Straight from the cow

Syllabub (or sillabub, and other variants) had been known in England since the sixteenth century, but by the eighteenth century this alcoholic dessert had become particularly popular, especially in its whipped variety.

Mrs Raikes’ ‘Everlasting sylabubs’ is a typical recipe:

a pint & ½ a Gill of cream a Gill of Rhenish ½ a Gill of Sack 2 Lemons half a pd of loaf sugar; sift the sugar, put it to the cream, put in the rinds of the Lemons grated, squeeze the juice into the wine, and put that to the cream. Whip it with a whisk just half an hour. (British Library, Add MS 69409)

Notice that deceptive ‘just half an hour’; another recipe suggests ‘beat it with a spoone an houer’ (Wellcome Collection, MS 8002), which must have been an arm-aching task.

And here is a recipe for ‘whipt syllabubes’, which makes it clear that it was the froth from all that whipping that was the desired result:

Take a pint of white wine or Rhenish wine, a quart of creame pair the rind of a lemon or two thin & let it lye in the wine some time, and sweeten it to your tast, then put in your creame & stir it well together & if it be strong enough of the lemon peel take it out, if you have time, let it stand about an hour, and either whip it up with a whisk, or mill it with a chocolate mill in a pot, & take off the froth as it rises and lay it into your glasses. They generally are best to be made at night for the next days dinner. (British Library, Add MS 72619)

For flavouring, other recipes add 2–3 spoonfuls of rose water or some grated nutmeg or cinnamon, and some use a bunch of rosemary sprigs as a whisk, like this one from Frances Springatt (Wellcome Collection, MS 4683):

Syllabub recipe

Image © Wellcome Collection.

Elizabeth Hannover, proprietress of the Lactarium in St George’s Fields, seems to have been a formidable promoter of the joys of such confections. In 1773 she proclaimed:

ELIZABETH HANNOVER humbly hopes the People of Fashion who went out of Town last Year without tasting her Syllabub, won’t this. She has a Tray, that they may have it in their Carriages… She intends to have Whipt Syllabub every Day. (Public Advertiser, March 13, 1773)

She stressed the civility and propriety of her establishment for those who wished to engage in this fashionable pastime:

LADIES may go by themselves to the Lactarium in St. George’s Fields, have a Syllabub, the Benefit of Air and Exercise, and read a Newspaper; on the Outside is no disorderly Person admitted, and in the Inside LACTARIA is determined to stand up for the Dignity of her Lactarium, which is the Temple of Hygiea, and paradise of Children. Buy or hire Dr. Smith’s Account of Milk. Ladies have often Milk, &c. in their Carriages. (Daily Advertiser, June 20, 1774)

Because of its insubstantial and frothy nature, the syllabub lent itself readily to metaphorical use. A pre-publication review of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela recommended that it be published without altering the first-person narrative, complaining that any ‘Strokes of Oratory’ would ‘frenchify our English Solidity into Froth and Whip-Syllabub’ (Weekly Miscellany, October 11, 1740). And the Public Advertiser advised those seeking government office to employ ‘a sufficient Quantity of the whipt Syllabub of abject Flattery’ (June 21, 1765).

Definitely unmetaphorical, however, was the practice of milking a cow straight into the dish. The Times of January 10, 1798 carried the following advertisement:

MILK.– The universal Reputation Mr. HUTCHINS has justly established, by supplying the Public with pure MILK, at his Wharf, in Water-Street, Strand, where he now has a considerable number of Cows for that purpose, has induced him, for the accommodation of those Families in the City, who, from their great distance, cannot conveniently send for it, to engage commodious Premises at No. 3, St ANDREW’S-HILL, DOCTORS COMMONS, near the end of Creed-Lane, Ludgate-Street, where they may be supplied with that truly valuable and nutritious Article every Morning, from 6 to 10 o’clock; and Afternoon, from 3 to 6, at 4d. per quart: and see the Cows milked, the same as at his Wharf… Any Customer wishing for a Syllabub may have it milked into their bason at the usual times of milking…

Indeed, a Mrs Coppin’s recipe for ‘syllibub’ recommends just that:

Take a quart of the best wine vinegar, putt it into the milke paile & milke to it as long as it raiseth curd, then take the curd off, & putt to it a quart of creame, or as much as you thinke fitt, putt to it halfe a pint of sacke or white wine, sweeten it with fine shugar, beat them all twogether, & soe serve it up. If it stand till next day it will eat the better. (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851)

Syllabub recipe

Image © Wellcome Collection.

Now what would the Food Standards Agency make of that?

5 thoughts on “Straight from the cow

    • Yes, that’s true – and was a big issue at that time. I find the thought of all those women in fine dresses lining up with their bowls rather amusing. Maybe there’s a link to the craze for shepherdess costumes?

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