In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay‘s recipe book to the Textual Communities site. Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this post and the next are the results of some of their research. – Rebecca Laroche
By Kayla Perkins
While transcribing a rather long recipe, “A good Receyte to make matheglin” from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript, I came across a peculiar phrase, “. . .toe hundred gallans of fayre water or more. . .” Two hundred gallons?! Even now that would be quite a feat. Why so much water? This question drove me to discover what Metheglin is and if using such amounts of water was common practice.
Metheglin is a spiced or medicated variety of mead, originally popular in Wales. Starting with the Wellcome’s amazing cache of recipe manuscripts, I first compared Catchmay’s recipe to six others. Each recipe I read through made Catchmay’s preparation more unique, and they were all variants of each other. Despite the variants, however, there are aspects that each of the recipes share.
For instance, in preparing Metheglin, the two main ingredients are equal parts honey and water boiled together. They are continually boiled until the mixture can ‘bear an egg.’ Catchmay does not include this step within her recipe, which places hers in the minority. For each recipe, the quantities of honey and water vary quite a bit. Where Catchmay calls for two hundred gallons of water, the recipes of Mrs. Carr call for just five gallons, and another recipe calls for just a few quarts.
An assortment of herbs and spices is then added to the brew, the most common among the recipes being ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Catchmay is again differentiating here; her preparation does not call for just a handful of herbs. She has the longest, most detailed list for ingredients required. Not only does she advise when it is best to gather these herbs; she also provides directions on how to clean and prepare said herbs.
While the Metheglin is fermenting one has to periodically skim barm off the top. The liquid is then stored in a variety of containers with directions on how long it keeps and when it should be consumed. Thanks to the honey, Metheglin keeps for quite a while. I believe that is why Catchmay chose to prepare such large batches.
Each recipe shows the different levels of what the compiler expects from her reader. Catchmay is extremely detailed with her ingredients, how they should be prepped, and gives an almost exhaustive description of Metheglin’s preparation. The Jacob recipe, however, is not overly detailed. While, one would like to assume that Catchmay was able to read through and gain inspiration from the others. This is not the case as Catchmay’s manuscript dates to around 1625 and the earliest (Elizabeth Jacobs) of the other recipes is dated at 1654. The six recipes in the Wellcome catalog that I read through share too many similarities for it to be coincidence. I believe Catchmay’s recipe was either isolated from or improved on by others. Either way, it is fascinating to see the uniqueness of the recipes and how each preparer made it her/his own. After becoming familiar with the ingredients, I can see Metheglin being a comforting beverage for these coming winter months. Bottoms up!
 Catchmay advises the herbs be picked around the time of Michaelmas and Lammas. Lammas takes place around the 1st of August and is celebrated by baking bread taken from the first harvest. Michaelmas takes place near the end of September, for the feasts of St. Michael. I can see this period of the year being used to stock up for the cold months ahead.