Have you read Susan Orlean's " The Orchid Thief"? How she made me love those orchid hunter's addictions to "mystery, beauty, unknowability". I found myself circling her words nodding yes, yes, yes, all Molly Bloomy when I read, "The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it… the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility". Haven't you always wanted to be one of that novel race of beings who "didn't feel part of this modern world and this moment in time-- the world of petty aggravations and obligations and boundaries, a time of bored cynicism--because how they live and what they lived for was so optimistic. They sincerely loved something… lived for a myth about themselves and the idea about adventure, were convinced that certain things were really worth dying for, believed that they could make their lives whatever they dreamed." Vivat, vivat orchid hunters and passionate souls everywhere!
I say the quest instinct, unquenchable curiosity and hunger for adventure and discovery…hunger to know and understand, hunger for mystery and magic and hunger to obtain (or prepare) the rare and unobtainable is wired in to us. Whenever I go to a great grocery store or greenmarket... I see endless possibilities before me, don't you? As I blog I read and learn and expand my realm of possibilities and tastes. I escape the mundane "now" and taste history. It's really a wonderful journey.
My first hunt for elusive edible treasure came long before search engines. I was looking for grains of paradise. For the uninitiated, grains of paradise, or aframomum melegueta, come from the seed pod of a lavender-blushing-white flowered relative of the ginger family. Grains of paradise made their way into Europe during the spice craze of the Middle Ages. It was called the poor man's pepper then--although not as hot as black pepper and possessing a dusky, perfumed after-taste… they are intoxicating. Discovering they were from West Africa, I called their embassy. 15 people down the line and a fortune in local minutes later, I found out that there just happened to be a freighter from that coast sitting at the NY docks with a shipment of the stuff destined for an African neighborhood in Brooklyn. One more phone-call, and a few weeks of custom's wrangling later, and I had my grains of paradise.
How times have changed! I just found a grains of paradise/cubeb pepper grinder in the spice section of Whole Foods in NYC! Now it's easy to get many of the formerly impossible-to-find ingredients for historic recipes. WARNING! One of the sneaky problems with transcriptions of really old recipes that were made in the mid to late 20th century is that they skip the hard to find and substitute without telling you... beware those recipes if you treasure authenticity.
To memorialize my search for grains of paradise so long ago... I thought a good holiday recipe for Hippocras, the ancient spiced wine, would do the trick.
To research my Hipprocras I went to The Forme of Cury which was compiled from Richard II's master cooks in 1390.
I was guided there by an old Lorna Sass book I'd gotten from the Met when I was a kid. Here are Ypocrasse instructions from the 18th c Samuel Pegge copy of the vellum manuscript:
Further research led me back to a favorite website run by a genius named Ivan Day in England: http://www.historicfood.com .
Let me also mention his amazing book: Cooking in Europe, 1650-1850 (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series: Cooking Up History)
From his wonderful site I discovered many remarkable facts about hippocras or ypcras (too many to mention... go to his website for a full tutorial!) in which he related:
One of the rarest spices used in the production of hippocras was
carpobalsamum, the aromatic flower buds of the Balsam of Judea
Tree. In the eighteenth century a grove of the trees grew in the
gardens belonging to the Sultan of Cairo.They were guarded
night and day by armed janissaries to protect both the valuable
balsam and the flowerbuds from thieves. Musk seeds, another
Egyptian spice, were also used to scent hippocras, though the most
popular perfuming ingredients for the beverage were the animal
products musk and ambergris. Scented hippocras was served
with the bridecakes at Tudor weddings.
Mr. Day kindly included a recipe for using carpobalsam from "The
Art and Mystery of Vintners and Wine Coopers (London 1698):
Basically, hippocras is a spiced wine that was usually augmented
with cinnamon, cardamom, grains of paradise and long pepper.
The recipe from the Forme of Cury advises:
This is more or less translated to:
3 ounces of cinnamon
3 ounces of ginger.
a penny's worth (or a penny's size piece or 1.275 grams?)
of spikenard (I used 2 oz!)
1/4 of an ounce each of galingale, cloves, long pepper,
nutmeg, marjoram and cardamom
1 ounce of grains of paradise and of cassia buds
Make powders of all and serve it forth.
All recipes during this time are loosely written, and this
one more than most. Honestly, no matter how hard you try,
translations for this manuscript are really dodgy. The
passage in the book is written in an odd English/French mix
that isn't really anywhere else in the manuscript. Many
translations didn't bother with telling you there was marjoram
in the mix and stuck with the spices. The amount of spikenard
is really confusing. It could be an amount (denier is 1.275 grams
which is really tiny) or the size of a coin, or the cost of the
spice. Almost all the translations said that flour de queynel
was powdered cinnamon, which made no sense since the recipe
had asked for cinnamon at the beginning and requested that
you powder everything at the end. It took a lot to find it
was cassia berries, which taste like old red-hot candies...a bright
cinnamon flavor. A little more of one spice or less of another
will not be in-authentic. The strongest tastes of the hippocras
are cinnamon and ginger then spikenard.
That said, this amount of spice mixture was probably used for
a gallon of red wine. One recipe recommended hanging each
spice in a separate bag, soaking them in wine in
separate basins and then squeezing them in a larger basin
to your taste (more cinnamon, squeeze harder on bag 1!).
More simply, the spices can be put altogether in a cheese
cloth bag or thrown into the wine and strained out later.
For a gallon of red wine add a cup to a cup and a half of sugar
for 'lords' or honey for 'comyn pepull' ( sugar was more expensive
at the time). Warm the wine and add the sugar or honey and the
spices. Allow to warm,covered, on the lowest flame you can
manage for an hour or so (it could be done in a jar set in the sun
as one recipe recommended!) although some recipes ask for real
cooking, I think a gentle warming gives the best effect. Remove
from the heat and allow to cool. Place in a clean jar and cover.
It is bitter at first, after 48 hours all the bitterness is gone.
Store for a month to get the most flavor from the spices, even
though I may say some of the bitterness returns, (although some
recipes asked for only that 48 hours of storage). Best suggestion
is taste every few days or so to see what you think. At this point
remove the spices by straining or remove the bag. In the old
days it was done with a Hippocras sleave... which was a kind
of jelly bag.
May I say that the more esoteric spices can be purchased from:
Mountain Rose Herbs, My spice sage, Kalyx for true Spikenard
nardostachys jatamansi NOT aralia racemosa