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!

Historical recipes – both good and bad

I was interviewed by Andy Twigge for BBC Radio Derby today and we discussed a few recipes from our many historical recipe books.  I made a couple of things for him to try: one was the gluten-free rice cake which I’ve blogged about before, and the other was Jumbles from Mary Swanwick’s 1740s recipe.

The one I didn’t make, but rather tickled me, was from a seventeenth century book.  It’s from the archive of the Gell family of Hopton Hall and like all such home recipe books, it contains a mix of medicinal and cookery recipes.   I would strongly recommend that you don’t try this one at home.

Recipe for convulsion fits

Reference no: D258/32/15/1

Here’s my transcription with modernised spelling and punctuation:

Mrs Evelyn’s excellent powder for Convulsion Fits

Take a dozen young moles, flay them, draw them and quarter them, lay them abroad in a dish and dry them in an oven until they will powder. Take elecampane root, cleanse, slit and dry them in an oven to powder. Take red peony roots and Jews ears [a kind of mushroom], powdered after the same manner.  Take also a little of the                      of a healthy woman when it is burnt to powder.  Beat them severally and take of each powder a like quantity by weight.  Mix them well together and keep them close tied up for use.

Take of it 3 mornings before and after the full and change, in a spoonful of black cherry water as much as will lie on a shilling, fasting, and drink 2 or 3 spoonful of black cherry water after it.

The black cherry water definitely sounds like the best bit!  I’m not entirely sure about ‘the full and change’ but I think that is referring to the moon, the full moon often being seen as the culprit for fits of insanity.  As for what you should be powdering from a healthy woman, if you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments.

You can hear snippets of my conversation with Andy Twigge by listening to his lunchtime radio programme every day this week at around 2.15pm – or catch up with it on the BBC Radio iPlayer.  I’ll post the Jumbles recipe later this week, for those that would like to give it a try.  I promise that it’s much more palatable than the recipe above!

An easy historical gluten-free cake recipe

We haven’t blogged about historical food experiments for a good while, but this weekend I was in the mood for baking, so I thought I would try out a recipe that intrigued me in Clara Palmer-Morewood’s recipe book from the 1830s: Rice Cake.

Rice Cake recipe (jpeg)

Rice Cake

Ground Rice half a pound, sugar & butter each one pound. Put them into a pan before the fire, as the butter melts stir them gently together with a wooden spoon, beat nine eggs very well and add them to the other ingredients immediately before putting into the oven, the rind of a Lemon may be added.

I halved the recipe (why waste a whole pound of butter and sugar if it all goes horribly wrong?!) and used the following:

1/4 lb /  110 g of rice flour
1/2 lb / 225g butter
1/2 lb / 225g sugar
4 eggs (our eggs are likely larger than those they had in the 1830s)
grated zest of a lemon

I stirred together the flour, sugar, lemon zest and butter in a pan over a low heat until the butter was melted and the mixture was well blended, then took it off the heat to cool a little.  In a separate bowl I beat the eggs until very light and fluffy, then gently folded them into the rest of the mixture, trying to keep as much of the air as possible in the batter.

The mixture went into a greased and lined loaf tin (I used a 2 pound loaf tin) and then into the oven at 180 degrees centigrade.  After about 25 minutes it had browned nicely but  was still very wobbly in the middle so with a piece of foil on top to prevent burning I gave it another 20 minutes.

The result was subsequently enjoyed with a nice cup of tea.


It’s not fluffy cake but it is deliciously moist from all that butter and has a lovely lemony flavour.  It’s also extremely easy to make, requiring only minimal baking skills.  And it’s suitable for people on a gluten-free diet too.  I highly recommend it!

Cake close up

A history of the archives service for Derbyshire

Late last Spring I began what came to be a rather extensive piece of research into the development of the archives part of Derbyshire Record Office. After so much work I wanted to share what I had found, and on Monday we ran an event featuring a talk about the history of the archives service, an exhibition of our own archives (by which I mean the records we actually created rather than those we look after on behalf of the county) and a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the record office building. We couldn’t do the whole building as it is so big, and to be honest once you have seen one or two of our strong rooms, you have really seen the other 12 or 13 (yes, we do have 14 in total for archives and local studies).

I hope many of the people who read this blog are interested to hear how the record office has developed, and I do intend to write further posts in the future so please watch this space. For now here are a few photographs from the event

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Advent Calendar – Day 21

Just a few days to go…

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Auntie Grace’s wartime Xmas cake, found loose inside the recipe book of Florence (Florie) Bednall, temp. World War Two (Ref: D3269/F/2/1).

There may just be some time to whip this cake together if you fancy it. Here is the ingredients list as it appears in Florie’s recipe book (transcript of the recipe below).


The Recipe:

  • Sift flour spices & carb soda.
  • Warm a basin & cream well the butter & sugar with the hand. (The whole cake should be mixed with hand. This is much better and quicker than using a wooden spoon).
  • Beat well in one egg at a time, then the glycerine. If there is any danger of the mixture becoming curdled add a pinch of flour (or beat in only the yolks afterwards adding the beaten whites separately). Add the treacle & vanilla then the brandy or sherry.
  • Now add the sifted flour & spices then the prepared fruit & nuts. If a little milk is necessary warm it just enough to take off the chill. The mixture should not be too stiff but must be strong enough to hold fruit in place.
  • Fill the cake tins about two thirds full levelling well & bake in a slow oven 3 1/2 to 4 hours.

As always, if you do give this one a go (even if it is next year), do let us know how it went.



Treasure 12: Clara Palmer-Morewood’s Recipe Book

The Record Office has many household recipe books (or receipt books as they were known), dating back to the 17th Century.  Our twelfth treasure is the 1830s recipe book of Clara Palmer-Morewood of Alfreton Hall.

Recipe books of this time combine cookery recipes with medicinal and veterinary cures as well as beauty treatments.  Clara’s is a great example, with recipes for fashionable foreign dishes such as ‘fromage fondue’, ‘petty shoes’ (petit choux!) and ‘Spanish fritters’, but also ‘a cure for dogs who are troubled with the snort’, lip salve and a recipe to wash chintz amongst other delights.

Many of Clara’s recipes have been contributed by friends and relations, whose names are given beside each recipe, so the book also gives an insight into Clara’s social circle.  You can see a full list of recipes and their contributors on our online catalogue here, or read some of Becky’s transcriptions of the recipes for rabbit soup, lobster curry, sponge cake, gingerbread, pancakes, ginger beer, mince pies, and biscuit puddings on this blog.

What really makes Clara’s book a treasure, though, is that it has a recipe for Bakewell Pudding dated 1837.  It is a really delicious and easy recipe, which I’ve now made several times!  Legend has it that this local speciality was invented by accident in the 1860s.  Clara’s book shows that this local legend can’t be completely true – and Ivan Day’s excellent research into this question has revealed some even earlier Bakewell Pudding recipes.

D7555/1 Clara Palmer-Morewood recipe book, Alfreton Hall

If you’d like to make the pudding yourself, here’s how to do it:

Line a 7 inch (18cm) metal pie dish with puff pastry.  Spread a couple of tablespoons of jam over the bottom and scatter over some candied orange peel, if you like it, and flaked almonds to taste (about 50g).  As an alternative to jam you can use dried cherries or raisins, finely chopped.  Cherries are better as they are a bit more tart.

In a bowl put 4 egg yolks, 1 egg white, 4 oz (100g) melted better, cooled, and 4 oz (100g) sugar.  Beat for a couple of minutes with an electric whisk until fluffy, pour into the pie dish and bake in the middle of the oven at 180 degrees centigrade (gas mark 5) for 30-35 minutes.

If you give it a try, do leave a comment to let us know whether you enjoyed it!

Will’s Work experience review

Having spent two weeks with the Derbyshire Record Office for work experience, I realised that archiving requires a surprisingly large amount of filing work! Watching programmes like “Who Do You Think You Are?” portrays a more simplistic view of local study offices where everything is prepared for the celebrity as soon as they arrive, with very little work clearly visible. So the level of research, attention to detail and thoroughness I met with at Derbyshire Record Office was surprising. I received a lot of valuable information about the correct way to store and protect documents…

(Below: How best to store delicate documents using the 4 flap folder method)


…the importance of digitization to the Record Office and the heritage of both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire through Picture the Past (http://www.picturethepast.org.uk/)

In particular, I really enjoyed copying out the old recipes of several 19th Century cooks ready for digitization. Although this may not sound incredibly interesting to some, I found the quirky and sometime unintelligible recipes both amusing and a challenge. The recipes of Emily Mary Kilpin, a 15 year old domestic servant for the Thornhill family, were particularly entertaining with their unpredictability, supplying recipes for “egg jelly”, “furniture polish” and a a “cream substitute” in quick succession, and also for the insight into the trends in her cookery with recipes for two different types of lemon curd, a lemon pudding and lemonade all entered on the same page in her book.

(You can find Emily’s recipes in the Derbyshire Record Office online Catalogue by typing in “Mrs M Kilpin” or D307/H/28/5)

On the other hand, the cookery book of her employers, the Thornhills, highlights a stark contrast between social classes in the early 1900’s society. For example, not only is the handwriting and language more advanced, there are far fewer recipes included by the family, possibly because they did less of their own cooking and relied more upon servants like Emily Kilpin herself.

(You can find the Thornhill’s recipe book by typing “D307/H/28/4” into the Record Office online catalogue)

Overall, my work experience was hugely enjoyable, the new building and facilites are great, and the staff were all very friendly and helpful. I’d recommend anyone interested in local history or the humanities to make use of the opportunites that the Derbyshire Record Office provide, either for academic, professional or personal reasons.

By Will, the work experience student

Pancake recipe for Shrove Tuesday


Looking for a slightly different recipe for this year’s pancakes? Why not try this recipe from Clara’s friend Mrs Coke at Depdale.


Take three spoonfulls of fine flour, a pint of Cream, Six Eggs, three spoonfuls of sack or sweet wine, One of Orange flower Water, a little sugar, half a nutmeg grated, and half a pound of melted butter almost cold, mix all well together, and butter the pan for the first Pancake, let them run as thin as possible, and when they are first coloured, they will be enough, In this manner all the fine Pancakes should be fried

Mrs John Coke


Recipe for Biscuit Puddings

D7555/1Biscuit Puddings

Take six oz. of Sugar, six oz. of flour, 6 oz. of Butter, and the Yolks of six Eggs, beat the Butter to a cream, then beat the Yolks of the eggs and add them to the Butter, Stir the sugar and Flour in separately by degrees, beat these Ingredients well together before you bake them, they require a moderate Oven – when [?]sent up they should be ornamented with a little orange marmalade – Mrs Miller, Radway


Send us photos of your biscuit puddings and we will put them up on the blog – please email Record.Office@derbyshire.gov.uk