So, this week’s experiment is posset. As before, I’ll start with a definition from the OED:
1. A drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor, flavoured with sugar, herbs, spices, etc., and often drunk for medicinal purposes (now hist.); a kind of syllabub made from similar ingredients. Freq. with distinguishing word.
Note the second related sense “a kind of syllabub made from similar ingredients” – if you’ve ever come across a posset on a menu or in a cookbook today it would have been one of these. Lemon posset is the most common – a quick search around the internet revealed this particularly lovely looking recipe:
What a beautiful blog, those pictures in particular put me to shame. I really must get myself a proper camera/learn how to take decent photos. While we’re looking at modern posset recipes, I bet this one is nice: http://www.carnation.co.uk/pudcasts/200807-lemon-posset?section=Recipes
I love condensed milk!
Anyway, carnation condensed milk was still a few hundred years away in the Early Modern Period, and posset was not the cold dessert we know of today. Instead, it was a warm, creamy, spiced drink that was commonly used as a cure-all.
“Oh my sides ake in my loines, in my bones? I ha more need of a posset of sacke, and lie in my bed and sweate, than to talke in musick:”
Westward Ho!, John Webster and Thomas Dekker, 1607
To use something akin to hot eggnog for medicinal purposes might seem odd, but I imagine the thinking lies in the alcohol having a sort of sedative or anesthetising effect, and the eggs being somehow nourishing. Hot milk feels calming, as a little girl I was often given warm milk and honey when I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I still have it now. I’m sure lots of us consider hot cocoa to be a relaxing or comforting drink.
Another thing I’ve noticed from recipe books is that posset is often used as a base for medicines, carrying other spices and medicial ingredients. William Bullein’s The Gouernement of Healthe (1558) mentions it often, for example suggesting that mint “sodden in posset al with fenill, it helpeth collike, it encreaseth vital sede”. Yes, increasing vital seed. I guess they’re talking libido rather than gardening there?
I have an ever-developing theory that in the late 16th and early 17th century particularly there was a certain amount of suspicion around various types of eating. I mentioned it last time with sweet foods in the The Witch, and I’m sure I’ll post more on this at some point, but I think there are definitely undertones of restorative foods being potentially sinister, and possibly having different effects to those intended. I leave you with this famous soliloquy from Lady Macbeth that I think highlights the fine line between administering medicine and “drugging”:
That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;
What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it:
The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms
Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg’d
That death and nature do contend about them,
Whether they live or die.
Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2
See the next post for the posset recipe!