Author Archive for John Smythe

Mint Juleps? Yarm!

Mint Juleps?  Yarm!

I was reading about bootleg bourbon and came across a note about the fermentation stage. Grind up a bunch of corn, mix with water, warm up, and then leave it in the woods to get stanky. Kind of like coming back from a week’s vacation to discover you forgot to wash out the polenta pot, except with bourbon, you do it on purpose. So that’s kind of gross, but it gets better.

Back in the day I baked lemon bars and forgot to cover them up before going to bed. I came back and there were tiny mouse footprints all over the lemon curd. Similarly, the bootleggers hop in their Charger and peace out back to their farm leaving a giant cauldron of corn goo in the woods. And approximately the same thing happens to the goo that happened to my lemon bars. Which, again, is kind of nasty. And, again, it gets better.

Possums being the horrible reprobates they are will find the corn mash, climb in, and start chomping. Unfortunately for the possums and also for the corn mash, they don’t hold their liquor too well. They have a tendency to get super drunk, pass out, and drown in the mash. But hey, a little possum never hurt anyone, right? So we’ll go ahead and distill the mash.

I shouldn’t like mint juleps, I really shouldn’t. Or any other cocktail made of bourbon. I know about the possums in the bootleg stills. I shouldn’t be able to calmly sip a julep from a sweating glass, but you know what? I can do it. No possum’s going to be the boss of me. And anyway, look at these gorgeous cups.

The julep has been around a long time. It shows up in Beeton’s. And I found a bunch of old recipes for various versions. Though I notice that neither of these use any possum bourbon:

Put into a tumbler glass some powdered sugar, a bunch of spear-mint, a wine-glass of sherry wine, the same quantity of brandy, and fill the tumber[sp] with broken ice.

Mint Julep
.–To equal quantities of rum, cognac, and sugar, add fresh mint, herb, and fill the glass half full with gin and water.

So what’s my point? Don’t have one. It’s summer. I’m going home and have a julep.

The Tea Trade

The Tea Trade

It’s hard for me to imagine England without tea.  High tea in the afternoon with scones, three kinds of jam, and terribly unsatisfying sandwiches.  The gentry taking tea in paper-thin porcelain cups after doing in a fox who seriously wasn’t asking for it.  John Cleese as some ridiculous character drinking his tea with his pinkie out so far, passerby are endangered.  But how’d it get that way?  Tea is from China, after all, half a world away.

The tea shrub (Camellia sinensis) is thought to be native to that part of the world where India, China, Burma and Tibet rub shoulders.  But it was first widely cultivated in China.  People have grown and drunk tea in China for so long that it’s origins are archaeological, rather than historical.  But for our purposes the important part is that when the British began trading with China, all the world’s tea was in China.

Cultivation of tea is a good deal more involved than say growing tomatos.  After propogation the tea plant requires pruning for ease of harvest and to get the maximum output.  Once picked, the tea requires several processing steps to produce a finished product.  Besides all of the worlds tea plants growing in China, so were all of the people who knew how to grow and process tea.  Europeans thought green tea and black tea came from different plants.  Botanists even went so far as naming two different tea plants, one black and one green.

The British would have to trade, but that wouldn’t turn out to be so easy.  Tea is a mountain plant, growing well as high as the foothills of the Himalayas.  Good tea growing geography is not so good for growing grain like wheat and rice, and tea was traditionally traded within china for food.  When the British trade ships arrived in China, the Chinese did not particularly need a new tea market, were not that excited at the prospect of British trade goods, and were not at all interested in cultural exchange.  Foreign traders were restricted to the port of Canton and the only trade good the Chinese would accept was silver, not something in over abundance in England.

With the almost complete disinterest China had in British traders and with the restrictions placed upon those traders, it’s a bit surprising that coffee didn’t become the caffinated beverage of choice in England.  But the history of Europe is not particularly harmonious.  The Portugese and Dutch traders were already established in the coffee growing regions of Africa and not at all interested in competition from the British East India Company.  The British had taken over large tracts of land in Ceylon to grow coffee.  But the plantations fell victim to a fungal epidimic, almost totally demolishing production.  So goodbye Ceylon, for now, but we’ll come to back to you in awhile.

Now back to Canton.  Paying silver for tea was expensive.  In a story reminiscent of the triangular trade of molasses for rum for slaves, the British hit upon growing opium in India to trade to China for tea which was then sold in England.  Part of the money from the sale of the tea was then used to pay for troops to maintain control in India. Troops were quite necessary to maintain control in India.  The opium was grown on land traditionally used for cotton or food production, leading to economic hardships for the Indian workers.

China was and is immensely large, populous, and tough.  It’s central government was quite well established.  The British East India Company was able to continue trading opium for tea in the face of Chinese objections.  But there was essentially no posibility of them colonizing China as they had done in India.  Up to this time, all the tea in China was still all the tea in the world.  But this was about to change.

Let’s now return to the ruined coffee plantations of Ceylon and the jungles of India.  A botanist named Robert Fortune managed to secure tea plants.  Using elephants and Indian laborers, they cleared vast areas of Indian jungle to plant tea gardens.  Eventually, the tea harvests of India and Ceylon rivaled those of China, which is kind of amazing considering that before the Victorian era, neither country grew any tea at all.  When I consider how the colonization of India effected British kitchens, I usually think of curry.  But that’s nothing compared to tea.

Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937
Tea: The Drink that Changed the World

Timeline of the Tea Trade

1557 Portugal trades with China at Macao
1600 British East India Co. chartered
1619 British East India Co. establishes factory in Western India
1657 Dutch trade tea in London
1662 Catherine of Braganza marries Charles II, bringing habit of tea drinking from Dutch capital to London. Marriage allows British access to trade routes controlled by Dutch
1669 First tea imported by British East India Co.
1685 All Chinese ports open for trade
1715 All Chinese ports except Canton closed
1729 Chinese edict against using opium
1750 > 10 million lbs. tea imported by British
1757 Battle of Plassey
1758 Parliament grants British East India Co. monopoly to produce opium in India
1796 British East India Co. switchs to trading tea for opium via independant traders
1799 Chinese edict against importing opium
1803 Anglo-Maratha conflicts begin
1805 Anglo-Maratha conflicts end
1830 Son of Chinese emperor dies of opium overdose
1834 British East India Co. monopoly on trading tea from China ends
1840 First Opium War begins
1842 First Opium War ends, Treaty of Nanking opens ports to British and cedes Hong Kong
1848 Conquest of the Sikhs in India
1848 Robert Fortune collects and ships to India twenty-thousand high-quality tea plants, in addition to instruction from 8 Chinese tea experts
1856 Second Opium War begins
1857 India becomes British colony
1858 Second Opium War ends, Treaty of Tientsin opens more ports and allows Christian missionaries into China
1862 2 million lbs lbs tea imported from India
1866 6 million lbs tea imported from India, 90% of British tea still from China
1869 Fungus begins killing coffee plants in Ceylon
1888 86 million lbs tea imported from India, for the first time more tea from India than China
1900 Tea replaces coffee as major crop in Ceylon
1911 End of opium shipments to China by British East India Co.

Grenadine in the 1800s

Grenadine in the 1800s

Bartenders have always seemed arcane to me.  They’re separated from the crowd by a waist-high wall surrounded by mysterious substances in bottles.  Ask them for a drink by a strange name like “Rusty Nail” or “Bay Breeze“, and they start pouring, stirring, and shaking moving so quickly who knows what went in.  And with a flourish, you receive a sweating glass.  Abracadabra, basically.

I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious ingredients that was present in Victorian cocktails.  I think of grenadine as sweetened food coloring.  Actually, these days that’s what it is.  Most bars in the States use Rose’s Grenadine, which is food coloring and corn syrup.  But in Victorian times, grenadine was fruit flavored syrup, usually made from pomegranate juice.  The name is from the French word for pomegranate, though it can be made from cherry, currant, or raspberry as well.  Regardless, it is always a red sweet-sour syrup.

Pomegranates trees were grown in glass houses in Victorian England.  But the climate wasn’t right for setting fruit out of doors.  Still, there were close-by sources of pomegranates to make grenadine syrup.  Pomegranate trees were planted widely all over the Mediteranean.  Grenada in southern Spain is even named after the pomegranate.  And something like a modern Italian soda made from grenadine syrup was available in France.  “…In the French cafes, the visitor will find a number of light beverages that will not compromise his health, such as the fruit syrups, Orgeat or Grenadine, with seltzer water…”

In modern times, pomegranates are known as a good source of antioxidants which are thought to have various health benefits.  Victorians didn’t know about antioxidants but they also considered pomegranates health food.  Lord Bacon recommended wine made from pomegranates as a remedy for liver problems.  And recipes for pomegranate syrup show up in druggist and pharmacist literature of the 1800s.  This is just a guess, but the use of grenadine in cocktails may possibly be an outgrowth of an older use as an aperitif or digestif.

Here’s the recipe I used to make pomegranate syrup:

  • 16 oz. pomegranate juice
  • 1/2 oz. lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. vanilla extract
  • 16 oz. syrup
  • sufficient soda foam

I couldn’t figure out what soda foam was, so I skipped it.  I’m hoping it was either a preservative of some kind, and keeping the syrup in the refrigerator will cover for it, or they just meant to serve the syrup with enough soda water to make a nice drink.  Syrup usually means simple syrup, but modern grenadine is insanely sweet.  So I went 3 to 1, water to sugar, instead of the usual 1 to 1.  The result was brown rather than red, started with a strong vanilla burst (I’d go with 1/4 oz. next time), and tasted fruity instead of New Jersey.

grenadine ingredients

grenadine ingredients

How did it work in cocktails?  First I made Italian sodas.  Those are just soda and syrup, so I thought it’d be easier to taste the difference.  The tasters could tell the difference, but generally liked New Jersey better.  They said it tasted a lot sweeter.  I assume that’s because of the corn syrup and because the Roses doesn’t have the sour ingredients like lemon and pomegranate.  The kid picked the bright red one because she liked the color better.

italian soda

italian soda

Next I made Singapore Slings from this recipe:

  • 2 shots gin
  • 1 shot cherry brandy
  • 1 shot lemon juice
  • 1 tsp grenadine

The tasters either couldn’t tell the difference or guessed wrong which was which.  Not surprising really.  Flavor-wise, there’s a lot going on in a Singapore Sling.

singapore sling

singapore sling

I’m a bit disheartened about how this turned out.  I love how classic bars still have weird ingredients that are made in a monastery from a secret combination of herbs.  Some of the inventors might have called themselves alchemists or wizards.  My sample size was two, but apparently people like corn syrup and food dye better than fruit juice and romantic history.

–update 5/5/2010–  I made another batch of grenadine with a lot less vanilla.  The flavor still came through extremely strong.  Apparently if you don’t want it to taste like vanilla, don’t put any in.  Yeah, I perhaps ought to have figured that out.  In other news, I gave most of the first batch to some friends of mine.  According to them, it makes amazing cherry cokes.  Which is strange because it contains no cherries.  The human tongue is a strange and wonderful creature, I guess.

Driving Six-Up Mushrooms

Driving Six-Up Mushrooms

I pickled some mushrooms per instructions in Beetons.  Why mushrooms, you might ask, rather than something standard like cucumbers?  Well, it’s February, and the cucumbers at the grocery are looking mangy and expensive, while the mushrooms look great, cozily tucked into their mounds of steaming horse manure.

Speaking of disease vectors, just then I caught a lovely virus.  It was pretty standard as these things go.  The usual getting kicked by a mule feeling the microbes are so good at.  One day of high fever followed by six days of low fever and dragging around like I’d given up caffeine.  I did switch from coffee to tea because in my weakened condition, I probably couldn’t fight off whatever is living in the urn at work.  How is my health related to pickles?  How are mule hooves related to bottoms.

When I healed up a bit, I took a bleary look at the jars.  I eat pickled mushrooms all of the time, but I’d never made any.  So when I made the ones from the Beetons recipe, I also made a batch with a modern recipe that looked reasonably close in terms of preparation and ingredients to the nineteenth century version.  I wanted some comparison so that if I ended up giving the Beetons mushrooms the raspberry, I’d know it wasn’t just because pickling mushrooms is really hard and I’d fouled up the recipe.

The modern recipe called for simmering the mushrooms in the pickling liquid, while the old-school recipe called for cooking them in a dry pan until they gave up their juices and continuing until those juices had dried back up.  That takes a lot longer and makes a pan that’s real hard to scrub out, the dried-out mushroom juice causes a lot of murk in the jar.  The modern recipe is hands-down easier and gives a prettier result, but how about flavor?

Mushrooms with salt and herbs

Mushrooms with salt and herbs

Spice-wise, Beetons calls for mace and nothing else.  The modern recipe has allspice, peppercorns, onion, and bay.  I liked the mixture of spices in the modern recipe a bit better, but the real deal breaker with the Beetons recipe was the pickling liquid.  The modern recipe calls for 1/3 vinegar with water making up the rest.  Beetons calls for pure paint-stripping vinegar.  Everyone who tried them said biting into the Victorian pickles was like a mule kick in the tongue.

Pickled mushrooms in the jar

Pickled mushrooms in the jar

To be fair, the Victorian recipe was designed to be shelf stable without canning, while the modern recipe has to stay in the fridge.  Old pickle recipes that use salt brine rather than vinegar used to require enough salt to float an egg.  That’s a ten-percent solution.  Pickles preserved in ten-percent salt brine would have needed a couple days soaking in fresh water to remove some of the salt before eating.  I’ll make more pickles as the fruits and vegetables come into season.  I imagine dealing with the kick of the strong salt or vinegar solutions will continue to be the major challenge.

Victorian Boat Drinks

Victorian Boat Drinks

Ah yachting in the Caribbean.  Blue sky, sun-drenched ocean, warm breeze through the sails, and something lovely in a coconut with an umbrella.  This is the life…or it will be this decade next century.  For now we’re in the British Navy of Queen Victoria (god bless her) sailing in a tall ship and our boat drinks are a bit more utilitarian.  Now get up those rat lines and reef the top gallants; there’s a blow coming.  Or you now, something like that.  Moving on.

Navy sailors generally had enough to eat and drink and it wasn’t all ship’s biscuits and salt pork, either.  Most ships spent from a third to a half of their time close enough to land to get fresh food and drink.  Everything from loading to maintenance to docking was done by hand and took a good deal longer than today’s landing of a container ship with the aid of a couple of diesel tugs, emptying out the holds with giant cranes, and warehousing the containers by computer management.  During the times they were close to shore, they made every effort to get fresh food, even carrying live cattle for eating en route to avoid dipping into preserved food a bit longer.

But when ships did put to sea, they could be out of touch with shore supplies for quite awhile.  By the Victorian era, marine chronometers were routine equipment aboard Royal Navy ships.  This meant navigation improved to the point that getting lost was unlikely.  Even so, 2 months sailing to cross the Atlantic wasn’t out of the ordinary.  In addition to sailing time, we’re talking about warships, which means when they get to their destination, there still may not be fresh food.  If they’re going to blockade a port or if the captain gets into a diplomatic tiff with the locals, re-supply from shore may be cut off, and they might still be eating salt pork.

While at sea, food could be stored without too much trouble.  Here’s a list of supplies Loaded onto the frigate Doris in the early 1800s:  “…the Doris was loaded with beef, pork, bread, flour, tobacco, butter, raisins, sugar, cocoa, peas, oatmeal, lime juice, lemon juice, red wine, brandy, and rum.” But water was a different matter.  After two months in a barrel, algae and slime will grow.  Might as well drink out of the fetid pond.  But mix in rum and lime juice and you’ll hardly notice the horror you’re consuming.  At least that’s the theory.

Grog was a combination of lemon or lime juice, water, rum, and cinammon.  It was served at noon every day as a 1/2 pint of rum mixed with a quart of water, for a 1:4 ratio.  Lauchlin Rose (of Rose’s mixers) had patented preserving citrus juice in 1867, and the vitamin C in the juice was added to the grog to prevent scurvy.  I imagine it helped with the whole tastes-like-drinking-out-of-the-pond-problem, as well.


19th Century Gator Aid

Grog was for ordinary sailors and ratings, though if I was an officer, I imagine I’d have had some.  But the midshipman and officers had at least one drink peculiar to themselves.  Pink gin was a mixture of Angostura bitters and gin.  The bitters was a cure for seasickness.  However the taste was, well, bitter.  Mixing with gin makes an interesting pinky-orange drink with the bitter taste mostly submerged underneath the feeling that you just bit a Christmas tree which is what drinking gin always reminds me of.

pink gin

Close-up of Pink Gin

After trying the pink gin and the grog, I definitely prefer the grog.  The gin was like a bitter martini, but the grog was a lightly alchoholic, mildly spicy thirst quencher.  Sort of a gator aid for 19th century.  Of course, I didn’t make it with pond water.

Christmas Punch

Christmas Punch

For Christmas dinner this year, I wanted to make a traditional Victorian punch.  My first step was Mrs. Beeton’s to get an idea for what was expected.  Her recipe is pretty standard.  (paragraph 1839)

  • 1/2 pint of rum
  • 1/2 pint of brandy
  • 1/4 lb. of sugar
  • 1 large lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoonful of nutmeg
  • 1 pint  of boiling water

OK, fair enough.  Half spirits and the other half water served hot with sugar, spice, and lemon.  That’s pretty-much a modern toddy recipe.  But after the punch recipe, Mrs.  Beeton goes on to list other ways of making punch.  She’s got everything from the same recipe except chilled, to punches based on wine, substituting 19th century lemon flavoring for the lemon, and even a recipe for mint juleps.  Hmmm, it sounds like I can I make whichever one I want and not go far wrong.

Punch recipes were brought to England from India early in the 1600s.  The basic recipe called for some type of booze, sweetener, citrus, water, and tea or spice.  Most punch in England was based on wines or on spirits native to Europe like brandy or whiskey.  But Jamaican rum was incorporated after it became available around 1655.  And punch recipes had traveled to the New World, returning as cocktails like the mint juleps Beeton mentions.

Hmm, so by Victorian times, punch could be hot or cold, based on wine or spirits, and incorporate a wide variety of mixers.  It could even have referred to a classic cocktail like a flip or the almost direct descendant of punch, the sour.  In that case, I believe I’ll have to make them all.  For the holidays, I decided to start with a classic Planter’s Punch, because I wanted something cold.  And all of the ingredients would have been available in a Victorian kitchen.

  • 6 parts rum
  • 3 parts lemon
  • 1 part grenadine ← This ingredient might be a stretch as the history of grenadine is a bit murky, but raspberry syrup would have been available which is pretty close in flavor and appearance.
  • dash bitters

And here’s the finished drink in all its glory.  It was delicious.

Planter's Punch

Here’s a flaming version of punch, which I need to try.  Everything’s better when it’s on fire.