Job description: make weird wine

England actually had a warm enough climate to grow wine grapes during the middle ages. Whether the wine would have been drinkable by today’s standards is unknown, but as the climate cooled during the “Little Ice Age” (from about 1350 to 1850), the British could not feasibly produce good wine from grapes. But that did not stop them from making wine.gooseberry

There are scores of recipes for wine made from just about anything other than wine grapes. In the extensive Complete Servant guide that I’ve been examining (first published in 1825), among the housekeeper’s duties are not only “improving” wine (see Wine Repair) but also making it.

The directions start by listing the gathering seasons for various ingredients.  Royal pears, chestnuts, medlars (the rude looking fruit discussed in the last post) and numerous varieties of apples, for example, are used in January. In April, raisins, pistachios, and pomegranates are added to the list of choices. (I’m not sure why you can’t use the dried raisins in January, but then I’ve never tried to make wine with them)  In June, the list includes all kinds of berries as well as melons, currants and apricots. Pears, nectarines, plums, cherries and lots of nuts are listed for October.

Wine made out of nuts? I’m not sure how this works, so I keep reading.

After ingredients, the next step listed is gathering equipment such as vats, strainers, a wine press and “hair bags.” Are these like hair nets to keep the workers from getting hair in the wine? Or do you strain the fruit through woven bags of hair? I keep reading.

After this follows several pages of procedural directions for processes such as “vatting,” “drawing the must”  “racking” and “vineous fermentation.” The print is tiny. I stop reading.

I skip to the recipes.

There are 189 of them.

I go back to the directions to see if I can figure out what the hair bags are used for. The print is really small and there are lots of polysyllabic words. I go back to the recipes.

Some of them sound disgusting, so those, of course, are the ones I want to read about. “Barley wine,” for instance just sounds wrong. It turns out to be barley water mixed with white wine, used for refreshment during hot weather. Not really a recipe for making wine. On the other hand, “gooseberry wine,” sounds like it really is not much more than fermented gooseberries and sugar, so it’s what I think of as wine, and it sounds like something I’d want to try. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is wine made from parsnips and turnips, birch and sycamore sap, rose leaves, and even something called scurvy-grass. All contain honey or sugar, many recipes contain yeast. Some even contain grapes. None of them seem to contain any of the nuts we were told to gather in the first instruction, although one uses the leaves of the walnut tree. Maybe the housekeeper gathers the nuts so she has something to snack on while she’s trying to figure out what to do with the hair bags.

Overall, all this wine making seems a tremendous undertaking for the Regency era housekeeper, in addition to her 120 other pages of duties. The butler, in the meantime, just has to inspect the wine glasses for chips and make sure the footmen whistle while they draw the wine. And he gets paid more, too. Some things never change, and the division of labor between male and female is obviously one of them.

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Recipes and instructions listed in this article come from The Complete Servant: Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants by Samuel and Sarah Adams (London: Knight and Lacey, 1825)

Photo courtesy of http://gooseberrywine.com.

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