a Winter’s Posset

Tis’ the season for hot mulled wine and spiced gingerbread lattes – warming festive drinks to bring festive cheer… but if you are partial to an ‘eggnog’ or a ‘snowball’ then you might just like the sound of this one.

Posset was a popular winter hot drink which was traditionally made with boiled milk curdled with wine or ale, and included eggs, sugar, treacle and spices like ginger and nutmeg.

It can be traced back to the 14th-15th centuries and was originally renowned for its beneficial properties; it was often used as a remedy for colds and chills and to aid sleep. During the 1666 plague it was even used as cure for the disease and there’s a tale from Eyam of a woman who miraculously recovered after drinking Posset!

On Christmas eve it was traditional to drink posset during a family ceremony resembling communion, whereby a ‘Posset Pot’ (a chalice shaped vessel) was filled with hot posset and passed around family members (not sure we could get away with such an activity this Christmas!). As the wine curdled with the milk it would form a layer of sweet curds which was eaten with a spoon, whilst the boozy liquid was sipped from the lip of the chalice. It was tradition to place a silver coin and a ring in the bottom of the posset pot, and as the curds at the bottom of the drink were spooned out, the person who found the coin was promised a prosperous year ahead, and the one who dished up the ring a happy marriage.

Posset pot, London, England, probably 1661. Credit: Science Museum, London

We have a few recipes for possets amongst our archive collections, like this 17th Century one from a recipe book in the Gell family collection. This recipe is for a ‘Sack Possit’, the term ‘Sack’ referring to a fortified wine, most likely Madeira or Sherry.

Posset recipe from D258/32/15/1, 17th Century recipe book from the Gell family collection

To make a Sack Possit

Take 20 Eggs, both ye Yolks and Whites; only take out the treads

beate them well all one way, and put to them one pint

of Sack halfe a pound of Suggar Stir them together very well

and set them on a Chafing Dish on Hot Coles keeping it

constantly all one way till it be better then new Milk

warme then take one quart of new Milk that is just

at boyling, with a whole Nutmeg Cut in quarters, put it to

the Sack and Eggs Stir it two or three times the Contrary

way then Cover it and let it stand on the Coles a little

while, then serve it up hot in the same Bason you

make it in.

And if fortified wine is not your thing, then why not try an ‘Ale Posset’; supposedly if you stir it carefully this one shouldn’t curdle, which certainly sounds a bit more appetising to me!

Ale Posset Recipe from D258/58/10, the Cookery Recipe book of H Chandos-Pole 19th Century

Ale Posset

Take equal quantities of new milk & ale

boil them separately. pour the milk

on the bread in a bowl. then add

the ale by degrees. observe to stir it all

the while to prevent it curdling. Add

nutmeg, ginger & sugar to your taste

And so, tempted by the promise of curdled, alcoholic, custardy delights, some brave members of staff at the Record Office have tried out the 17th Century posset recipe… here are their reviews.

Mark’s attempt…

I have catholic tastes when it comes to drink, but if you want to make me a really happy chap over the festive season, or any season, offer me something thick and sweet: Irish cream, advocaat, toffee liqueur, you name it. I also like a warming beverage such as mulled wine or cider. So how have I never tried eggnog? Or its forerunner, posset? A simple oversight, that’s how. To set matters right, I tried the following historical recipe:

To make a Sack Possit

  1. Take 20 Eggs, both ye Yolks and Whites; only take out the treads. [I’m not wasting 20 eggs on something that may turn out to be disgusting – I opted to quarter the recipe and use 5 eggs.  I didn’t find any treads]
  2. Beate them well all one way [I decided on clockwise], and put to them one pint of Sack [a quarter-pint of sherry, once known as Sherris-sack] halfe a pound of Suggar [so, four ounces].
  3. Stir them together very well and set them on a Chafing Dish on Hot Coles [someone recently borrowed my chafing dish, so I set them in a non-stick pan over a gas hob] keeping it constantly all one way [OK, still clockwise] till it be better then new Milk. [Until it’s thick and creamy, perhaps?]
  4. Warme then take one quart [so, half a pint] of new Milk that is just at boyling, with a whole Nutmeg Cut in quarters [I grated in about a quarter of a nutmeg], put it to the Sack and Eggs.
  5. Stir it two or three times the Contrary way [I admit it was more like 15 stirs in a widdershins direction] then Cover it and let it stand on the Coles a little while, then serve it up hot in the same Bason you make it in. [No. 2020 has been weird, but I have not yet been reduced to drinking from pans]

If I hadn’t had the archivist’s commitment to authenticity, I would have tried to prevent curdling by beating the eggs and sugar together first and adding the sherry and milk a drop at a time while whisking like mad. I didn’t, and it curdled. After letting it stand as instructed, I poured it into two glasses: one for the curdled original, another going through a sieve first. The strained one was much nicer, but each provided a pleasantly boozy custard taste sensation.  My wife described it as “like drinking a bread and butter pudding”.

It turns out the curdling was not a mistake anyway – Felicity Cloake’s 2013 Guardian article observes that “in its earliest form, posset was made from milk curdled with alcohol”. No accounting for taste, is there?

Mark’s Posset

So there you have it – and if you feel inspired to try making one of these recipes at home then do bear in mind the quantities (ie. 20 eggs!) are meant for large households, so you may wish to reduce them significantly unless you require a surfeit of posset. Personally I’m not sure I like the sound of curdled alcoholic milk (or drinking bread and butter pudding for that matter)…. think I’ll stick to mulled wine!

Christmas 1946 at the Butterley Company

Sadly, Christmas won’t be the same for many of us this year. Whether that will mean not meeting family and friends or having no Christmas parties to attend. It will certainly look very different for many. It’s more important to remember the fun times we’ve had in the past, hoping that they will return again for next year’s celebrations. But how was the Christmas of 1946 marked by the Butterley Company?

It was customary for large companies, including colliery companies, to give gifts to employees at Christmas, and offer them Christmas parties or dinners, to thank them for their hard work during the year. The Butterley Company was no exception. As can be seen in this itemised list of dinners and parties for Christmas, the company was willing to reward their employees, including the kitchen staff who were the ones to cook the dinners.

Christmas dinners and related gifts, N5/188/3

Most colliery companies were also known to give coal as a benefit to their employees, including their families after an accident or death of a miner. They paid special attention to widows at Christmas, ensuring that they had a gift of coal to see them through winter. It’s funny now that we view receiving coal at Christmas as a bad thing, but perhaps that may have stemmed from a mixture of other traditions when coal as a main fuel was in its infancy. While we don’t use coal anymore, it seems to have reverted to that previous connotation.

However, from the mid-19th century until the middle of last century, coal was a major fuel resource and contributed to the wealth and power of the companies who worked in the coal industry. As winters were also much colder then, a gift of coal meant someone could spend winter in warmth.

List of money gifts, N5/188/3

The Butterley Company appears to be keen to recognise the hard work not just of their own employees, but those in the community they believed deserved just as much recognition, such as police officers, railwaymen and a postman. They did have to seek approval from the Local Fuel Overseer to grant gifts of coal. The most generous one given in 1946 was to Police Sergeant Herrett who worked at Heanor Police Station, who received 1 ton of coal. Others were given a small amount of money instead.

Permission to give coal to Sergeant Herrett, N5/188/3

After what has been a strange and awful year, it’s amazing to see that even in 1946, people were keen to recognise the contribution key workers made to their local communities. This year, please remember to do the same in whatever way you can, even if its just to spare a thought for those key workers who have kept us all going after the year we certainly won’t forget.


Charitable gifts at Christmas from the Butterley Company, N5/188/3

Christmas Central, What Does it Mean to Get a Lump of Coal in your Stocking? https://www.christmascentral.com/what-does-it-mean-to-get-a-lump-of-coal-in-your-stocking/

Linthicum, K., ‘Why Coal Symbolizes Naughtiness’, The Atlantic, 24 Dec 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/12/why-coal-symbolizes-naughtiness/578857/

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners. 

Looking forward to Christmas

We have been counting down to Christmas on our Twitter page, searching our collections for some festive Christmas items. We’ve already come across some great Christmas cards:

There’s also been this letter from Florence Nightingale (D2546/ZZ/16), describing the children’s ward at St Thomas Hospital in 1877: “The whole ward was dressed up at Christmas: & a musical box, an elephant that would wind up & walk about, a Rocking horse which would hold four children… delight the little Patients daily”.

And even a recipe for mince pies from the 1830s recipe book of Clara Palmer-Morewood (D7555/1), who suggests for your filling: “One pound and a half tart apples, one pound of Currants, Three quarters of suet, Brandy, Cinnamon & nutmeg to your Taste”.

Follow us on @FranklinArchive for a daily dose of Christmas cheer!