I’ll be the first to admit it – the joys of the holiday season always bring out the Dickens in me at this festive time of year. Corny as it has may sound I still love the atmosphere, the traditions, the music, the food and the wines that associate themselves with the holidays. In my mind, I put aside all the stress and crass commercialism that so often overtakes the season, and imagine that I’m enjoying a steaming bowl of punch with Mr. Pickwick in some snowy 1830s London Inn.
So – anyone for posset? Posset is a very “olde worlde” hot drink, a kind of early version of eggnog, made of cream curdled with wine or ale and then spiced. It can be traced back to the 15th century, and may derive from an earlier concoction called Caudle.
Shakespeare mentions posset a number of times in his plays. From The Merry Wives of Windsor we have – “Yet be cheerful, knight: thou shalt eat a posset tonight at my house”.
There are hundreds of varying recipes for posset. Here’s one called My Lord of Carlisle’s Sack-Posset from 1671 —
“Take a pottle of Cream, and boil in it a little whole Cinnamon, and three or four flakes of Mace. To this proportion of Cream put in eighteen yolks of eggs, and eight of the whites; a pint of Sack. Put in three quarters of a pound of sugar into the Wine and Eggs, with a nutmeg grated, and a little beaten Cinnamon; set the Bason on the fire with the Wine and Eggs, and let it be hot. Then put in the Cream boiling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settlede, strew on the top a little fine Sugar mingled with three grains of Ambergreece, and one grain of Musk, and serve it up.”
Sounds pretty rich and very sweet to me! It should be mentioned that Sack is an antiquated wine term for a sweet fortified wine from Spain which later became synonymous with sherry. Of course, centuries ago this recipe would only be enjoyed by the well-to-do. Poorer folk would make their posset from ale instead of wine, and thicken it with bread.
A well-made posset has three layers. The uppermost (known as ‘the grace’) is an aerated foam. The middle layer is a smooth, spicy custard to be eaten with a spoon. And the bottom layer is a pungent alcoholic liquid traditionally drunk through a straw-like spout in the posset pot.
As well as being a warming winter drink, posset was also said to be a remedy for colds, sleeplessness, and other minor ailments.
I came across another old holiday tradition many years ago when a character in a book I was reading insisted that the only way to drink champagne was ice-cold and out of a chilled pewter tankard. I must admit that the idea immediately intrigued me. There were a few problems associated with this, however. First of all I realized that the champagne would have to be imbibed fairly quickly – before the bubbles dispersed and it went flat. The other problem might be the pewter. Centuries ago the lead in pewter could cause anything from gout to lead-poisoning, but these days there is no longer any lead in pewter. No, the problem for some might be any flavors imparted by the pewter. Personally I found this negligible, but the alternative of course would be to use glass tankards.
Years later, after almost forgetting my little tankard foible, I was in England, staying at The White Hart in Devonshire. It was a very old hotel, parts of which dated back to the fifteenth century, and it had an adjoining pub. To my amazement they were serving champagne in pewter tankards! The difference was that they served it in half-pint tankards rather than the imperial pint ones I had envisioned. This worked well – you didn’t have to drink quite so quickly and if you wanted more you could simply order another half pint.
Now I’m not saying this is how you should always drink champagne, but I am saying there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun with these things, especially over the holidays. If the idea of using champagne this way seems like sacrilege to you, remember that there is also cava, prosecco, and other excellent and less pricey sparkling wines available at your local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.
So it only remains for me to raise my tankard (or my posset pot) and wish —
A joyful, safe, and peaceful Holiday season to one and all! Cheers!
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine & spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills