The Oxford English Dictionary derives the word sack – the famous wine Falstaff praised extensively in Shakespeare’s plays and that is seen as the early modern form of sherry – from French sec, meaning dry. Sack in the Oxford Companion to Wine however is described as probably a sweet wine, most likely a sweet oloroso. In the wine world, it is nowadays generally accepted that sack is derived from the Spanish word sacar, to draw out. Sack is then wine that was drawn out of the vessels in the wine cellar, ready for export, as I was indeed told during a visit to a bodega in Jerez de la Frontera a few years back.
But if sack was sweet rather than dry, what kind of sweet? As sweet as a present day PX, made from the pedro ximenez-grape, dried in the sun? Or a more subtle sweet, more like a German Kabinett or halbtrocken (half dry, or off dry)? To answer that intriguing question, I am researching mentions and consequently uses of sack in the large collection of cookery manuscripts gathered in the Folger Library in Washington DC. While volunteering as a transcriber, it struck me how omnipresent sack was in those manuscripts. Recipes with a little or a lot of sack in it came up regularly, sometimes page after page. To me, used to historical recipes in Dutch which use mostly Rhine wine, this was something very striking. Also because Rhine wine and sherry seem hardly comparable, but most recipes – Dutch and English – are. My research is ongoing, and will hopefully result in a serious article soon. But for this International Sherry Week (4-10 November 2019), I wanted to share some of the interesting recipes with you. You might want to try a few!
One of the first mentions of sack I came across is this one, in W.a. 315:
To make Sack Pancakes
Take half a pint of Sack & warm it, and a quart of cream and warm it, and 6 Eggs and warme it well beaten and some butter melted, and some gratered Nutmegg, and Cinnamon and rose water two spoonful of flower they must fryed without butter you must rub your pan with Egg Shells and so fry them.
In cakes, very often spoonfuls of sack are used (V.a. 429)
To make little Cakes
Take a pound of dryed fflower devide halfe of it Into a drgger, the other halfe rubb into a pound of butter, lett your butter be washed with Rose Water. then beat Eight Eggs leaveing out fower of the whites, add to your Eggs fower spoofulls of sack, then straine them into your flower & butter then drugge in the other halfe of your flower, mixing it all the while with your hand till you putt them into the pann then drugge in a pound of Double Refined Sugar, & what Currance you please; butter your tinn pans then put in your paste, halfe an hower will bake them when you put them Into the oven Sift a little double Refined upon sugar upon them to froast them.
The combination of sack and dairy is also very frequent (V.a. 20):
To make A creem puding
Take to a quart of creem 22 eggs put out 6 of the whits mix with it 6 spoonfulls of fine flower, sweeten it to your tast put in sume salt & nutmeg, a littill sack half a pound of Allmonds blanched and beaten very fine with rosewater, mingell all together then butter and flower a cloth well, & tye it up put it in boyling water 2 hours will boyl it, when you make this puding you may beat the almonds ouer night.
And then there is the sack posset; this drink must have been a favourite, since I found it in many manuscripts, in different forms (V.a. 401):
To make A Welch Sack posset
Take a quart of cream (or if it be half new milk it will do very well) put thereto almost half a penny loaf grated 4 eggs beaten very well, 8 spoonfulls of sack, & half a pint of Ale, season it with nuttmeg, & sugar, then set it on a clear fire, & keep it with constant stirring all one way till it iust begins to simber, then take it off quick and pour it into your cold bason, stir it 2 or 3 times round, the same way it was stirred before, then serve it up.
Sack also finds its way in distilled waters, used as medicinal cordials and potions (V.a. 429).
The Lady Morlys Plague Water
Take sage Sallendine, Rue, Rosemary, Worwood, Rosa Solis Mugwort, pimpernell, Dragons, Scabious, Egrimony, Balme, Scordium, Cardus, Bittony, Centanary, Marygold of Each of these an handfull & halfe & a peice of Ellicampaine root, of Angellica of pioney, of licquorish of Tormentill rootes all cleane scraped & bruised of each halfe an Ounce to a Gallond of wine, or more if you think fitt, the wine either Sack, or halfe whitewine & the rest Brandy.
In the recipes, sometimes a distinction is made between sack from either Malaga, Jerez or the Canary Islands: so we have malligo sack, sherris sack and canary sack. There is a difference between those wines, which also becomes clear from the final recipe I will leave you with, from V.a. 215:
To one Gallon of sack take two gallon of whit rasberris Bruse them & let them stand all Night if it be malligoe it will need noe sugar, but if it be cannarie you must Add Lofe sugar strain it & when it is settled cleare Bottill it up, Let it stand 3 weeks or a mounth then you may Drinck it it will be as Brisk [?] as any Sherri sack.
So, sack from Malaga was sweeter then sack from the Canary Islands; and sack from Jerez was apparently something with the taste of raspberries? Fascinating material, which will hopefully lead me to more information on the character of sack in the 17th and 18th century. To be continued.