Herbal Preparations: Oxymels

Sekanjabin seems to be a popular beverage drink in the SCA.   David Friedman refers to it as such on page 125 of “How to Milk an Almond…”   He also laments being unable to find the recipe referred to in period literature.  I would put forth that it wasn’t a beverage to be found in cookbooks, rather a medicinal receipt to be found in those types of texts.

When I first tasted it, I recognized it immediately as a medicinal oxymel. I would offer the conjecture that “sekanjabin” is simply the Persian word for a medicinal oxymel which at some point (probably not pre-1600) morphed into a popular beverage.   Keep in mind Coca-Cola was once considered a tonic blend of medicinal herbs.

Some of the earliest written documentation of oxymels being made from different medicinal herbs and used as remedies can be found in the Hippocratic treatise On Regimen in Acute Diseases written around 400 BCE. Oxymel is mentioned as a medicinal drink frequently and at one point the manuscripts instruct the reader to “boil opoponax in oxymel, and, having strained it, to give it to drink.”

A period recipe for an oxymel can be found in Dioscórides De Materia Medica. The following receipt is from the Anglo-Saxon Leech Book penned by the scribe Cild in the late 9th or early 10th century.

Take of vinegar, one part; of honey, well cleansed, two parts; of water, the fourth part; then seethe down to the third or fourth part of the liquid, and skim the foam and the refuse off continually, until the mixture be fully sodden. If thou wish to work the drink stronger then put as much of the vinegar as of the honey…”

Here is my modern process for making it with mint.

1 1/3 cup honey
1 cup water
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups mint

The process is simple.  Bring the water and the honey to a boil and boil for about ten -fifteen minutes, skimming the foam off the top.   Then you pour the white wine vinegar into this and bring the mixture back to a boil.  Simmer over low heat until the mixture thickens.  This recipe does not get as thick as those I’ve done with sugar.

Then you take it off the heat, coarsely chop up the mint and steep it in the mixture with a cover.   You are making an herbal infusion with the vinegar honey mixture.

I use white wine vinegar due to the recipe that is included in An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century as translated by Charles Perry: “sikanjabîn syrup is beneficial in phlegmatic fevers: make it with six ûqiyas of sour vinegar for a ratl of honey and it is admirable.

This fall I made up a batch of an oxymel that I had in mind to offer to a person suffering from a feverish condition.   In place of the mint, I used equal amounts of yarrow flowers, dried elderflowers, and peppermint.  I covered the pan tightly and then let the mixture infuse all night long.   In the morning I strained it through butter muslin and bottled the concentrate up.

To use the concentrate, I put one part of it in a glass with eight parts of water. If you want to work with the diaphoretic actions of the plants, you will want to serve this as a hot drink especially in the winter months.  That is also mentioned in On Regimen in Acute Diseases. 


References

Hippocrates, “On Regimen in Acute Diseases,” in Hippocratic Writings/On the Natural Faculties, translated by Francis Adams, (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1956), 40.

Cild, Bald’s Leechbook II. in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England Vol.II, by Thomas Cockayne, (London: Longmans, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865), 287.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

4 thoughts on “Herbal Preparations: Oxymels

  1. A Small fact about Coca Cola.Until 1905, the soft drink, marketed as a tonic, contained extracts of cocaine as well as the caffeine-rich kola nut.

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  2. It is true. It is fairly common for herbalists to include stimulants in their preparations. We do it now, except that we use far less potent chemicals.A stimulant helps to increase circulation and thereby promotes delivery of the other constituents to the peripheral parts of the body. Especially useful when clients complain of numbness or cold in hands and feet.

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  3. “He also laments being unable to find the recipe referred to in period literature. “Actually, I mention a reference in period literature (The Fihrist) and give a recipe from a period source (13th c. Andalusian). But I wasn't aware of your Anglo-Saxon recipe, which I expect I'll try.The Andalusian recipe is in a chapter of drinks whose medicinal properties are mentioned.

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  4. My apologies. When I wrote this some time ago, I had been given a handout which cited you and quoted you to the end of the author of the modern cookbook's name. I have since purchased the book on Amazon and see that you gave further explanation. You will have to let me know what you think of the Anglo Saxon recipe. I have many like it.

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