It has been so terribly hot and humid here in Boston for the past few weeks that I have found myself longing for things that are cool and creamy, even for the topic of a blog article. And so, I hit upon the idea of writing about the syllabub, a cool and creamy dessert which was still enjoyed during the Regency. During the course of my research I discovered that this dessert has a long history, and even hides a curious myth within its lore.
Syllabubs in England through the Regency . . .
First, of course, that name, "syllabub." What is its source, and, how long has it been in use? Curiously, even that ultimate authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, can provide no insights into the origin of this unique word. The dictionary does not even speculate on a country of origin, but states only that the origin of the word is obscure. However, the OED does reveal that the first known use of the word in print was in 1537, when it was spelled "solybubbe." Thus, we know that Englishmen and women had been enjoying syllabubs for nearly three centuries before the Regency began.
However, when the syllabub made its debut in the sixteenth century, it was not eaten. Rather, it was a very popular beverage made of fresh milk, curdled with wine or cider, then sweetened, and sometimes flavored. Unlike the posset, which was a thick drink made of milk and wine that was served hot, the syllabub was typically served cold. Because it was not a hot drink, the syllabub could be served in the delicate glass vessels of the time, an impossibility with a hot drink, which could easily crack, or even shatter, the delicate glass of the early period. It may well be that the transparent vessels in which syllabub was served influenced its gradual evolution, for its foamy head was the primary focal point of the drink.
Gradually, recipes evolved for syllabubs which were only for the making of the frothy head. By the eighteenth century, syllabubs were no longer drinks, but became sweet, creamy, frothy desserts, eaten with a spoon. Syllabubs were considered very elegant and sophisticated desserts that were served only in the finest houses. This was not only due to the high cost of the necessary ingredients, but also the skills of a talented cook who could carefully combine those expensive ingredients to achieve the desired results. Early cookbooks recommended serving syllabubs accompanied by jellies. The combination of the pale, frothy, opaque syllabub and the darker, denser, more translucent jelly standing side by side around the table must have made quite an attractive dessert course. Even after the introduction of ice cream, the syllabub was not completely displaced and remained a dessert enjoyed by many people, right through the Regency.
Hannah Glasse noted three different types of syllabubs in her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, from at least the 1784 edition. Those same recipes were still included in the editions of Mrs. Glasse’s cookbook which were published during the Regency. According to Mrs. Glasse, the three different types of syllabubs were whypt syllabubs, everlasting syllabubs and solid syllabubs. All of them had similar basic ingredients, thick cream, wine, citrus fruits, spices, flavorings and sugar. The type of syllabub produced depended upon the proportions of ingredients used and how they were combined. Whypt syllabubs must be made only a short time before they were to be served. As their name suggests, everlasting syllabubs could be made a few days ahead, if they were then stored in a very cool place. Solid syllabubs seem to have been less frothy, as they contained more cream, and could be stored in a very cool place only until the next day. It should be noted that a cookbook author of the later nineteenth century advised storing both everlasting and solid syllabubs not only in a cool place, but a place to which cats could not gain access. One wonders how many syllabubs were spoiled over the years by cream-loving cats.
Quite a lot of whipping was required to make any type of syllabub. There were a number of devices which were used for the purpose, from the eighteenth century right through the Regency. The most simple of these was the twig whisk, usually made of birch or willow(osier) twigs. Hannah Glasse recommended the use of a molinillo, known in England as a chocolate mill. However, she specifically advised her readers to keep a chocolate mill solely for the purpose of whipping syllabubs. Since they were made of wood, it is possible that a chocolate mill which was only used to whip syllabub gave the best results, by avoiding contamination by other substances. In 1758, Dr. Hayles, who worked at Westminster Cathedral, invented a special syllabub engine to speed the process of whipping the syllabub ingredients. By all reports, this engine, a small tin box with a series of tiny holes was attached to the end of a pair of bellows. The tin box was immersed in the syllabub mixture and the working of the bellows would force air into the liquid, quickly thickening the creamy mixture into a frothy mass. It is not clear if these syllabub engines were still in use during the Regency, or, if they were, how many people were adept at using them.
Like their beverage predecessor, syllabubs were served in special glasses made just for the purpose. Syllabub glasses typically looked like a glass cone with a flat, usually round, foot. The sides of the glass might be fluted or banded in a variety of designs. Most syllabub glasses were sold in sets of six or more. Large, affluent households might have had dozens of syllabub glasses to be sure there were enough on hand for a large dinner party. It was common during the Regency, as it had been during the later eighteenth century, to carry the syllabubs in their special glasses to the dessert table on large silver platters, often stacked in a pyramid shape, to add to the drama of the evening. Such glass pyramids would have been particularly striking if they were constructed of alternating glasses of pale syllabub and darker colored jellies.
The syllabub myth, which has persisted to this day in some records, is that the best syllabubs were made by combining the wine, sugar, and spices together in a large container. That container was then taken to the nearest milk-producing cow and the cow was milked directly into the container. Supposedly, the cow-temperature milk was immediately curdled by the wine mixture and produced a particularly rich froth. Hannah Glasse even has a section in her cookbook on how to make a syllabub from a cow. However, modern food historians have replicated this process and, despite all their efforts, have not achieved the results as recorded in any of the old cookbooks. There are some glaring discrepancies in these instructions. First and foremost, syllabubs were originally a sophisticated dessert enjoyed by the upper classes, most often in London. There were very few London town homes which included a cow ready to provide fresh milk for a syllabub. Even if there had been, if you have ever tried to milk a cow by hand, you will know it takes a lot of practice to ensure the milk stream goes where you are aiming. Not to mention that most self-respecting cooks and chefs would not lower themselves to actually milking a cow for any dish they prepared. There is also the fact that with the exception of the syllabub-from-cow recipes, all syllabub recipes call for fresh, thick cream, not milk. Perhaps in the early days, when the syllabub was still a drink, some enterprising and/or inebriated fellow decided to make a syllabub from a cow which was close at hand. And that story may have been handed down through the years. But there is nothing in contemporary records, beyond the periodic repetition of the syllabub-from-cow recipes, to indicate that syllabubs were made as the myth describes. Certainly not during the Regency.
Though syllabubs had been somewhat displaced by ice cream as a popular and sophisticated dessert by the Regency, they had not fallen completely out of favor. These frothy confections could still be found on the dessert table of many fine houses during our favorite decade, and many people during that period still enjoyed them very much. By that time, the word itself had come to be used as a term for frothy, overly sweet or silly ideas or stories. A hare-brained idea, a particularly silly report in a newspaper, or a very frothy romance novel might be called a syllabub by their detractors.
Dear Regency Authors, might you find a syllabub of use to your story in an upcoming novel? Perhaps the heroine, who loves syllabubs, has an adoring younger sibling who wants to make her the very best syllabub. What will happen if that youngster, learning of the myth, mixes up the wine and other ingredients, then slips into the cowshed of a prominent local family to take some milk from one of their prized milk cows? Might the hero, who is particularly fond of syllabubs, offer his services when he learns that the young lady of the house where he is staying is whipping up a syllabub just for him? Or, mayhap a heroine, who loves all creatures, takes a stand when the cook in the house where she is staying is determined to put an end to a hapless cat who managed to enjoy some of the syllabubs which the cook had prepared for that evening’s dessert? Will the hero step in to support her when he hears the ruckus in the kitchen? Are there other ways in which a syllabub might find a way into a Regency romance?