Friday, November 8, 2019

Starting Points: The Great Cheering Syrup

This weekly feature shows the initial steps I go through for interpreting a medieval recipe. I've been lax in posting lately, and as punishment the universe decided to push me outside of my comfort zone with this randomly selected recipe:

The Great Cheering Syrup: Way of Making It. Take half a ratl each of borage, mint, and citron leaves, cook them in water to cover until their strength comes out, then take the clean part and add it to a ratl of sugar. Then put in the bag: a spoonful each of aloe stems, Chinese rhubarb, Chinese cinnamon, cinnamon and clove flowers; pound all these coarsely, place them in a cloth, tie it well, and place it in the kettle, macerate it again and again until its substance passes out, and cook until [the liquid] takes the consistency of syrups. Take one û qiya with three of hot water. Benefits: It profits [preceding two words apparently supplied; in parentheses in printed Arabic text] weak stomachs, fortifies the liver and cheers the heart, digests foods, and lightens the constitution gently, God willing. [An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook (Andalusia, 13th c. - Charles Perry, trans.)]

Andalusian, eh?  I'm much more comfortable with French and English sources but I'll give it a shot.

My understanding is that these kind of syrups were used for making beverages in the Arabic-speaking world and the instructions appear to confirm that - though it also sounds rather medicinal. Mix it with hot water? Are you supposed to drink it hot like tea? That's all putting the cart before the horse; we've got to make the stuff first.

First thing's first: what the heck is a ratl? A little googling tells me it was a unit of weight equal to about 437.5g (or 15.43 ounces ... which is just under a pound ... cool!). So that's a pound each of the following:

Borage (Borago officinalis):  A common garden plant across Europe. The leaves of borage were often used like spinach in pies and salads. It also has blue flowers that were used for color or decoration. So which do we use here, the leaves or flowers? If you can find it fresh I'd use whichever you can get (or both). I was going to try growing it this summer but never got around to planting the seeds. I think I have a package of the dried flowers somewhere in the depths of my pantry.

Mint (genus Mentha):  There are all sorts of mints out there. I like spearmint but my wife hates it. Go figure. I'd use whichever kind I can get fresh at the grocery.

Citron Leaves (Citrus medica):  Really?!  I wasn't aware they had culinary use. Some googling found another example so it makes sense. I have no idea where I'd get them but their strong, lemony essence would probably have a big impact on the syrup so I can't just skip it. I might be able to substitute some other kind of citrus leaves but they probably wouldn't be the same and they also wouldn't be any easier to find in Ohio. I'd have to put out the word to everyone I know from far off places.

So that's three pounds of leaves in what would have to be a really big kettle, along with enough water to cover them. Then boil it all until ... I guess until the water tastes like you want it to. Then strain out all the leaves and add a pound of sugar and a "spoonful" (a tablespoon?) of each of the following:

Aloe stems (Aloe vera):  I'm guessing this should be fresh. I'm pretty sure I can get this locally. A tablespoon of this doesn't sound like much, but then I'm not sure how much aloe I want in my beverage anyway.

Chinese Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum):  Looking up this plant I found the root has a long history of medicinal use for all sorts of ailments. It's Wikipedia page also includes a health warning.

Pregnant women should avoid all intake of the plant since it may cause uterine stimulation. If taken for an extended amount of time, adverse effects include: "hypertrophy of the liver, thyroid, and stomach, as well as nausea, griping, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea." 
Though the root of the Chinese rhubarb is a key facet of herbal medicine, its leaves can actually be poisonous if consumed in large amounts due to the oxalic acid content. Patients with "arthritis, kidney problems, inflammatory bowel disease, or intestinal obstruction" should refrain from consumption.

I don't care what it tastes like or how it would affect my re-creation; I'm leaving this stuff out.

Ok, the next two are interesting ...

Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia):  The stuff that is sold as "Cinnamon" in the United States.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum):  Real cinnamon, sometimes sold as "Ceylon Cinnamon" in the US.

This recipe is one of the rare examples that calls for both types of cinnamon. Most others will call for one or the other (or for just "cinnamon" with no real clue to which).  They do taste different but I suspect a lot of people across medieval Europe couldn't tell them apart and were happy to use whatever they could get.

Clove flowers:  Oh bother.  This is one of those tricky ones. 

They might mean clove pinks (Dianthus caryophyllus), otherwise known as carnations. Clove pinks have historically been used to treat things like upset stomach and fever. You can get these online in dried form - make sure you're getting ones that are meant for eating rather than for making soap or something. Otherwise they might have been sprayed with who knows what pesticides and such.

Alternately they might mean the actual flowers from clove plants (Syzygium aromaticum), though that seems less likely to me than them using the dried flower buds from the same plant, which are called ... cloves.

In this case I think I'd first try clove pinks. They have more of a history of medicinal use.

So the aloe stems, cinnamon, cinnamon, and clove flowers all get smushed, tied up in cheesecloth, and dropped into the kettle. Then it's boil it some more (stirring and prodding the spice sachet from time to time to make sure the flavor gets out) until it all looks like a syrup.

For the last step I finally found a reference that told me an ûqiya is 1/12 of a ratl.  That makes it about 1.5 tablespoons.  So it's 1 to 2 tablespoons in a quarter-cup of hot water.  Sounds more like medicine to me than a beverage.

If there's anyone out there reading this who has more experience with this kind of recipe, I'd love to hear your thoughts!