As to the author of the document,
I can give no manner of satisfaction; however, I am credibly informed
of its authenticity, and that it accurately presents an eyewitness account
of the original method of making syllabub. Let us begin in the beginning,
then, with this document.
Syllabub or Sillabub
"In that part of the western division
of England which is commonly called Somersetshire, there lived a gentleman
whose name was Someworthy. It was the middle of May, and the morning
was remarkably serene, when Mr. Someworthy walked forth on the terrace,
where the dawn opened. Mr. Someworthy raised his arms and declared,
"I want syllabub.
Where is that foundling I adopted? Where is that slatternly milkmaid?
Where is my cook?"
Heeding the call for syllabub, the cook ran
from the kitchen carrying sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. The foundling,
Tom, a lad of an ingenuous countenance, and the oh-so-buxom milkmaid,
Molly, appeared together, running from the direction of the barn. Both
were flush of complexion, and both had unlaced outer garments. Bits
of straw stuck to their clothing and tangled in their hair."
(Dear reader, it is obvious that Tom and
Molly had been in the hayloft engaged in a ritual more ancient than
making syllabub. Though I am tempted to digress to the complex topic
of morality in Olde England, I shall avoid any discussion of the salacious.
I know your only concern is to discover syllabub, and our Mr. Someworthy's
demand must be met.)
"Upon hearing Mr. Someworthy's desire,
nimble-footed Tom immediately fetched a bowl, placed it in front of
Mr. Someworthy and filled it to the halfway mark with ale. The cook
rushed to mix in sugar and spices. Molly, now perceiving the weakness
of which she had been guilty, hastened to the the barn and led out one
of Mr. Someworthy's fine, milk-giving Guernseys.
Molly brought the cow directly
to the bowl of ale. She could not forbear giving the cow a hearty kiss,
then reached to grasp one swollen udder. With as great raptures as she
had experienced in the barn, she fell to squeezing the udder. A stream
of warm fresh milk shot directly into the bowl causing Molly to cry
out, O, the dear creature!The dear, sweet, pretty creature!"
When the bowl was full of frothy
milk, Molly stood and took a cover from the cook. Bending, she placed
the cover on the bowl which would sit for one hour before drinking.
Mr. Someworthy smiled broadly as Molly bent, his smile elicited by the
perfection of the syllabub, the natural sweetness of Molly's countenance,
and the revelation of that which lay under her unlaced bodice."
* * *
Though this account of syllabub in the making
may seem to resemble fiction, the details accurately record the earliest
methods. In the hour or two that the syllabub was set aside,
a curd formed over the ale. With the possible addition of a layer of
cream on top, the syllabub was ready to drink. The
solids that formed on top of a syllabub were eaten with a spoon, the
wine at the bottom drunk.
There was a second, more citified
kind of syllabub, one that probably reflected class distinction, as
well as evolving techniques. Though
Mr. Someworthy used ale or cider, the citified version would have used
an alcohol called sack. Also referred to as Sere (or to Shakespeare
sherri-seres - click to see what Shakespeare has to say), this intoxicant
came from Jerez, and developed into the famed sherry wine of Spain.
Cream replaced milk, and with
no cow at hand, the cream was spooned with vigor into the wine. Sometimes
it was whipped to a froth with a birch whisk, a task surely performed
only in upper-class houses that had a kitchen staff more industrious
that Mr. Someworthy's country milkmaid.
Like its country cousin, it was
served in a glass, and in due time a special syllabub glass was designed.
This glass had a spout located at the bottom of the glass so the wine
could be sipped without the clotted milk.
At some point the discovery was
made that a syllabub stayed firmer when the proportion of wine to milk
was reduced, and the two didn't separate. This syllabub was called an
'everlasting syllabub' for its powers of endurance. Cookbook authors
of the day laid claims to having a recipe for syllabub that would last
the longest. This was an early way to market cookbooks, giving evidence
that hype is another of our ancient rituals.
Fool or Foole
The mind races through the numerous
allusions made to fools, from the fool that accompanied King Lear on
his howling journey across the moors to the more modern blunderer plaintively
asking "What Kind of Fool Am I." But the name of this gossamer
dessert comes from the French word foulé meaning pressed
or crushed, and refers to the combination of crushed fruits and thick
cream. It is a dish that is sublime in its simplicity.
The British countryside is a paradise
for berry lovers. It offers gooseberries, red currants, strawberries,
raspberries. One can even sing "here we go round the mulberry tree"
while plucking the small, blackberry-like fruit. Any of these fruits
might have been used to make fools.
This simple dish, so refreshing
on a summer's day, might find its modern equivalent in popularity to
the omnipresent 'yogurt with fruit on bottom,' though no artificially
sweetened yogurt can compare to fresh crushed fruit and cream. The fool
is also the beginning of ice cream, a dish that required refrigeration
to arrive at the status it holds today as summer's favorite dessert.
What can we expect to evolve from
a fool? Merely a trifle, of course, though in its evolution it became
a substantial, highly decorated dessert. Helen Saberi, in her article
"Whims and Fancies of a Trifle-Lover" (in The Wilder Shores
of Gastronomy) has unearthed an early trifle recipe that has no
fruit and is merely cream flavored with sugar, ginger, and rosewater.
Saberi believes that this is actually a fool recipe, but offers it to
us in illustration of the overlapping nature of these desserts. Originally
the words fool and trifle were used interchangeably.
As early as 1654 we find a recipe
that instructs to slice a 'manchet' very thick, lay it in the bottom
of a dish and moisten it with sack. A 'manchet' was a loaf of fine bread,
and was probably day-old bread. We see here the imaginative leap that
turned a fool into something more substantial, possibly inspired by
The trifle allows for infinite
variations on its theme, but demands rigor in its assembly. A trifle
is generally made in a glass bowl to show off the many-textured layers
that combine to create a dessert of beauty. In their book, Trifle,
Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson equate its assembly to architecture.
Its construction begins with a layer of sponge cake (many varieties
are used today) that has been moistened and softened by wine. This is
followed by fruit or jam which in turn is followed by custard and finally
whipped cream. This is the end of layering, but not the end of the trifle
as the top must be decorated. Among those decorations are candied fruit,
angelica, or comfits. Once again, the Old French word confit
was the inspiration. Confits were made by sugarcoating bits of rind,
seeds, or aromatic roots. Sugared caraway seed were among the most popular.
All serious research tells us that
the word trifle comes from the Middle English trufle, which in
turn derives from the French word trufe which is literally translated
as something whimsical or of little importance. The adopted word may
be a bit of a red herring, as the French had nothing to do with the
creation of this dessert. We are left with our own imaginations, wondering
why this multi-layered, substantial dessert has been dismissed as a
trifle. Could it be that an early cook, finding a way to use leftover
bread or cake shrugged off this creation as a thing of no importance?
Or could it be the opposite, a bit of mock humility from a cook who
was covering pride? Just as we might say today, "oh, just something
I whipped up," an early cook may have dismissed a proud creation
as 'just a trifle.'
The trifle may be an international
traveler. In Scotland, the trifle appeared under the name 'whim-wham.'
In Ireland, the name trifle was maintained. Both countries increased
the alcohol which may have given rise to yet another invention - the
'tipsy cake.' Further afield, the Italian creation Zuppa Inglese
(English soup) is a form of trifle, as is tiramisu. Mousse
a l'anglaise is a French variety.
We have but touched on the complexities and
varieties of trifles. We would like to acknowledge our debt to the fine
research done by Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson, while also humbly apologizing
to Henry Fielding to whom we owe a debt of another nature.
For an extensive selection of recipes and
more information, we recommend reading Trifle by Helen Saberi
and Alan Davidson, published in the UK by prospect books.
last word belongs to Shakespeare, this on sherry-sack:
"A good sherris-sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends
me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy
vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full
of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second
property of your excellent sherris is the warming of the blood, which,
before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the
badge of pusillanimity and cowardice. But the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extremes. It illumineth the
face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little
kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty
spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who great and puffed
up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes
of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for
that sets it a-work, and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil,
till sack commences it and sets it in act and use."
Henry IV, Part Two, IV, iii