Of Merrybubs, Syllabubs and Possets

Jonson had dined, supped and ‘banketted’ his way up the Great North Road but perhaps the strangest food (to the modern palate) he was offered was in a Northumbrian field. Having spent a couple of days at Howick, one Mrs Grey led him with her maid to a pasture in which a cow was grazing, whereupon Jonson was given a ‘merrybub’ to bid him farewell (this lady was possibly the widow of Philip Grey to whom Jonson was to pen an epitaph).

It appears that ‘merrybub’, also recorded as ‘merrybauk’, was a northern term for a type of syllabub or posset, in this case a hasty mixture of freshly foaming milk with an alcoholic liquid whisked with herbs and spices. Such a confection found its way into Jonson’s Sad Shepherd:

Fall to your cheese-cakes, curds, and clotted cream,
Your fools, your flans; and of ale a stream
To wash it from your livers: strain ewes milk
Into your Cider syllabubs, and be drunk …

Recently, to celebrate a visit to Edinburgh by Ian Donaldson and in the interests of academic research (honest), we attempted to whip up a similar concoction taken from a seventeenth century manuscript recipe for a ‘Snow Syllabub’:

‘Take a Quart of Cream & half a pint of White wine, Squeeze in the Juice of a Lemon, & put in a Musk-Plumb or two, beaten Small; sweeten it with fine sugar; then take a whisk & whisk it up till it be a full Froth.’

Surprisingly large quantities of it were spooned from small cups, though it was certainly not to everyone’s taste.


Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook or The art and mystery of Cookery, 1660

A similar recipe is to be found in Charles I’s chief cook, Joseph Cooper’s recipe book, The art of Cookery refin’d and augmented of 1654. Here nutmeg and rosemary were added to the cream and sack, and fermented in a pot overnight. And there are countless recipes for a variety of syllabubs, an eating syllabub, a whipped one, a ‘Whip Jellybub’. Add some eggs, and ‘beat well to thicken on a soft fire’, and you have a posset.

Entranced by seventeenth century cooking, we proceeded to serve up scotch collops (a spiced and herbed meatball), fried artichokes, anchovy pastries, and a spiced posset at a reading by the poet Thomas A Clark of his work on walking and landscape, making a connection to Jonson’s own travels, and the food he encountered. Sadly time was too short for the ‘Hedgehog Pudding’, a sweet suet pudding with ‘raisins of the sun’, studded once baked with blanched almonds. But another pudding we made, an almond cake with rose water, was much like the currently fashionable almond and orange ones.

One particular food recurs several times in our account of Jonson’s ‘Foot-Voyage’ – venison. It’s clear from the way in which the journal notes the giving of venison that it was intended to honour Jonson: at Pontefract, the countess of Shrewsbury sends him a buck, one side of which he gives to his previous hostess at Skelbrooke. The rest he feasts on with the town’s aldermen. At Welbeck he had ordered a deer killed for supper that night. And this may have been the way it was served:

‘To roast a Haunch of Venison
If your Venison be seasoned, you must Water it & stick it with sprigs of Rosemary. Let your Sauce be Claret Wine, a Handful of grated Bread, Cinnamon, Ginger, Sugar & a little Vinegar, boil these up so thick as it may only run like Butter: it ought to be sharp & sweet. Dish up your meat on your sauce.’

Seventeenth century cookbooks would not suit a vegetarian, stuffed with recipes for game, mutton, beef, sturgeon, and salmon, heavily spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and mace. But the odd vegetable creeps in, a carrot pudding baked in pastry, and a ‘grand sallad’ of raisins, blanched almonds, samphire, green beans, and olives, surrounded by sturgeon and roasted chicken.

Jonson’s only recorded indisposition on the journey was at Newcastle, following an over-indulgence in ancient red wine. But perhaps he was carrying with him one of the sweet or licorice waters, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ for indigestion:

‘Take of Galingal, cloves, long pepper grains, mellilot flowers, mace, nutmegs, of each half an ounce, juice of salendine four ounces, mingle all these made in powder with a pint of Aquavitae & with a pint of Sack, & a quart of good white wine put all these into ye still over night and in the morning still it with a gentle fire, [adding] a quarter of a pound of white sugar candy.’

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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