Friday, December 26, 2008

Rock Out with Your Cock Ale

Trup: Nay, nay, no more sobrietie than will do us good; but that's all one. Look ye, Mr. Spruce, for your wine I don’t love it; and for your ale ye have not a drop in London worth drinking; that's the short on’t.

Spr: How Mr. Trupenny, not a drop worth drinking? Did you ever taste our cock-ale?

Trup: Cock-ale? no; what's that?

Spr: Why there you shew your ignorance. Look ye, sir, I lay ye five pound you shall say, ye never tasted the like in the country.

~ The Woman Turned Bully (1675)
Attributed to Aphra Behn

With a recent post on a 300-year-old drink called negus, I intended to reach back into the misty past of drinking history. Rick Stutz over at Kaiser Penguin has stretched just a bit further with a recipe for Cock Ale. Yeah, with a real cock. Well, a chicken, anyway. The farm-to-table crowd argues about just such semantics.

As an erstwhile homebrewer and incorrigible book hound, I know that recipe well. My thoroughly annotated college-era copy of Charlie Papazian’s old Complete Joy of Homebrewing and its infernally bad index is dog-eared from once-constant reference. Papazian lifted it from Edward Spencer who yoiked it from Eliza Smith whose The Complete Housewife was the first cookbook published in America. The recipe’s been around.

Until Rick’s post, though, I hadn’t known of anyone actually making it. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m leery of flesh in my cups—bacon-infused bourbon and whatnot—but anyone setting a mug of cock ale in front of me will soon be faced with an empty mug. By all reports from the 17th and 18th centuries, the stuff was eminently quaffable.

The inclusion of animals in beverages is an old, old practice (whole or parts, live or dead), but has faded almost entirely away. Brewers weren’t the only ones in on the game: When Smith’s book was printed, personal stills were already popular both in North America and England where, in fact, one of the duties of a responsible wife was managing the household still. Cock water was a natural. Also snail water, but we’ll let that one slide.

The practice may be on the ropes, but it hasn't faded entirely away. Del Maguey released, as part of its single-village bottlings of Mexican spirits, Pechuga, a triple-distilled mescal distilled with a chicken breast suspended in the still. The stuff is pricey when you can find it, but I admit I’m curious.

Until I score a bottle, I have this recipe, typical of the mid-18th century, from a handwritten household recipe book once in the collection of Chef Fritz Blank, but now at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I included it in Moonshine, it was primarily as an historical curiosity. Might have to rethink that after prodding from a Penguin…

Cock Water

Take a red Cock from ye Barn’s door, pull it, take out ye Intrals & break all ye Bones, have in readiness of Rosemary, hops and Broad Time each 1 handful, red Pimpernel 2 handfuls, Raisins of ye Sun ston’d half a pound, Dates pick’d and ston’d a qtr of a pound, Currans wash’d and rubb’d dry a pound, Canary sack 2 qts; first lay most of ye herbs in ye bottom of ye still, then put in ye Cock, lay the fruit all about it, put ye rest of ye herbs over it, & pour ye sack in by ye sides, cover and past it close, begin the fire betimes & keep a constant heat under it. You may draw somewhat above 3 pints of very good; mix and sweeten if with Sugar-Candy to yr Liking.

Goes well with:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gift of the Negi

Hogsheads of honey, kilderkins of mustard,
Muttons, and fatted beeves, and bacon swine;
Herons and bitterns, peacocks, swan, and bustard,
Teal, mallard, pigeons, widgeons, and in fine
Plum-puddings, pancakes, apple-pies, and custard:
And therewithal they drank good Gascon wine,
With mead, and ale, and cider of our own;
For porter, punch, and negus were not known.

John Hookham Frere (1817)
Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers

~ ~ ~

In 1817 when Frere gushed on about a Christmas feast set before King Arthur in his mock-heroic Prospectus and Specimen, porter, punch, and negus were all the rage among his English audience. Two hundred years on, you have your pick of porters at any well-stocked bottle shop while punch—whether milk, planter’s, or Hawaiian—is hardly in danger of extinction.

The preparation of negus, however, though not wholly unknown to savvy imbibers, has fallen into neglect. Like eggnog, the port wine-based tot is a seasonal affair, creeping out of its obscurity once the veil of winter has descended, letting us know that Christmas is on us.

With the nation vexed by inclement weather and even sunny San Diego beset with cold nights and biting showers, when bamboo freighted with rain arcs nearly to the ground, what’s called for is liquor. And why not a mug of hot wine to send warming tendrils of boozy nutmeg goodness throughout the body? A mug? Make a Thermos full if you’re feeling punchy.

Through my early drinking years, port was linked in my mind inextricably to the English who, especially in the works of Dickens, seemed to guzzle the Portuguese fortified wine with alarming frequency. As far as I was concerned, they could keep it. Too sweet, too strong, it called to mind overpriced Mad Dog.

I’ve since learned two things. First, I had been sampling crap port—less porto than wino. Second, it turns out that, just as sweet tea explains itself best in the complementary presence of vinegar-based barbecue sauces, port shines in the company of other things—England’s justly famed Stilton cheese, for instance, or mellow cigars. As the British lieutenant-colonel Francis Negus* (d. 1732) discovered, port marries handsomely with citrus and spices. For three hundred years, the drink bearing his name has been almost an exclusively British concern. According to Oxford University Press’s 1894 The Dictionary of National Biography,
It is related that on one occasion, when the bottle was passing rather more rapidly than good fellowship seemed to warrant over a hot political discussion, in which a number of prominent whigs and tories were taking part, Negus averted a fracas by recommending the dilution of the wine with hot water and sugar. Attention was diverted from the point at issue to a discussion of the merits of wine and water, which ended in the compound being nicknamed ' negus.'
There are other origin stories, but all surround this same Francis Negus. A majority of 19th-century texts, while allowing for variants, go on to concur that a proper negus calls for five ingredients;
  • A large measure of port wine
  • Lemon
  • Sugar
  • Boiling water
  • Nutmeg
Lemon is occasionally supplemented with orange and nutmeg with cinnamon (or more exotic ambergris). Unlike glögg, Glühwein, or mulled wine—revitalizing hot nips from northern climes—negus is made hot by the addition of boiling water rather than heating the wine itself. Wouldn’t want to lose all that Brumalian ethanol to the open air, after all.

So there you have it—wine, lemon, and sugar mixed together, heated with the addition of boiling water, and dusted with nutmeg. As ancient a yuletide beverage as you’re likely to find—And its health benefits are not to be denied: in The Gentleman's Magazine (1822), John Sinclair recommended negus on sea voyages to lessen "the puking."

I offer you two personal negi here, and no puking: one in the style of Mrs. Isabella Beeton (who presented a weaker negus intended for drinking “at children’s parties”—way to go, Mrs. B.) and another after M.E. Steedman, writing for more manly constitutions. Though Beeton’s recipe is the more widely disseminated, Steedman’s is the better. Both are sweet by modern tastes, so feel free to ease your foot off the sugar pedal. Their original recipes and proportions follow.

Negus in the Style of Mrs. Beeton
for a Brace of Victorian Children

4 oz. port (Sandeman Founder’s Reserve)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. lemon juice
1 oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
8 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*

Pre-heat a sixteen-ounce ceramic mug or other container by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel, lemon juice, and sugar and muddle together. Add the port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. Cover or close until slightly cooled, then dish out into separate smaller mugs.

Yield: 12 oz

Negus in the Style of Steedman
4 oz. port (Sandeman Ten Year Tawny)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
4 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*
1-3 drops vanilla extract, optional
(alternately, one or two of essence of ambergris, if you’re feeling flush)

Yield: 8 oz

Pre-heat a ten-ounce ceramic mug by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel and sugar and muddle together with a splash of port if necessary. Add the remaining port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. If using the vanilla or ambergris, now’s the time to add it. Give it a stir and drink when it’s cool enough to down.

Nutmeg: The prodigious amounts of nutmeg called for in older recipes don’t necessarily indicate a fanaticism for the taste (“Oh, them old-timey cooks spiced up everything really high ‘cause the meat was rotten.”). Consider another reason—We’re accustomed to fairly high turnover in spices, but in 1723, 1891, and even 1958, a nutmeg could be years old by the time it reached our ancestors. Quite simply, much of the aromatic oils had dissipated by the time they reached the kitchen or bar, so it was necessary to oomph up the volume to wrest much taste from old dry spice. Feel free to de-oomph it to your own preferences now that we have access to less vintage provisions.

Pronunciation: Everyone familiar with it is agreed that the port wine-based drink is pronounced nay-gus. Everyone except William Makepeace Thackeray who informs us, by way of Edwin Hewett and W.F. Axton in Convivial Dickens (1983), that it’s nee-gus. Nay-gus seems more likely, but given the British penchant for surprising pronunciations (even of my surname among blood relatives in those parts), I wouldn’t rule it out at this juncture.

Original Recipes

Isabella Beeton (1861) Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
To Make Negus

1835. To every pint of port wine allow one quart of boiling water, ¼ pound of sugar, one lemon, grated nutmeg to taste.

Mode. – As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to ¼ lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar in the lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled little, it will be fit to use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but it is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient. – Allow one pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of nine or 10 children.

19th Century bon vivant Jerry Thomas—as near to a patron saint of cocktails as Americans come—steals his negus recipe verbatim from Beeton’s Book of Household Management (though, to be fair, so did dozens of writers: recipe plagiarism is an old and well-honed craft and poor Mrs. Beeton has been shamelessly plundered; she may, in fact, have done some negus plundering herself).

William “The Only William” Schmidt, however, gives a few takes on it in his 1891 bartending guide The Flowing Bowl, one with port and another with claret (the English term for red Bordeaux wines):
394. Negus.

This beverage is of English origin, and there very highly estimated; it derives its name from its inventor, the English Colonel Negus.

Put the rind of half a lemon or orange in a tureen, add eight ounces of sugar, one pint of port wine, the fourth part a small nutmeg–grated; infuse this for an hour; strain; add one quart of boiling water, and the drink is ready for use.
395. Another.

In other countries they are used to take lighter wines. The recipe follows: put two bottles of claret, two sticks cinnamon, six cloves, a little pulverized cardamom, a little grated nutmeg, and a half a pound of sugar, one which you have previously rubbed the rind of a lemon, on a slow fire; cover well, and heat to the boiling-point; strain through a hair-sieve; add one pint of boiling water, and the juice of one and a half lemons, and serve in strong glasses, that are first warmed. [all sic]

M.E. Steedman (n.d. c 1890’s) Home-made Beverages and American Drinks gives us a more fortified version:
Rub 3 oz. of loaf sugar on to the rind of a lemon, pound it, and add to it a pint of port, a quarter of a small nutmeg grated, a pint of boiling water, and if liked one or two drops of essence of ambergris or rather more of vanilla. Serve hot.

Jerry Thomas also offers bubbly version:
Soda Negus
A most refreshing and elegant beverage, particularly for those who do not take punch or grog after supper, is thus made:

Put half a pint of port wine, with four lumps of sugar, three cloves, and enough grated nutmeg to cover a shilling, into a saucepan; warm it well, but did not suffer it to boil; pour it into a bowl or jug, and upon the warm wine decant a bottle of soda water. You will have an effervescent and delicious negus by this means.

George IV’s Negus

Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictum regarding port comes to mind: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” And if one commingles port and brandy? Surely such a drinker must aspire to majestic heights of masculinity. From the premier issue of the The Portfolio of Entertaining & Instructive Varieties in History, Literature, Fine Arts, Etc. (1829) comes this blurb about a massive negus made for the Hanoverian King George IV.
ON Monday last the magnificent wine cooler manufactured for his Majesty by Messrs Rundell and Bridge, was, with his Majesty's approbation, filled with port negus at the manufactory in Dean-street that the workmen employed in its construction might toast his Majesty's health on the completion of their work.

This splendid vase weighs 6950 ounces, and contains 38 gallons. There were used in making the negus sixteen gallons of old port, one gallon of brandy, eight dozen lemons six dozen nutmegs, and 20 lbs of loaf sugar.
What's interesting to me about this one is the addition of the brandy—and the lack of any mention of boiling water. Perhaps it merely assumed, given the not quite double capacity of the vessel compared with the volume of the listed ingredients, but knowing a fair number of workmen myself—and the seeming absence of the king during the toasting—I wouldn't be shocked if it had been omitted entirely. Tuesday last might've been a painful day for those toasters...

The Academy of Ancient Beverages
Negus isn’t the only venerable Christmas drink around. Short of milking a cow right into the syllabub bowl, here are some others to get your yuletide motor turning...


Sunday, December 14, 2008

M’Harry’s Holland Gin

In 1809 Pennsylvania distiller Samuel M’Harry published his Practical Distiller, a small tome intended to set forth, as plainly as the language of the time allowed, directions for American distillers using the materials available to them to create American spirits and, in some cases, to emulate spirituous liquors from abroad. The book was, in not very subtle ways, very pro-American.

At the same time, M’Harry sought to clear away the myths and secrecy surrounding distilling and to advance it as an understandable science rather than a mysterious process that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. His techniques and recipe styles—even if improved upon by later advances in still designs—informed American moonshining for the better part of two centuries.

His recipes for working with corn, rye, apples, and peaches would be as familiar to Appalachian moonshiners even into the 1970’s. They can be forgiven if his buckwheat spirits failed to continue in American folk distilling. I’m curious about it myself, but have not yet come across even modern home distillers who are experimenting with buckwheat. Perhaps it was a Pennsylvania thing.

His recipe for “Holland” gin—that is, the jenever or genever coming back into tentative vogue—gives an idea of how distillers these 200 years ago sought to emulate popular foreign liquors with very local ingredients (remember, Pennsylvania has long been rye country).

How to make a resemblance
of Holland Gin out of Rye Whiskey

Put clarified whiskey, with an equal quantity of water, into our doubling still, together with sufficient quantity of juniper berries, prepared; take a pound of unslacked lime, immerse it in three pints of water, stir it well—then let it stand three hours, until the lime sinks to the bottom, then pour off the clear lime water, with which boil half an ounce of isinglass cut small, until the latter is dissolved—then pour it into your doubling still with a handful of hops, and a handful of common salt, put on the head and set her a running; when she begins to run, take the first half gallon (which is not so good), and reserve it for the next still you fill—as the first shot generally contains something that will give an unpleasant taste and color to the gin. When it looses proof at the worm, take the keg away that contains the gin, and bring it down to a proper strength with rain water, which must previously have been prepared, by having been evaporated and condensed in the doubling still and cooling tub.

This gin when fined, and two years old, will be equal, if not superior, to Holland gin.

The isinglass, lime water and salt, helps to refine it in the still, and the juniper berries gives it the flavor or taste of Holland gin.

About thirteen pounds of good berries are sufficient for one barrel.

Be careful to let the gin as it runs from the worm, pass thro’ a flannel cloth, which will prevent many unpleasant particles passing into the liquor, which are contracted in the condensation, and the verjuice imbibed in its passage thro’ the worm.

* Yeah, yeah: the genever bottle label is from the wrong century. It's one I picked up for a pittance at a paper ephemera show a few years back. It is, however, the kind of label that would have been printed in bulk and slapped on—gasp—American emulations of foreign spirits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Criminal Matt and the Bitter Bidders

It’s 5:09am and here I am again at the airport, wrapping up another work week in Florida on a complex project with a tight turnaround and lots of moving parts. Long days, not nearly enough sleep, barely any time to answer personal emails. A folder marked with the topic and my name seemed especially to fit my mood: How can an entire week go by without committing some kind of crime?

But there have been a few great moments: eating some fantastic meals in Kansas City on the way here in a Calvin-Trillin-let’s-pick-up-something-to-eat-on-the-way-to-lunch type of approach; a mouse barreling into a meeting leading grown women to shriek and, quite literally, jump onto chairs, and a whole “free” afternoon one day (tip: do not “peek” at your email before an anticipated nap unless prepared to deep-six plans for said nap).

An then a linguistics lesson—I’ve been reminded that Americans are not as precise in some pronunciations as we’d like to think. Years ago, a friend from France pointed out that Americans often pronounce T’s as D’s. Take, for instance, the word “little.” Many Americans seem to pronounce it as “liddle” but we almost all understand the meaning.

Now take “bitters.” As are more and more people these days, I’m a fiend for cocktail bitters—even dosing my morning orange juice with Angostura and making many of my own batches. In the midst of a procurement analysis, talk of “bidders” is fast and loose. It’s testament to my drinking geekery that talk about “the most qualified bidders” still gets my instant attention followed immediately with the slightest of fallen crest.

With all the smoke breaks folks take, I’m thinking a cocktail break is much better suited to conducting bidness in Florida. With a splash of bidders—the most qualified, if you please.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bookshelf: Pickled

A popular conceit holds that only the freshest in-season foods should grace our tables for proper, healthful and, let’s face it, morally sound meals. Unchecked, such policies might leave us bereft of such preserved pleasures as martini olives, colonial-era rum shrubs, country hams, lowcountry atjar, chow-chows, and pickled okra to grace bloody mary cocktails. Lucy Norris soundly plugs this philosophical bunghole with Pickled, her paean to the brined, fermented, and otherwise mildly rotten foods we can’t live without.

Pickled weaves oral histories gathered for New York’s NY Food Museum project among some eighty family recipes documenting ethnic picking traditions. The celebrated pickles of Eastern Europe’s winter larder—dills, beets, sauerkraut—bob to the surface, but Norris successfully dips deeper for fried dills, watermelon flesh (the other watermelon pickle), Korean kimchis, pickled fish, and preserved lemons.

Whether you regard them as summer in a jar or corruption in the cupboard, do yourself a favor: Make pickles before winter sets in for good. None of Norris’ recipes holds universal appeal—pickled duck tongues, anyone?—but the book is a gem for sensible cooks willing to buck a trend that implies pickles are déclassé, too much trouble or, worst of all, just plain make you a bad person.