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.
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.
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!
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.
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
- 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]
- 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].
- 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?]
- 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.
- 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?
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!