gyle. ‘Coriander', says one old dispensatory, ‘comforts a cold and moist Stomach, helps Digestion, stops Vomiting, kills Worms, and stops all fluxes: after Meat it closes the Mouth of the Stomach, and suppresses Vapours that would hurt the head.' William Salmon, The New London Dispensatory (London: 1696)

Cubebs , sometimes called tailed pepper, are the dried berries of a climbing shrub native to Java and neighbouring islands (Piper cubeba L.). They are similar to black peppercorns, but have a short, narrow stalk, thus their other name. Less pungent than pepper, they nevertheless have a unique spicy taste and a distinctive aroma. During the Middle Ages, they were a very popular condiment. Cubebs were added to hippocras, not only for their distinctive spicy flavour, but also for their ability to ‘strengthen a cold and moist stomach' and to dispel flatulence.

Galingale , sometimes spelt galangal or gallingal , depending on the antiquity of the recipe, was a popular spice in mediaeval times and deserves to be used much more today. Its strange name is corrupted from the Arabic khalanjan, meaning ‘mild ginger'. It is in fact, the rhizome of a close relative of ginger, native to China and Java. Though it has been imported into Europe for more than a thousand years its botanical origin was not discovered until 1870, and the plant source described as Alpinia officinarum (Hance.). Though it possesses a pungent, spicy flavour, it was chiefly added to hippocras for its carminative properties. Some old authorities considered it to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Ginger (sometimes gingiberis ) is the rhizome of a perennial reed-like plant (Zingiber officinale Rosc.) native to Asia, but now extensively cultivated in Africa, Jamaica and other West Indian islands. All parts of the plant possess an agreeable, highly distinctive odour, but the rhizome is considered the most useful part. This aroma is due to the presence of a volatile oil and some fragrant resins. The fresh or dried rhizome was bruised and added to hippocras for the benefit of its flavour and stimulating qualities.

Grains of paradise, grana Paradisi, ginny grains, ginny pepper, guinea grains, grains, grenes, greater cardamom, meleguata pepper . The small glossy seeds of a reed-like member of the ginger family (Afromo­mum meleguata Rosc.) native to tropical West Africa. They are hard, reddish brown, and have a biting aromatic taste, suggestive of a blend of ginger, eucalyptus and cayenne pepper. An ex­tremely popular spice in mediaeval times, grains of paradise are sadly not much used today. One of their principal uses in the mediaeval kitchen was for flavouring hippocras, and there were not many early recipes which excluded them. They were also employed in medicine as a stimulant. ‘They break the stone', wrote one old author, ‘provoke Urine and the Terms, help Coughs, Colds, Asthma's, expel Wind, ease the Cholick, kill Worms, and are an antidote against Poyson.'

Long pepper. Once this black, catkin-like spice was considered the finest pepper of all, but it has sadly fallen into disuse. It is the dried, unripe fruit of Piper longum L., and was formerly exported from Java, India and the Phillipines in great quantities. Long pepper is milder than the other peppers, and has an agreeable odour. It was one of the most im­portant ingredients of hippocras, and was also used to flavour another spicy compounded wine known as muskadine. Widely used in traditional medicine, it was thought to cause appetite, provoke urine and help weak sight.

Mace, macis, Arillus myristicae. This pleasantly aromatic spice is the dried, orange-brown husk (arillus) , which surrounds the seed of the nutmeg. It is harvested from a small evergreen tree (Myristica fragrans Houtt.) native to the Molluca Islands, but now cultivated in Zanzibar and the West Indies. Like most spices used to flavour hippocras, mace was considered to be a digestive stimulant.

Musk seeds, musk mallow seeds, Abel-musk, amber seed, ketmia grains, Kermia Aegyptiaca . The small aromatic seeds of the Target-leaved hibiscus (Hibiscus abelmoschus L.), a member of the mallow family cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical countries - chiefly Egypt, India and the West Indies. An ex­pensive volatile oil (ambrette oil) is separated from them by distillation. The Egyptians chew these seeds in order to sweeten their breath. They were occasionally added to hippocras for their musk-like odour and stomachic properties.

Nutmeg, Nux moschata, Nuces moschatae. The dried kernel of the seed of Myristica fragrans (Houtt.) (see mace). This well known spice was bruised and added to hippocras for its ability to ‘cause a sweet Breath, quicken the Sight; comfort the Stomach, strengthen the Liver, ease the paine of the Spleen, expel Wind, stop Lasks, and help against all cold Diseases.'

Rosemary, compass plant, polar plant (Rosmarinus officinale L.). Though it has been cultivated in England since the early mediaeval period, this marvellous evergreen herb is a native of the Medi­terranean region. One of the four cordial herbs, rosemary was used to flavour beer-cups, metheglin, syllabubs and possets. Rosemary flower wine ( Vinum Anthosatum ) was said to ‘comfort the Head, Stomach and Heart'. It was one of the few fresh herbs occasionally added to hippocras.

Saffron is probably the most expensive spice, as it takes about 60,000 saffron crocus flowers to make 1lb. It consists of the dried stigmas of Crocus sativus L., and was added to hippocras, though rarely, for its peculiar odour and alleged carminative properties.

Spikenard, nardi indkae, nard, Indian spike. Always a rare and costly spice in Europe, spikenard has been highly valued since ancient times as an aromatic and medicinal drug. It consists of the rootstock and lower stem of Nardostachvs jatamansi DC, a valerian-­like plant native to Kashmir, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. It was often called portingale spikenard or Spanish spikenard, because it was shipped from the Orient in Portugese vessels, It was probably added to hippocras for its fragrance. Spikenard is hardy in Britain and is easily cultivated in ordinary garden soil.

Turnsole is a purple dyestuff, formerly much used as a food colouring, especially for jellies. It is obtained from the fruits of Chrozophora tinctoria L., a member of the spurge family native to the Mediterranean. The green juice of the fruits was pressed out with a roller and coarse linen rags were allowed to soak it up. These were dried, and on exposure to air or ammonia fumes, turned a beautiful purple colour. Turnsole was once much cultivated in the South of France, but is rarely met with in modern times, due to the wide­spread use of synthetic dyes. It was used to give extra colour to hippocras and other compounded wines: ‘With the seed of the smal Tornesoll - . .‘ wrote Henry Lyte in 1585 , ‘they die and stayne old linnen cloutes and ragges into a purple colour wherewithall in this countrey, men use to colour gellies, wynes, fyne confeciones and comfittes.'

White pepper is from the same plant as black pepper (Piper nigrum L.). White peppercorns however, are the ripe fruits of this leafy plant. They are macerated in water, divested of their outer skins by rubbing and then dried in the sun. White peppercorns are more pungent than the black owing to the larger quantities of oleo-resin they contain. Their medicinal properties were considered to be identical with those of black pepper, and they were added to hippocras for the same reasons.

© Ivan Day 1977

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