Midsummer's Eve and a Summer Wine for Around the Bonfire
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 evil spirits and drive out dragons!
In the fourteenth century, celebrations turned sinister—it was thought this was a powerful night for witches to congregate. The church also believed that merrymaking was utterly out of hand (a bit of a trend in these times), so they ordered their parishioners to see it as a day of fasting, 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 commemorate a birth as opposed to 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” (mainly in Ireland). It was just basic white bread soaked in hot milk and flavored with sugar and spices. Hmm . . . sounds like bread pudding. Villagers would make this “goody” in large pots at the communal St. John’s Eve bonfire. Anyone celebrating or attending the bonfire would bring a spoon and a small bowl to share the pudding. While this pudding party might suggest a similarly inspired recipe, I’ve planned a more sophisticated homage to St. John’s Eve with a sweet summer wine you can share with friends around the bonfire.
Potus Ypocras was a popular medieval beverage. There were many variations of the recipe, but it most certainly contained wine, honey, and spices; ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and white pepper.
The after-dinner drink was often consumed warmly and valued for its calming properties (assuming they did not drink too much). Ypocras was also referred to as Hippocras, after the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, who had a medical theory called the four humors. This theory stated that the body was healthy when the four internal liquids (I will let you look that up for yourself) were balanced. The Europeans, until the 19th century, believed that this drink had the healing properties and medicinal values to achieve that balance. If the four bodily liquids 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.
One bottle (750 ml) of 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
One bottle of prosecco or champagne
Combine the wine and honey in a large saucepan, place medium to medium-high heat on the stove, and bring it to a boil.
Clarify the honey by skimming off the bubbles from the top as it boils. Remove the pan from the heat and let it 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, leaving room for that deliciously drunk fruit. (do not eat the cloves).
Gather some friends and enjoy a medieval-inspired beverage