“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.


Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.

 

Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part II

In The Queen-Like Closet (1670), Hannah Woolley publishes a second recipe, “To make Chaculato,” that is radically different from her earlier one for chocolate in The Ladies Directory (1662) and from those coming from Spain and the New World.[1] The reconfiguration, I think, indicates the development of English trade systems and colonial ventures in America. This second recipe, much more fully than her first one, amalgamates the local with the global, the English with the Continental, and the European with the New World. It thus modifies the entire recipe for the changing English tastes:

To make Chaculato

Take half a pint of Clarret Wine, boil it a little, then scrape some Chaculato very fine and put into it, and the Yokes of two Eggs, stir them well together over a slow Fire till it be thick, and sweeten it with Sugar according in your taste. (QLC 104)

For this adapted New World drink, Woolley’s recipe begins with French claret wine, into which she grates the American chocolate, adds local English egg yolks, and then sweetens the mixture with Caribbean sugar. Beginning in the sixteenth century, England imported a particular red wine from Bordeaux that the English called claret. In the seventeenth century, however, a new tax law against the importation of French wine had made claret more rarified and expensive, and therefore more desirable.[2] Woolley’s use of this wine in particular indicates that her imagined readership would have the financial means to purchase this preferred beverage, especially as they would also be purchasing the rare ingredient of chocolate.

As in her first recipe, Woolley’s directions call for grating the chocolate, indicating she likely used a hardened chocolate paste already processed in Jamaica. The process consisted of fermenting cacao seeds, roasting and crushing the shells and beans with a roller, and finally winnowing them for separation.[3] The cacao beans or nibs were then ground in a mill and made into a paste, and, according to Willliam Hughes’s The American Phystian (1672), shaped into “Lumps, Rowls, Cakes, Balls, Lozanges, &c.” This form of preservation was important for it allowed the chocolate to be kept for upwards of a year, thus facilitating easy shipment to England.[4] Furthermore, as with the increased availability of sugar through the colonial practices of the British navy, chocolate also became more readily attainable in England after Cromwell’s forces had defeated the Spanish in 1655 in Jamaica and took over the cacao plantations, where the chocolate was processed.[5]

If in her first recipe the addition of eggs to the Spanish recipe makes chocolate more appealing for the English sensibility, Woolley’s second recipe fully naturalizes chocolate into a specifically English context, essentially making it an ingredient of an already established English drink. Using wine rather than water or milk as the base liquid for her “chaculato” marks the difference in Woolley’s recipe. In essence, Woolley is taking a familiar English recipe for a posset (a hot curdled wine or ale drink) and modifying it with the addition of the foreign ingredient, chocolate. Perhaps Woolley’s choice to put the chocolate into a posset is due to the fact that, as Kate Colquhoun explains: “Hot drinks, apart from possets, were a whole new experience.”[6] Her recipe does fit into the category of hot drinks, as Woolley includes in the following pages three traditional recipes for hot possets, each primarily consisting of the same basic ingredients as her one for chocolate: eggs, sugar, and wine (QLC 106–07). Hence, Woolley’s “To make Chaculato” reveals a chemical process of fusing exotic products into domestic ingredients to make an English drink, and, by application, the cultural assimilation of American substances into the native English body.

Though English recipes had for centuries been incorporating and naturalizing foreign commodities (cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron, for example), the process and significance of Woolley’s chocolate recipe breaks markedly with this culinary history, specifically because of the rising English colonial engagement with the New World. The fundamental difference is that the English in this context are a colonizing body politic, already engaged in the practice of absorbing some foreign other into the self. The drinking of chocolate mixed into an English posset is the physical, domestic manifestation of colonization that was occurring across the ocean. Further, as the English were expanding imperial dominion over both the environments and bodies that produced chocolate (and sugar) in the seventeenth century, recipes like Woolley’s served not just to incorporate but also to “preserve” English bodies with American materials and ingredients; both health and taste were increasingly modified through colonial activities enacted in the home by women.


[1] This post is an excerpt from Amy L. Tigner, “Preserving Nature in Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-Like Closet; or Rich Cabinet” ” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, edited by Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (Palgrave, 2011), p. 129-49. Hannah Woolley, The Queen-Like Closet; or Rich Cabinet (London: R. Lowndes, 1670); ———, The Ladies Directory  (London: T. M. for Peter Dring, 1662).

[2] Thomas Pellechia, The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade  (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), 70, 119-20.

[3] Penelope Jephson’s manuscript cookbook dated from 1671, (V.a. 396) at the Folger library, contains the recipe, “To make chocolato” that unlike Woolley’s recipe uses cacao nuts in their raw form and gives instructions as to how to process it into a useable paste form.

[4] John A. West, “A Brief History and Botany of Cacao,” in Chocolate: Food of the Gods, ed. Ales Szogyi (Burnham: Greenwood Press, 1997), 109. William Hughes, The American physitian  (London: J.C. for William Crook, 1672), 116-7.

[5] Sophie and Michael Coe Coe, The True History of Chocolate  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 167.

[6] Kate Colquhoun, Taste: the Story of Britain Through Its cooking  (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 146.

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