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Sir Walter’s cordials

Watch Marc Meltonville and Heston Blumenthal OBE discuss some of the 40 ingredients which were used in Sir Walter Ralegh's 'Great Cordial'.
Sir Walter Ralegh was probably one of Queen Elizabeth I most interesting courtiers. He was an adventurer, a pirate to some, in and out of the Tower three times as a prisoner, eventually getting himself executed. I wonder whether his travels around the world, seeing all these exotic produce that you could bring back to Britain, may have influenced something that he has his name on, Sir Walter Ralegh’s Great Cordial. It seems to be part medicine, part magic. It’s got over 40 ingredients. I’m going to go and talk to Heston Blumenthal to see if we can pull it apart.
It seems to me, here, that we’ve got a range of ingredients that are very commonly used today, so with the oranges, the lemons, there’s some mace, the cardamom, the rosemary, the cinnamon, the juniper, the pepper. Mint. And then, yeah, mint, nutmeg, and clove. Now all of those are, for example, cardamom and saffron, were a classic combination. Cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg also classic combination, especially with the citrus fruits, dried or fresh. And the rosemary. Sort of like half of this stuff, even more, I can see, you whack all this stuff together, and it would taste nice, very nice. Then we’ve got these bizarre ingredients that are horrible. And they put that into wine spirits.
The connection between tonics, which were used to improve health– Yeah. –and strength and stuff like that, and that connection with that and alcohol it became a cocktail. Oh, yes, for medicinal purposes, obviously. In fact, within out spirits, you’re going to chop up and soak a load of juniper berries. And the other one, which I wasn’t so familiar with, is angelica root. Oh, yes, I actually like the flavour of this. [CRUNCH] You can try a bit, if you’ve got strong enough teeth.
It’s bitter. But behind it, it’s got a sweetness. There’s a slight liquorice root character to it. But it is, it’s bittersweet. Once it’s gone from bitter to sweet, of course, it’s now tasting like gin. It tastes like a high botanical gin. Actually, there’s a note of juniper in it, isn’t there? Mm hm, same notes. And now I’m getting some, like a pepper note, spice pepper note. That’s incredibly complicated and probably ruined my taste buds for the rest of today. I’ve got a feeling that when all these nice things sort of disappear, we’re going to be left with the bitterness. Yeah, there it is.
Is this cordial, like you when you go into a wine shop, and they now put, good with turkey, chicken, chocolate, weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, and Christmas? This is kind of like a catchall thing. Yeah, it’s a cure-all, so we can remove any evil spirits from our life. That’s holy thistle, which is another ground thistle. always turns up in medicinal ones. It actually does work. It’s good for any gut problems. So it’s still used in Chinese medicine, as teas, if you’ve got anything wrong in the tubes inside. That’s powdered. Ah. You’ve come across it in recipes, rare hart’s horn. What’s rather nice is this fell off one of the deer in the park, here, at the palace.
Does it matter at what stage the horns are in? Really, for rare hart’s horn, you need a mature horn that’s fallen. And then you just grind it down? And then mine or your job, it’s not very clean is to cut it up, get a nice small piece, and then take the surface off with a knife for a while. And once you get down to white, clean horn, then you can start scraping it off and powdering it. I’ve used this once in an old recipe. And it was used for, it was a form of sponge, gateau, cake and used as a setting agent. That’s the only time I’ve used it. It makes a better gelatine.
I don’t if you’ve ever made gelatine from half a hundredweight of pig. Porcine or beef gelatine, it takes a long time to make. And I don’t enjoy making them. Hart’s horn, technically, is the rarest and most expensive, because you need a deer, and the least stinky and smelly and gives a good gel. And I think there’s one more odd ingredient floating around. We haven’t done this yet. Ah, that one. Yes, what’s that? Well, that is ground coral. From where? The most used one is Red Sea coral, so Mediterranean. You find it on teething rings for children. And you also see coral jewellery for protection during childbirth. So it’s got a lot of association with good health and wellness.
From a culinary point of view? No, it’s all in there because it’s seen as a good protective medicine. And as we’ve looked into it, luckily, it’s one of the ones, unlike some of the others, that’s not going to do you any harm. It’s just going to add a dose of calcium into what’s going on. I shall leave that in this bowl. Yeah, I wouldn’t eat that one. Every ingredient in a Tudor recipe book doesn’t just have a taste. Their view of medicine, the humouric way, your body is divided up into the four humours. Every one of these will have a humouric value.
So I reckon if we spent some time trying to work out the humouric value of each, you’ll find this probably balances. That some of these will be hot, and they’ll be just the right number of dry or wet or moist ones to try and put your body in balance. But I just wonder, if you look at like modern day medicine, there is a whole psychology to it from the producers. You got to make medicine palatable, let’s say, for kids, palatable enough for kids to want to be able to have a spoon or two spoonfuls of it. But if you make it,you don’t want to make it too nice, because the last thing you want is glugging the bottle.
So there’s a fine balance between the two. And I wonder if some of that was going on here with the ingredients that we recognise now. Like the citrus fruit? Yeah. The fact that’s in a wine spirit with two pounds of sugar are all leading you to be able to drink it. And then, as you say, the rest of it makes it just nasty enough that you know it’s doing you good. And I think looking at it and going through it, it’s a purgative. So whatever ails you, if you were to drink Walter Ralegh’s Great Cordial Better out than in, as they say. Either end’s going to work. But you’re going to feel better, I think.
So now you’ve seen us take apart Sir Walter Ralegh’s Great Cordial. Why not have a go at creating something similar yourself? Only, I’d try and make it not just taste nice, but do you good as well.
In this video, Marc Meltonville is joined by special guest, historic food expert, Heston Blumenthal, OBE, to discuss and analyse Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘Great Cordial’, a concoction of over 40 ingredients. You can read a translated recipe, with the full list of ingredients at the end of this Step.
Ralegh is known to have created a range of cordials and herbal remedies. It is recorded that, in 1605, the wife of the French ambassador visited the Tower and requested some of his Great Cordial, along with his ‘Balsam of Guiana’, a potent medicinal cordial of strawberry water, which was later used by Queen Anne.
While imprisoned at the Tower he was permitted to grow exotic plants which he had brought back from the New World, and significantly he was able to convert a hen-house into a space for brewing herbal remedies and medicines. One of Ralegh’s cordials was believed to be good for women who had recently given birth. It contained flowers of borage and rosemary, marigold and red gilly (the gillyflower was a small carnation, and the dark red flowers were often used to perfume wines), saffron and juniper berries, pearl and ambergris and musk, all mixed with the syrup of lemons and red roses.
A contemporaneous manuscript also contains Ralegh’s recipe for a pill moistened with the syrup of violets and taken in the pulp of an apple.
‘The cook is instructed to “first make a thick syrup of sugar and clarify it well, then take blue violets and pick them well from the whites, then put them in the syrup. Let them lie in it 24 hours, keeping it warm in the meantime, then strain these violets out and put in fresh. So do four times, then set them on the fire, let them simper [simmer] a good while but not boil fast. Put in some juice of lemons in the boiling then strain it and keep it for your use.’
You can view a PDF of the ingredients and process for making Ralegh’s Great Cordial, translated from a Latin recipe by Dr Matthew Nicholls, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Reading. The ingredients would have been based in a mixture of sugar and wine spirits (using a still, or alembic, like Marc is holding in the video).
A note on the cordial: we were unable to reproduce this cordial as many of the ingredients listed in the recipe are today unethical to source, while others are harmful (for example antimony is a poisonous metal). If we left any out, or substituted them, then it would produce very different results.
However, in the next Step you’ll be able to make your own cordial at home, but using more readily available ingredients than in some of Ralegh’s remedies!
For those of you interested in the spelling of Ralegh’s name, you can read ‘What’s in a name? Walter Ralegh vs Walter Raleigh’ by historian Matthew Lyons on the subject.
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