Historical Acetums (Vinegar Preparations)

I took two of the more ubiquitous preparations in modern herbals and attempted to trace them back to see how the stories told by herbalists stand up to scrutiny. I am not holding my breath. I wrote an article about this that will be published in the March/April issue of The Essential Herbal, but I thought I would share some of my research here:

Queen of Hungary’s Waters

This is an excerpt from a 19th century medical journal describing what is undoubtedly an early modern receipt.  The preparation in no way resembles the acetum, by the same name that modern herbalists have popularized.

The original Queen of Hungary water is a typical rosemary distillation like those mentioned in Bankes Herbal published in 1525. Making it requires distillation of alcohol preparation which undoubtedly accounts for the change.

The text that seems to have to have taught distillations techniques to most Western European practitioners, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus was published by Hieronymus Brunschwig in 1500 and had been translated into English by Laurens Andrew in 1527. Conrad Gessner’s Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri which also covered distillation techniques had been translated into English by 1559 and a lesser-known book The True and Perfect Order to Distill Oyles, authored by John Hester in 1575 even covered using distillation to extract essential oils, so there’s no doubt that the methodology discussed would have been well understood by 1586.

Four Thieves Vinegar

The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt from volume two of John Ayrton Paris’ Pharmacologia written in 1825.  Another publication around this time attributes the formulation of this preparation to one Mr. Robert Forthave who lived in 1749, claiming the name of the preparation is just a “corruption” of his name.  

Jean Valnet, a noted aromatherapist, claims to have found the original formula in the archives of the Parliament of Toulouse 1628-1631 as follows:  3 pints white wine vinegar, a handful each of wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper berries, wild marjoram and sage with 50 cloves, 2 oz each of elecampane root, angelica, rosemary, horehound and 3 grams of camphor. (Valnet).   I’ve not been able to locate a translation of these documents to verify his source.

Regardless, as Paris mentions, the use of these aromatic vinegars has a long history which probably predates written history. Dioscórides wrote of using brine vinegar which is a mixture of salt and vinegar used to brine olives, infused with Creten thyme, barley groats, rue, and pennyroyal for driving out thick black humors. The following receipt was included in most of the Pharmacopeia of the 19th century.

References:

Beckmann, J. (1846 ). History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins. London: Henry G Bohn.
Hartshorne, H. (1881). The Household Cyclopedia.Thomas Kelly.
Limbird, J. (1828). Four Thieves’ Vinegar. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction.
Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia: corrected and extended…. Volume 2. New York: Samuel Wood & Son.

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.

Meat Pies and Powder Fort

(I am moving this over from the old blog because it’s the post that started it all, and I feel like it’s a good post to ‘”start” this blog with. This was shortly before I went to Goddard and got access to EEBO and before I discovered the manuscript receipt books. I hadn’t even begun to talk about women authors yet, but I knew I wasn’t seeing the whole story. So good for you, younger Stephany…)

The recipe is based on one my husband’s mom made when he was young, but it reminds me a good deal of a lot of the medieval meat pies I’ve had at SCA events, mostly because of the unique blend of sugar and spice, used as flavoring.

For my little herbal digression before sharing the recipe with you I’d like to bring to your attention the ingredient in many medieval recipes known as powder fort.  This is a common ingredient in medieval cookbooks, but it seems no one is quite sure of exactly the spices used in this concoction, but many food historians have given their best conjectures as to what these spices were. 

There seem to be as many interpretations as there are medieval food researchers. Daniel Myers who is publisher/author of the website Medieval Cookery, has this to say about his recipe: ” Many medieval recipes call for spice mixtures without detailing the exact spices. While it is tempting to assume that each particular spice mixture had a consistent recipe, there is evidence of substantial variation for different times, regions, budgets, and cooks.”  

This is the recipe he shares along with the advice to make it your own which I appreciate because I don’t really love ginger all that much.  I’d substitute nutmeg.

3 Tbsp. ginger
1 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cubebs
1 tsp. grains of paradise
1 tsp. black pepper

Really why I wanted to mention this is to ask herbally inclined readers to take a good look at these recipes, especially those of you who have studied Ayurveda.

Does this remind you of anything?

A churna, perhaps? At the very least, it is a blend of seasonings which would serve to stimulate and promote digestion. I make this comparison because I believe the reason that our students are so intrigued by the Eastern healing philosophies and are unaware of the rich history of Western herbalism which may be more evident when one takes into account the medieval cookery books as well as the dry “learned” herbals of the day.

Why do we teach Gerard to our students but not Tusser?  This has always been a source of confusion to me until I read a few books which made me start to think of history of herbalism as being the history of men who could read and write and who were, when it comes down to it, quite disdainful of folk medicine.Even Culpeper who supported the idea of “English herbs for English bodies” still believed in the superiority of the Greek Galen’s Art of Physick over the simple remedies of the country people.  

I believe that only focusing on the printed herbal, gives us an extremely limited perspective of how herbs were actually used in Ireland and Britain, and I am constantly intrigued by little bits of information I find in the folklore and oral histories, I am discovering. Eventually I will have my thoughts organized into a large body of information, but for now back to dinner. First you will need to make a double crust pie recipe.

Pork and Apple Pie

2 lbs cubed pork
4 green, tart apples peeled, cored and sliced
2 tbsp sugar
3 tsp powder fort

  1. I like to sear the pork cubes first as it cuts down on the cooking time and keeps the meat more tender. You can do this in a frying pan while the oven preheats to 350 degrees.
  2. Then mix together the sugar and spices.
  3. Line an 8X8 pan with crust and then layer, the meat and the apples sprinkling the seasonings over the layers. Don’t be afraid to stack it high and pack them tightly, the apples shrink quite a lot as it bakes.
  4. Pour any juice in the frying pan over the layers and then top with another crust. Cut a few vent slices in the top crust and bake it in the oven for about 50 minutes or until the apples are tender.