October’s chill is in the air, and the fleeting year draws quickly to a close. This month the farmer begins to think of the health of both himself and his stock, to get them through the long winter ahead.
Therefore, this month we will look at both medicine and nourishment, since both were brewed in the kitchen, Therefore, please bear with me as I go through both history and medicine to trace the historical companions of this month’s recipe. Thomas Tusser cautions the farmer, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” to “By thend of October, go gather up sloes, have thou in readines plentie.of thoes, and keep them in bedstraw, or still on the bow, to staie both the flixe of thyselfe and thy cow. Seeith water and plomp therein plenty of sloes, mix chalk that is dried in powder with thoes, Which so, if ye give with the water and chalke, thou makest the laxe fro thy cow away walk.” Hardly sounds tasty, does it? But there is both long experience and good medicine at the heart of it, medicine that is still somewhat in use today.
This remedy has roots that extend back to Rome, and probably before. Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23-79) wrote of wild plums in Volume XXIII of his Natural History that, “As for wild plums, their fruit or the skin of their root, boiled down in dry wine from one hemina to one third, checks looseness of the bowels and colic. A cyathus of the decoction at a time makes a sufficient dose.” (Translated by W.H.S. Jones for the Loeb Classical Library edition; Latin available on request.) The medicine behind Pliny’s remedy is that sloes are highly astringent, as the sour “pucker-y” taste indicates. (An added benefit is that they have a not inconsiderable portion of vitamin C, which would have been very welcome over the long winter.) Tusser’s farmers added the powdered chalk much as they would have added it as a thickener to plaster or sizing for canvas. This is the part of the remedy that is still with us. The “Kao” in the modern remedy “Kaopectate” is from “kaolin”, which is chalk. A simpler version of the remedy was given again in the third volume of The Leechbooks of Bald, written in about the year 1000, which noted, “The water in which wild plums are cooked is drunk.”
You might occasionally wonder how this nasty remedy was administered. Getting the unpleasant stuff down the human throat was not a problem; humans have been known to down even more horrible-tasting concoctions without TOO much complaint to cure diarrhea (which is the modern scientific term for “the flux”, or “flixe”, as Tusser spells it). Cows, however, are less cooperative when they get “the scours”, which is the animal term. That usually required the services if several farm-hands and a “drenching horn.” (Physical details available on request, in the unlikely case that anyone is interested.)
However, in the process of gathering and storing the sloes, some enterprising cook took a look at another related plum, called a “bullace” plum. which was also wild and black, slightly bigger than the sloe, and had an inspiration for a dessert which came to be known as,
from The Forme of Cury, compiled … by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II
From about 1390
Take bolas and scald hem with wyne and drawe hem with a straynour do hem in a pot, clarify hony and do therto with powdor fort,and flor of Rys. Salt it & florish it w whyte aneys, & srve it forth.
TRANSLATION Take (bullace) plums, and scald them with wine, and draw them through a seive. Put them in a pot; clarify honey and add thereto with powder fort [see glossary], and flour of rice. Salt it & decorate it with white anise (comfits), & serve it forth.
REALIZATION: This recipe probably reminds you a great deal of last month’s discourse on strawberries. That’s because most of the fruit desserts of the middle ages were variations on “applesauce”, with changes in the fruit and spices. Stone and quarter about a pound of plums, variety to your taste, and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add enough sweet wine to cover the bottom of the pan, to prevent the fruit from scorching, and simmer over low hear until the fruit softens. Choice of wine depends on the variety of plum chosen. A sweet white like Liebfraumilch is wonderful with yellow plums, but make the effort to find that rare sweet greek red wine, or use sweet port, with red-fleshed plums like prune-plums. Put through a sieve to remove the skins, and return to the pan. Add salt to taste, or omit if preferred. Thicken to taste with cornstarch or rice flour, and serve cool in small dishes, with a garnish of candied anise seeds called comfits. (See glossary from “Blancmange”.)
Sloes: Fruit of the Blackthorn shrub (Prunus spinosa), also called the wild plum or sloe-plum. The fruit is about one-half inch in diameter, very dark purple to black, with a silver bloom like a blueberry when ripe. It is extraordinarily sour and astringent until it has “seen three frosts”, after which it becomes edible, but probably not tasty by today’s standards.
Hemina: Latin measure of about one-half pint; researchers estimate more precisely 7.4 ounces.
Cyathus: Latin measure of about 1/12 pint; researchers estimate at about 1½ tablespoons.
Bullace plums: A small wild hedgerow plum (Prunus instititia), black like the sloe, but larger, and sweeter at an earlier stage
Pouder fort: literally “strong powders”. A mixture of spices kept on hand that varied with the cook’s preference, and usually contained cinnamon, but also some of the stronger spices like pepper, cardamom, cloves, and grains of paradise or cubebs.