I was going to taste this before I tasted syllabus. But I decided I should taste syllabub before tasting the word syllabub. Well, now I have.
I have for many years been aware of this as a thing one might eat or drink. It always had the air of a treat for the smart set of the later 19th century, the sort of thing one might have after the mulligatawny or subgum and the roast (or perhaps the bubble-and-squeak) when one is not having Eton mess. A thing for the glee club to sing over. I had a vague idea of its being some kind of intersection of a nog and a pousse-café. I recalled speculation that its name may have referred to a sort of syllabification of the ingredients in vertical strata.
When I set out to make syllabub, I looked up recipes. I don’t recall seeing quite such a diversity of recipes for one thing any time recently. The methods vary, and the making time can be a few hours (or even less, somehow) or a couple of days. There is even lore about it: supposedly, it was originally made with milk squeezed fresh from the cow into the mix – an assertion I find dubious, given the nature of the results.
I’m not the only one to find that assertion questionable, on the level with Kiplingesque accounts of spatchcock. One of the best articles I’ve seen on syllabub (though without a recipe as such) is Alan Davidson’s short piece in The Oxford Companion to Food, and he references experiments by Vicky Williams and Ivan Day that rather put paid to the notion of milking a cow right into the jug. Davidson tells us that Day, in his essay (which the curious about syllabubs must read), “acknowledges … help received (presumably on the particular question of direct milking) from cow 53 at Thrimby Manor Farm, Cumbria.”
Davidson also tells us that syllabub is “a sweet, frothy confection which was popular in Britain from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and has since been revived in a small way as a dessert.” (We learn from Day in his essay that Shakespeare’s godson mentions it.) Davidson expands: “Originally syllabub was a drink with a foamy head, but the foamy part was the object of chief interest and later became the main element.”
But that’s as much detail as Davidson gives on the recipe. Well, luckily, Ivan Day has made – well more than a decade ago, by the look of it – a site on historic food, and he presents us with historical recipes. Can I just say that I find reading historical recipes as relaxing and euphoric as drinking historical alcoholic beverages? I feel that I must present you these two, as relayed by Day:
To make a very fine Sillibub
Take one Quart of Cream, one Pint and an half of Wine or Sack, the Juice of two Limons with some of the Pill, and a Branch of Rosemary, sweeten it very well, then put a little of this Liquor, and a little of the Cream into a Basin, beat them till it froth, put that Froth into the Sillibub pot, and so do till the Cream and Wine be done, then cover it close, and set it in a cool Cellar for twelve hours, then eat it.
From Hannah Wooley, The Queen-like Closet (London:1674)
To make whipt syllabubs
Take a quart of thick cream, and half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges, or lemons; grate in the peel of two lemons; half a pound of double-refined sugar, pour it into a broad earthen pan, and whisk it well; but first sweeten some red wine, or sack, and fill your glasses as full as you chuse; then as the froth rises take it off with a spoon, and lay it carefully into your glasses, till they are as full as it will hold.
From Charles Carter, The London and Country Cook (London: 1749)
Really, just reading those recipes gave me much the same soft, glowing, pink nerve endings that consuming a goodly syllabub lately has. O salubrious libation!
Now. Whence cometh this word syllabub? The act of articulating its sibilant and liquid causes a lapping such that one might take the beverage sublabially with it. It has an obvious resemblance to syllabus and syllable. But, as Davidson says, “The origin of the word ‘syllabub’ is a mystery. Lexicographers find no compelling reason to accept any of the explanations offered so far.” The Oxford English Dictionary directs our attention to the existence of the alternate form sillibucke or sillibouk, dating from the 1500s (though not appearing before solybubbe). There are also forms in the line of sullibib and selybube, as though the treat were known to sully the bibs of slobbering silly bibbers.
Bearing in mind, of course, that silly comes originally from a word meaning ‘blessed’ (its modern German cousin is selig). Those who have syllabub are surely among the blessed, and if they have enough they will equally be among the silly. Somewhere in there, their rate of syllables may increase.
As mine have. I made a goodly quantity – hmm, let’s see, 3 ounces of Marsala (I think I would use a different sweet wine next time), an ounce of brandy, 3 ounces of sugar, nearly an ounce of lemon juice, some lemon rind, let sit for two hours; a cup of cream, whipt to stiffness; blend A with B and pour into large glasses; let them sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or two. I happen to have divided it between just two glasses, as there are two of us. I do think I had to help Aina a little with her portion.
I can attest to the liquor settling to the bottom. Syllabub may be a solution to many things, but not all of its parts are mutually soluble, it seems. So you use a spoon to eat the top and to help you drink the bottom. Though it may leave you feeling a bit heavy, it is light and enlightening, and as I finish it to flashes of lightning from outside, I feel positively sibylline.