Elynour Rummyng, an Early Modern fictional alewife, mixed hen’s droppings with ale to create a potion designed to make the drinker appear two or more years younger. In this week’s historical beer cooking, we recreate her recipe. Well kinda. I’m not particularly interested in acquiring food poisoning. But, I did think it would be fun to do something on the theme. So I dug around and found a recipe for Cock-Ale, which is a beer-based drink made by boiling a rooster. Yeah. Now I didn’t have any roosters handy to chuck in a pot and boil so I’ve opted to substitute chicken stockpots.
And as she’s from the Early Modern period, I’m using a recipe from that era, though some 100 years after she was written. Our beverage of choice today comes from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several Ways for making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-wine, &c Together with Excellent Directions for Cookery: As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying &c. The clue is in the name but this book, originally published in 1669, contained recipes for all manner of things, including our Cock-Ale and mead.
This kind of ale was drunk not only in the Early Modern period but well into the 19th century. And it’s name was noted as being somewhat vulgar, deliberately. So for example, in 1785, the famous English antiquarian and artist, Francis Grose wrote, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. However, in 1811, improving on this original, with a healthy dose of new offerings came:
1811 DICTIONARY OF THE VULGAR TONGUE. A DICTIONARY OF BUCKISH SLANG, UNIVERSITY WIT, AND PICKPOCKET ELOQUENCE. UNABRIDGED FROM THE ORIGINAL 1811 EDITION WITH A FOREWORD BY ROBERT CROMIE COMPILED ORIGINALLY BY CAPTAIN GROSE. AND NOW CONSIDERABLY ALTERED AND ENLARGED, WITH THE MODERN CHANGES AND IMPROVEMENTS, BY A MEMBER OF THE WHIP CLUB. ASSISTED BY HELL-FIRE DICK, AND JAMES GORDON, ESQRS. OF CAMBRIDGE; AND WILLIAM SOAMES, ESQ. OF THE HON. SOCIETY OF NEWMAN'S HOTEL.
Yet another great title. In this edition, the new authors wanted to ensure that all manner of slang was included stating that,
he was not aware, at the time of its compilation, that our young men of fashion would at no very distant period be as distinguished for the vulgarity of their jargon as the inhabitants of Newgate
And so we have within this new work all manner of slang and jargon used by men of that time period. This book is a truly fascinating glimpse into not only the language but also all manner of things beer-related, including the drink we are discussing today, which they defined as:
COCK ALE. A provocative drink.
There are actually a few beer-related recipes in here I would like to try and make, but that is a tangent for another day. I would encourage anyone interested in pub terminology or just 19th-century slang to have a look at this work. And now onto the show, here’s our recipe from the 17th-century The Closet Opened:
TO MAKE COCK-ALE
Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.
All of these ingredients are fairly straightforward except the Sack, which was a kind of white wine from Spain which might be equivalent to dry sherry.
Alas, I am not going to be using the Best Sack, but instead whatever I can get my hands on at my local shopping market, which left me with either a cream sherry or just using dry white wine. I opted for the cream sherry. Other than that, I am making only a small portion of this recipe, one beer bottle worth, for reasons. So if one bottle of beer is 500ml and this recipe is based on 8 gallons of ale which is 30,280ml, then one bottle of beer is around 1/60th of the recipe. I bet you didn’t think you would have to do math on a beer blog, but here we are. My steps are as follows:
- Add chicken broth to ale. I used those stock pots cause they seemed a bit fancier and just dropped them into some boiling ale. You can really use any here, but keep in mind the dark fruits and chicken if you want to pair it well- opt not for an IPA but something more like a Red Ale or like a Barley Wine or a Oud Bruin. I opted for a Porter. My ratios are one chicken stock pot per bottle of ale (500ml).
- Add a few raisins, some mixed spice, and a few dates and mash them up together
- Add the raisin, date, spice mixture to some sherry
- Add the ale/chicken mixture to the sherry mixture
- Leave for 6-7 days (might leave it less because of the meat ingredient)
- Then bottle it for a month
To be honest, I am probably just going to see what kind of flavours we are working with a few days later for health and safety reasons. But I am very curious to see how this turns out! Will keep you posted.
23/11 UPDATE: The results.
I actually ended up making two versions of this, and I will tell you why. I messed it up.
My first go on the recipe, I used a whole chicken stockpot and a porter, and whilst my porter was malt forward, it was entirely too bitter and, frankly, ruined it. Additionally, I neglected to think about the salt content in the stockpots, at no point in the recipe does it call for salt. So these two factors made it a mess, and not in a fun way. It wasn’t good, but that was my fault.
So back to the drawing board. I swapped some things out, and literally just used chicken, dark meat for the fat content, instead of the whole stockpot. Importantly, I switched to a malt-forward lager with low/very low hop bitterness, which frankly I should have done in the first place. And moving forward, most of my recipes will be made similarly using low/very low hop bitterness, or non-hopped ales/lagers if I can find them, unless there’s something to indicate otherwise. I know lagers are anachronistic, but essentially all the ales I can get commercially are as well, so here we are. I figured it was best to go with what might be the closest flavour wise.
So, second go. And what a difference. This was incredibly drinkable. I think the chicken added maybe a slight richness to the cock-ale, but it was really restrained. The flavours were the malt and the warming spices and sweetness from the dates and raisins. It tasted like mulled ale, and I liked it. I could see why it was so popular. The chicken seems slightly superfluous, but I do think the richness helps pull it together. I can see why it was aged, because these sorts of flavours get better with time. Overall, pleasantly surprised.