Midsummer’s Eve (or St. John’s Eve for the Christians) is an ancient festival celebrating the summer solstice. Bonfires were lit to ward off bad spirits and drive out dragons!
In the fourteenth century, celebrations took a sinister turn—it was thought this was a powerful night for witches to congregate. It was also believed by the church that the merrymaking was completely out of hand (a bit of a trend in these times), so they ordered their parishioners to see it as a day of fasting and not gluttony.
The name “St. John’s Eve” refers to St. John the Baptist’s birth. According to the Gospel of Luke, John was born six months before Jesus, and it is one of the very few Saint feast days that commemorates a birth as opposed to a death.
In many parts of the world, women would collect plants on this night—fennel, rosemary, foxgloves, elderflowers, and, as you probably guessed, St. John’s Wort. Since before medieval times, this plant was believed to ward off evil. Branches were hung over doorways and windows for protection not only from evil but also from witches.
Back to medieval food—this holiday was marked by a dish called “goody” (mostly in Ireland). It was nothing more than basic white bread soaked in hot milk and flavored with sugar and spices. Hmm . . . sounds like bread pudding, right? Villagers would make this “goody” in large pots at the communal St. John’s Eve bonfire. Anyone celebrating or attending the bonfire would bring their own spoon and small bowl to share the pudding. While this pudding party might suggest a similarly inspired recipe in the next few pages, we’ve reserved pudding for a few other feasts and planned a more sophisticated homage to St. John’s Eve with a sweet summer wine and a shrimp and lobster dish you can share with friends around the bonfire.
Potus Ypocras was a popular medieval beverage. There were many different variations of the recipe, but it most certainly contained wine, honey and spices; ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and white pepper to name a few.
The after dinner drink was often consumed warm and valued for its calming properties (assuming they did not drink too much of it). Ypocras was also referred to as Hippocras, after the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, who had a medical theory called the four humours. This theory stated that the body was healthy when the four internal liquids (I will let you look that up for yourself) were in balance. The Europeans, until the 19th century, believed that this drink had the healing properties and restorative values to achieve that balance. If the four liquids in the body were not aligned, disease and disabilities were likely.
I made two versions of ypocras in my cookbook, A Thyme and Place, one with champagne for the summer and one with bourbon for the winter. Here is my summer version. Enjoy.
1 bottle (750 ml) Riesling, or another mildly sweet white wine
1 cup honey
¾ cup elderflower liquor
8 whole cloves
2 apples, cored and cubed
1 cup seedless grapes
1 bottle prosecco or champagne
Combine the wine and honey in a large sauce pan, place on the stove on medium to medium high heat and bring it to a boil.
Clarify the honey by skimming off the bubbles from the top as is boils. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.
In a pitcher, add the grapes, apples and cloves
Add the cooled wine and honey mixture, and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
In a champagne glass, fill halfway with prosecco and add the other half with summer wine, leave some room for that deliciously drunk fruit. (do not eat the cloves).
Gather some friends and enjoy a medieval inspired beverage