This past week I attended a three-day program that focuses on regular dissertation writing from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. This program is called Dissertation Lab (or D-Lab), and it is held every summer at UTA for PhD students who are at the writing stage of the dissertation process. It was an intense three days, but the overall experience was remarkably productive, and I accomplished more than I anticipated.
While working on the chapter, I had a chance to work with some fun sources I gathered while working at The Wellcome Library in London last summer. The Library holds a wealth of cookery and physick (medical) books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which include countless recipes involving alcohol. There was one recipe in particular that I wanted to share, given its wonderful extravagance.
A mid-to-late seventeenth century recipe to make “Orange Watter” – distilled spirits were often known as ‘waters’ – appears common enough at first. Many of the recipes for such spirits were costly, and the addition of two quarts of brandy, as well as thirty ‘civil oranges’ (both imported goods to England), put this recipe out of financial reach for most. However, added on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the recipe there is an intriguing note. It suggests the addition of saffron to the mixture “for colour.” Saffron has long been one of the most desired, and most expensive, spices. A trip to the grocery store today proves that saffron is still quite expensive (an extravagance for graduate students like myself).
Saffron was certainly a luxury item in the seventeenth century, but that was not the final addition to this special liquor. The recipe continues: “[add] a small quantity of leafe Gold, Musk and Amber greace [ambergris].” Reading that last line – jotted down with apparent ease, centuries ago, by an unclear contributor to a family cookery book – brought my progress to a halt. First, the gold leaf; the addition of actual gold to the recipe may not be as impressive today, given the inclusion of gold leaf in not-so-expensive liqueurs like Goldschläger, but it was a clear sign of opulence at the time.
The final two ingredients, musk and ambergris, would bring strong aromatic, perfume-like qualities to the recipe. Both ingredients, though, originate from animal sources. Musk was obtained from the musk deer – a species nearly hunted to extinction. Ambergris was (and still is) obtained from sperm whales. In the seventeenth century, both musk and ambergris were extraordinarily expensive. The ingredients were also believed to be aphrodisiacs, placing this recipe for a orange-flavored liquor in a very interesting category.
Unfortunately, this recipe did not offer any description of the use for this ‘Orange Watter.’ Was it medicinal? Many of the recipes for spirits in these sources were intended to be used as a cure for all sorts of ailments. The inclusion of musk could hint at medicinal properties, as it was used as a restorative at that time. Was it simply an enjoyable, luxurious beverage – one that I am sure (or hope) was consumed in very small quantities? It isn’t clear what the purpose of this beverage was, or if the person who documented this intriguing recipe had any particular interest in that aspect. Such is the frustration historians encounter time and time again. We read through these preserved sources, such as these recipe books, to find enticing insight into the behaviors of those who lived in the past, without the contextual framework to give it meaning. I suppose, though, that is my job.
While I continue to mull over what to make of this particular recipe, it was a surprising and amusing find in the midst of the three-day writing grind. At the very least, I know that every liquor I buy from now on will likely appear rather dull in comparison.