Syllabub:   The Head Wins

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?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Viands and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Syllabub:   The Head Wins

  1. When you described a sollybubbe I immediately realised that this is a caudle, which is a medieval working man’s bever [mid morning snack] made for the lower classes with milk and ale, and an egg if available, and a pinch of ginger if it could be afforded in with the honey as ginger is a stomach settler. Or for the upper classes using mead, cider or wine with cream plus spices and real sugar. It was enough food to get through the working day without being too hard to digest on a stomach churning from hard work. It was also given to invalids like a posset. Nowadays we call its descendant an eggnog.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Actually, though a syllabub included some of the same ingredients, the main difference between it and a caudle was that the syllabub was not heated. Unlike a caudle or a posset, it was a cold drink, which was why it could be served in the glass vessels of the sixteenth century. That early glass was very delicate and could easily be cracked if a hot liquid was poured into it. A caudle or posset was served in a ceramic vessel, usually stoneware, since it would not be affected by the heat of such drinks.

      Syllabubs were much more frivolous than caudles or possets, as they originated as beverages for the upper classes. Syllbubs did not include eggs, since they were not consumed as a food source as much as for a sweet treat. The best-loved feature of the drink was the frothy head. It was that frothy head, made of cream, wine or cider, sugar, spices and often also lemon or orange juice, all whipped together which evolved into the cool whipped dessert which was enjoyed right though the Regency.

      I was surprised to discover that syllabubs are making a comeback. There are a number of food web sites and blogs that offer modern-day recipes for syllabubs. Some of them sound quite tasty, and do not appear to be that difficult to make.



      • Now I’ve read of caudles being a cold drink to take in the fields … maybe it could be either … and at some point the idea of serving it chilled, not cold, and in glass took off?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          That is very interesting. Whenever I have read about caudles, they were hot drinks. And some recipes called for bread crumbs, which led me to believe they were very thick, almost like a porridge.

          Of course, in medieval times, “cold” was essentially room temperature. Which would make sense for a drink that a worker might take into the field with him. He would probably not have the wherewithal to heat it, so it would be more convenient to drink it just as it came from the container in which he carried it.


          • that was more or less how I understood it… I have several recipes for caudles from different sources, some of which have thickeners in and are described as like porridge for invalids. There’s a tantalising phrase which I believe is from Piers Plowman or similar about ‘the labourer and his bever of buttermilk and ale’ where the poor guy obviously doesn’t even have full milk …

  2. Pingback: A Jane Austen Christmas by Carlo Devito | The Regency Redingote

  3. Amy says:

    I’m curious, having just read about cows in St. James’s park and syllabubs on another Regency/Jane Austen site, if you might have dismissed the fresh milk in syllabubs notion a bit too quickly. Since fresh milk from a cow is actually milk still containing the cream, it certainly would have been possible to curdle the fresh milk with other ingredients (like wine/lemons) and create a syllabub which would have had a liquid component to drink (whey and any additional liquids like wine) and a more solid curd that could be eaten with a spoon. (I make my own ricotta/cottage cheese simply by adding lemon juice to whole milk over heat, which gives me curds and whey. The curds are the cheese. So I know that this would be entirely “doable” and reasonable. And if there are cows in St. James’s Park, along with milkmaids, then one could certainly go there and enjoy a fresh syllabub made on the spot. It seems entirely believable and reasonable to me. One need not milk the cow oneself to enjoy such a beverage/treat. Just curious about this. Thanks for any comments.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry that I cannot answer your questions. All of the modern-day sources which I consulted for my research were of the opinion that it was highly unlikely that syllabubs were made directly from the cow, as described by Hannah Glasse. Because syllabubs were an upscale dessert, they would have been most often prepared by better cooks and chefs, people who would not lower themselves to milking cows.

      From what I understand, the milk maids in St James’s Park provided the milk from their cows to people primarily as a health drink. Fresh milk was believed to cure or relive the pain of several ailments. I would be very surprised if people would go to the park with the ingredients with which to make syllabubs.

      I did have occasion to attempt to milk a cow myself, many years ago, during a summer spent on my grandmother’s farm. I can tell you it is not easy, and requires a fair bit of skill. Typically, a skill acquired by years of practice, so not just anyone could successfully milk a cow. So, it is not impossible that someone made a syllabub from fresh cow’s milk, but I still find it highly unlikely.



  4. Pingback: EggNog Through the Regency   + | The Regency Redingote

  5. Pingback: Before Vanilla:   Rose Water in the Regency | The Regency Redingote

Comments are closed.