Name Your Poison

by Sam Bilton on October 31, 2014 No comments

A conversation shortly before bedtime earlier this month…

Billy: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Just flicking through a couple of books I was sent recently.”

Billy picks up one of the slim volumes by Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland and reads the title.

“‘Poisons, Potions and Aphrodisiacs‘. Which one will I be getting?” he muses a little perplexed at the thought that one of the first two will be on the menu.

Fortunately, for Billy I have no sinister plans to do away with him. I was looking in this book and it’s sister volume, Cocktails, Cordials and Elixirs (also by the Duchess) for inspiration. I was about to embark on a month of sobriety in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober campaign.

The books form collections of recipes from the archives at Alnwick Castle (famous for its poison garden). They are fascinating insights into the ‘cures’ and remedies available hundreds of years ago for various ailments and libations. Cocktails contains a lot of recipes  for cordials involving alcohol, a reminder of a time when water was unfit to drink (and clearly these were not appropriate for my forthcoming mission). The Duchess herself confesses to being rather partial to cocktails and has given her name to four concoctions which are served in the Treehouse Restaurant at Alnwick Castle. This includes the Deadly Jane which is aptly served in a poison bottle (the recipe, which involves rum, apricot brandy and fruit juice, can be found in the book).

Drink books LR

It’s easy to laugh at the largely herbal remedies in Poisons but some of them actually sound quite soothing if not curative.

For a Bathe

Take rose leaves, Mallowes, Lavender, Alacampana seethe all these in water till they be tender and then put in milk. So let the patient sitte in it as hote as he maye suffer it and after go to a warme Bedde and sweate.

From Edith Beale’s Book of Recipes 1596

Others like Oyle of Frogges (yes, it really does include frogs and earthworms to boot) not so much. It’s fair to say that many of the recipes in the books contain ingredients that are not readily available to most people and are required in quite large quantities (think gallons rather than litres). Nevertheless, they are both great little books which would make perfect gifts for anyone with an interest in historical food and drink.

Cover High Res

I still needed inspiration for my sober month so I turned to another recent arrival, Artisan Drinks by Lindy Wildsmith. This covers everything from homemade soft drinks (cordials, syrups, teas and fizzy drinks) to alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, perry and cider) with suggestions for cocktails and mocktails using some of the above. What I really love about this book is the fact that each of the recipes I tried makes a realistic quantity of the given drink. So rather than making dozens of bottles of a particular cordial, most of which will wind up languishing at the back of your cupboard, you can make just one or two. Most of the non alcoholic recipes I tried will keep in the fridge for three to six months. Lindy also provides instructions on how to pasteurise cordials to extend their shelf life (outside of the fridge) although I didn’t try this method myself. So here’s a quick run down of the recipes I tried.

Italian lime siroppo

Lime cordial LR

Based on a recipe by Pellegrino Artusi (who in turn based his on a recipe from the Medici cookbook). This looked a gorgeous fresh green in the book but my version was not as impressive (one son asked if someone had peed in a bottle!). I also found it too sweet for my tastes. Perhaps the limes I’d chosen were at fault. Probably not a recipe I would try again.

Ginger cordial

Ginger cordial LR

If the lime siroppo looked like wee then this looked like something entirely different but more unappetising. However, as the adage goes, looks can be deceiving. This was by far my favourite cordial. If you’ve ever enjoyed ginger tea in the far east then you’ll love this. It really is an ‘uplifting and warming’ drink (as described by Lindy) when served hot and was excellent in the Heatwave mocktail.

Rose hip syrup

Rose Hip LR

I have fond memories of drinking this cordial as a child. It takes a bit more effort than some of the other recipes I tried (you have to pick the rose hips for a start) but it is worth it. It looks stunning in the bottle and tastes great hot or cold (and not in the least bit like roses which was a plus for my boys).

Ginger beer

Ginger Beer LR

This is so ridiculously easy to make you will wonder why you ever bothered buying it from the supermarket. It was a huge hit in our house so much so I had to make a double batch of ginger beer second time round. Lindy advises you to drink it within a few days after opening before the sparkle subsides but I found that it stayed fizzy even after opening for more than a week.

Trio of cordials LR

Artisan Drinks contains some great classics (like lemonade) plus some more unusual drinks like fennel flower ‘prosecco’ (which I’m looking forward to trying next summer). I can’t comment on the alcoholic recipes but given that her recipes are easy to follow I’m confident they would work just as well as their non alcoholic counterparts. It’s also beautifully photographed and certainly made my sober October far more interesting than it could have been.


Artisan Drinks (Jacqui Small) £25

Little Book of Cocktails, Cordials and Elixirs (The History Press) £9.99

Little Book of Poisons, Potions and Aphrodisiacs (The History Press) £9.99

Sam BiltonName Your Poison

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