Take green Walnuts in the beginning of Iune, beat them in a Mortar, and distil them in an ordinary Still, keep that Water by it self, then about Midsummer gather some more, and distill them as you did before, keep that also by it self, then take a quart of each and mix-them, together, and distil them in a Glass Still, and keep it for your use;
the Virtues are as followeth; It will help all manner of Dropsies and Pal∣sies, drank with Wine fasting; it is good for the eyes, if. you put one drop therein; it helpeth Conception in Women if they drink thereof one spoonful at a time in a Glass of Wine once a day, and it will make your skin fair if you wash therewith; it is good for all infirmities of the Body, and driveth out all Corruption, and inward Bruises; if it be drunk with Wine moderately, it killeth Worms in the Body; whosoever drinketh much of it, shall live so long as Nature shall continue in him.
Finally, if you have any Wine that is turned, put in a little Viol or Glass full of it, and keep it close stopped, and within four days it will come to it self again.Hannah Woolley The queen-like closet -1670
I just want to be very clear that I am sharing this receipt with you so that I can go off on a tangent. I am not going to delve deeply into the health claims made by Woolley, although you can see here that the idea of using walnuts as in anthelmintic preparations has a long history.
What I would really like to focus on here is the more practical advice at the end. As anyone who has made wine can tell you, it is susceptible to certain “faults” including the buildup of acetaldehyde due to oxidation of ethanol or the buildup of acetic acid which is produced by yeast during the fermentation process. The modern solution to these faults is to “sulfite” the wine by adding Campden tablets. In the past, winemakers added a variety of natural ingredients to their wine to counteract faults.
Walnuts are a crude source of sulfur. In fact, walnuts have high enough levels of the sulfur amino acid taurine that they have the potential to replace meat as a source of dietary taurine. “In addition to the normal amino acids, walnut kernels are found to contain a sulfur amino acid, taurine (2-aminoethanesulfonic acid) in concentrations of about 15–46 nmol g−1, depending on the variety.”[i]
I have not experimented with this receipt, yet. However, if one were to play around with it, I suspect the resulting spirit might correct a mild wine fault due to its sulfur content. I concur with the author that if the fault has not been corrected within 4 days, the wine is likely too far gone and should be discarded. That’s fairly standard wine-making advice.
Woolley specifies using a glass still for this receipt. Some chemistry majors might remember that distillation concentrates sulfur unless you are using copper equipment, because copper reacts with sulfur bonds, removing the sulfur from the final product. I believe the naturally occurring sulfur content would be significantly concentrated through the distillation process she outlines in this receipt. I am looking forward to giving it a go this summer to try it out.
I am not implying that she knew enough chemistry to be aware of this. It’s more likely that trial-and-error led to someone else having noticed and passing that knowledge along through the skill sharing network. At the point Woolley wrote this, scientific knowledge came primarily from experience and observations. This is called empiricism.
The thing about empirics is that if a preparation didn’t achieve some sort of result, they quit using it. They didn’t double down on some scientific dogma and remain intractable. They went back to the drawing board and tried something different. I believe this is why we sometimes run across receipts that have been crossed out when transcribing handwritten documents.
I look at the early modern era as a sort of a midpoint in our understanding of chemical constituents. Through millennia of trial-and-error, people had come to the realization that using some crude preparations produced certain results, but they did not have knowledge of the chemistry involved. As that understanding developed, scientists were able to isolate and later synthesize the useful chemicals present in these preparations.
Instead of poking fun at the ancestors for being ignorant or simple, I choose to be in awe of the progress they made due to necessity through curiosity and experimentation. If great-great-grandma hadn’t been washing her face with milk, we wouldn’t have the lactic acid treatments for eczema that we do today which, as an aside, are brilliant. I love my dermatologist.
I saw a blog post about this receipt in which a historian went off on a tangent, trying to read far more into that advice than was likely meant. She made some comment about four days being the amount of time between Good Friday and Easter which led to all sorts of artful conjecture. My great- grandma, who reads over my shoulder sometimes in my imagination, snorted derisively and I quit reading it.
I am a practical peasant who grew up helping people make wine and who enjoyed my science classes in college far more than I enjoy philosophy. I avoid extrapolating like that and am not interested in reading it. My “philosophy” is that these were people who were quite busy trying to survive and when you apply a bit of that type of thinking to the situation, the most common-sense explanation is the most probable.
I credit some of my thinking on this to being hired on occasion to poke through old literature looking for ideas for modern researchers to follow up on. They were not looking for philosophy. They wanted facts. If people knew how many modern pharmaceutical agents and excipients can be sourced back to crude ingredients in historic preparations, they would likely be shocked.
Unfortunately, practicality is boring, and writers and historians have been rewarded for sensationalism. Melville once wrote of Moby Dick, “It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy… Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.” I wrote about this on the old blog years ago and have pulled it over here for anyone who wants to read it.
In all my time writing for herbal publications, I only had one editor who just let me be my practical nerdy self and didn’t push me to throw in “a little fancy” or some sort derisive statement crafted at increasing the shock value of a piece. (I appreciate you, Becky!) That is why I started writing for myself.
Speaking of which, I need to get back to my editing if I am ever going to get my project launched for you all. More on that soon!
[i] Prasad, R. B. N. ‘Walnuts and Pecans’. In Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), edited by Benjamin Caballero, 6071–79. Oxford: Academic Press, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-227055-X/01269-4.
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