|To make whip syllabub the most common tool was a birch whisk used to excite a mixture of wine, lemon juice and cream into creating a layer of bubbles on top.|
Since this is the third posting on the subject, readers of this blog might get the impression that I have more than a passing interest in syllabub. You would be right. I started experimenting with old syllabub recipes nearly fifty years ago. I had my first go at making syllabub using the oft cited method of milking a cow into some sweetened cider when I was fourteen. It was a miserable failure. The milk curdled and made a terrible mess. What was I, or the cow doing wrong? I found the same thing happened when I tried recipes that called for warm milk to be poured from a great height into the mixture - resulting again in stringy and inedible curds. In my early days of syllabub experimentation there were very few modern recipes. It was not until Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson started publishing some in the late 1960s that the British general public started becoming aware of what until then been an almost totally extinct dish.
What a contrast that is to the situation today. Google the word and you will find a myriad modern recipes - champagne syllabub, turkish delight syllabub, amaretto syllabub, iced cappuccino syllabub, hogmanay syllabub, passionfruit syllabub etc. What I have noticed though is that nearly all of these contemporary versions are made by whisking whipping cream with the other ingredients until it sets into a uniform thick whip. This type, which seems to be the only one made in modern times, is derived from those revived recipes by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, which they based on what was once called solid syllabub. This sort, also known as everlasting syllabub, was technically a flavoured alcoholic whipped cream. After a while a small amount of liquid might form at the bottom of the syllabub glass, but generally this type consisted of a uniform creamy whip.
|A solid or everlasting syllabub in a panel moulded double handled syllabub glass of the mid -eighteenth century. This is the model for just about every modern syllabub. It is really a type of whipped cream|
|A glass salver set with ribbon jellies and solid syllabubs. Photo: Vicky Osborne.- courtesy Delomosne and Son.|
|The foam was allowed to drain over night until it turned into a much lighter and dryer froth|
It is not as fiddly as it sounds and a very large amount of bubbly suds can be accumulated in a fairly short time. Interestingly a very old and ubiquitous rural name for a sieve was a sile or syell, commonly used in dairies for straining milk. Syllabubs were originally made in dairies rather than kitchens. In seeking for an origin for the word syllabub, the etymologists have complete ignored this Old Norse word. Above you can see a sile covered in bubbles - any thoughts? Once the bubbles had drained thoroughly, which usually takes about twelve hours, an incredibly light, rather dryish foam of a most ethereal texture is created. This was then floated on top of some wine or whey which had been poured into the syllabub glass. This is much lighter and of a completely different character to the modern version of the dish. The evidence points to the fact that the pan top syllabub glass was designed specifically for whip syllabub. The pan helps to support the foam above as below.
|Whip syllabub floating on wine in an eighteenth century pan top glass|
Now all this whipping, whether with whisks or chocolate mills, especially when catering for a large company, was a lot of hard work. So a number of pieces of equipment were designed to make the process easier. The earliest of these was a syringe known as a wooden cow. These are first mentioned in the late seventeenth century. A lot of bubbles can be created by squirting air into the mix with one of these curious implements. They were similar to a device called a butter squirt, which could also be used to make syringe fritters. Syringes of this kind had various applications in the kitchen and dairy. I have never seen any English early modern period images of these things, but Bartolomeo Scappi in his Opera (Venezia: 1570) does illustrate a kitchen syringe. This is a woodcut version from the 1621 edition.
|Choose your weapon. Birch whisk, chocolate mill, syllabub pumping engine or wooden cow?|
A variation on the wooden cow was the 'syllabub pumping engine', which appeared in the first half of the eighteenth century -
“Dr. Hayles hath actually published what has been for some time talked of, a tube of tin with a box of the same at the lower end of it...that is full of small holes. This engine, with the help of a pair of bellows, blows up cream into syllabub with great expedition. This complex machine has already procured the doctor the blessing of the housekeeper in this palace, and of all such as she in the present generation (who know the time and labour required to whip this sort of geer), and will cause his memory to be held in reverence by all housekeepers in the generations that are yet to come.” A. Hartshorne, Old English Glasses, (London and New York: 1897), p. 307.
I have reconstructed this 'engine' and it works very well, blowing 'up cream into syllabub with great expedition. I have had a love affair with this uniquely English dairy food most of my rather long life and have written three published papers on the subject. Syllabub has spawned its own unique material culture and I also collect both the tools which were once used to make it, as well the beautiful glasses that were designed for serving it. With this kind of long experience of the subject, it is always tempting to feel smug and consider oneself some kind of an expert. However, it is humbling to find out that in fact one really knows very little. I recently learned that in nineteenth century North America special mills called syllabub churns were manufactured to make solid syllabubs. After nearly fifty years of studying the subject I had never heard of them. As far as I know, there was never anything like these made in Britain, but I could be wrong.
Below are some photographs of one of these churns, which according to one or two folk who have used them are incredibly effective. They work rather like a plunge butter churn. By pushing the shaft up and down the mixture gets thoroughly aereated. If there are any US readers of this post who have experience of these fascinating utensils, I would love to hear from you. Happy syllabub pumping everybody!