Buttered Beere…Pewter Pot…Just Add Heat!

So I said we would try to incorporate the work on the buttered beere recipe into the Christmas work plan…for those that missed it, it’s this recipe for How to make buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for cookerie in her Kitchin 1597

recipe for buttered beere

Buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchin , 1597

…and as luck would have it, Marc H turned up for work with somewhat of a desire to give it a go, not only to see if the pewter would melt, but to see what it would taste like. We’ve tried this recipe out before at work, but that was over a decade ago and if memory serves, it was thrown together at the end of a day and there wasn’t much attention paid to trying to follow the recipe in any real way. Now this latter part might seem a little confusing given my comments on the knot garden post where I said that for the comfit making the recipe wasn’t followed explicitly, but merely used as a guide, well you’ll need to get used to that I’m afraid. It’s not just changing the rules as and when to suit, but is all about what is being looked at. In most cases, the recipes aren’t that important, they’re no more a record of what people cooked and ate in the past than my copy of More Rhodes Around Britain by Gary Rhodes is for Britain in the mid 1990’s. (Hey! Don’t judge me, it was a Christmas present from my mum…probably) They are though a record of what some people knew about in terms of ingredients and techniques, as well as foods that the intended audience didn’t know how to cook, as after all, that’s what we use written recipes for, we don’t use written recipes for things we can cook do we? There is a time though when investigating an actual recipe is what is being done and in that case, as with this recipe for buttered beere, following the text is important.

So first decision which beer to use? We only had two to choose from, a mild and an IPA so we opted for the mild to avoid the hoppy bitterness of the IPA, and only having one 500 ml bottle to play with made things a little easier as that’s pretty close to a pre-imperial pint measure, or close enough for us at least. With only one pint to play with, Marc was left with the sort of maths that boils his brains…scale the recipe down to a third of the measures and convert them to metric so that the ingredients could be measured with the scales we have!

Marc took the yolk out of the sack...he was showing off!
Marc took the yolk out of the sack…he was showing off!

So to one pint of beer, add one and two thirds of egg yolks…making sure to account for the variation in egg size that occurs with chicken improvement…then mix together well by passing the whole lot through a sieve several times to strain them together.

Marc pours the beer and egg yolks back and forth through a sieve
Marc pours the beer and egg yolks back and forth through a sieve

You’ll notice that he chose to use a fairly small, shallow pewter bowl for this recipe…well actually that’s a bit of a lie, I chose the bowl and told him to use it. Why a bowl and not any of the other vessels we have? Firstly, we have a fair number of these bowls and could, at a pinch, stand losing one if everything went wrong and the bowl melted. Secondly, all the other pewter vessels (which aren’t plates or bowls) we have access to have decorative foot rings to make them look attractive and help them stand up on the table. This would be a problem if subjecting them to heat from below as it’s the heat sink properties of the liquid that prevent the pewter from melting, just like if you try boiling water in a paper cup

with the pewter though, the foot ring wouldn’t be able to benefit from this heat sink effect and it will start to melt which can lead to holes forming in the vessel if the foot melts all the way up to the body of the vessel (types the voice of experience…though it was a long time ago, before we recorded that sort of cool thing happening). Ideally some sort of pan designed for the purpose would be chosen, but

The bowl sat above the heat on the first trivet
The bowl sat above the heat on the first trivet

that begs the question, did such a thing exist or, if this recipe was followed to the letter, would any pewter vessel that was to hand be used? Now we had planned to do some follow up work just boiling water in the pewter and seeing if the proximity to the heat would cause the bowl to melt before the water began to heat up and maybe look at testing a vessel with a foot, but unfortunately a pastry knot garden and a spit with 34Kg of meat on it rather got in the way…perhaps in the future. For the purposes of this recipe though, we presumed that applying the heat gradually

You can see the bowl is much closer to the heat source
You can see the bowl is much closer to the heat source

would be the best option, so a fairly high trivet was placed over a fairly low bronze chafing dish full of burning charcoal. This set up turned out to be very poor with the temperature increasing by only 0.8° in ten minutes, and with time being a factor, the trivet was swapped for a lower one.  Although this improved things, with the temperature rising by nearly two degrees in the next ten minutes, the chafer then began to give us grief.

This bronze chafer is supposed to be a copy of the one found with the apothecaries equipment on board Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, and would correspond to a type ‘A’ in the descriptions given in Lewis, J. M. (1973) ‘Some types of metal chafing-dish’, The Antiquaries Journal, 53(01), pp. 59–70. doi: 10.1017/s0003581500021855. The problem with this reproduction is that it has never been finished properly and the air

This set up was much, much better
This set up was much, much better

holes in it are tapered in section rather than being parallel through the wall of the vessel and this restricts the airflow. It also requires regular tending and manipulation to ensure that the charcoal burns well and this was unfortunately just not possible with all of the questioning visitors that were in the kitchens that day. With all that in mind, Marc opted to swap the chafer out for one of the larger, tubular iron ones based on images found in Scappi’s Opera, and to revert to the original taller trivet. The increase in heat from this larger chafer saw the liquid rise in temperature by nearly 2.5° in five minutes and it was at this point that the spices and sugar were added.

Calculating how much of these ingredients was a bit of a headache. The recipe calls for half a pound of sugar, one pennyworth of nutmeg, one of cloves and half a pennyworth of ginger, all of these having been beaten.

"brewe them together"
“brewe them together”

Not having any tables of prices and costs to hand, Marc opted for using a pennyworth in weight or 1/240th of a pound as the measurement of the nutmeg and clove and half of that for the ginger. All of that calculated out as: 75 grams of sugar, 0.5 grams of nutmeg and clove and 0.25 grams of ginger (all rounded to work with the scales we had to work with). In the ten minutes it took to calculate those figures, the liquid had risen to 40.5° celsius and it was after adding them that Marc followed the instruction to “take another pewter pot and brewe them together”, which he did several times before returning it to the heat.

Giving the charcoal some air after a re-fuel of the chafer in an attempt to raise the temperature of the liquid
Giving the charcoal some air after a re-fuel of the chafer in an attempt to raise the temperature of the liquid

It then took another 50 minutes for the temperature of the spiced beer mix to reach 70°, with the underside of the bowl fluctuating in temperature from 109° to 133° and the charcoal, around 12 cm below, from 454° to 680° c with this latter temperature only being attained with some vigorous bellows action to increase the air flow to the recently topped up charcoal! As the end of the day was rapidly approaching it became very clear that the liquid wouldn’t reach boiling point before we had to finish up, so Marc chose to add the butter at this point,  but how much is a “dish” of butter? The only reference we have found so far to the quantity a ‘dish’ may have been is in Zupko, R. E. E. (2001) A dictionary of weights and measures for the British Isles: The middle ages to the twentieth century. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. on p110 where it says “the dish was also a wt of 24oz for butter (c1800) in Cheshire”…not a lot to go on, but better than a random guess based on the size of any dish we happened to have to hand. So 226 grams of butter was added to the mix, dissolving in less than a minute.

The final liquid, at just under 70° was “brewed” a final time before being poured into a drinking vessel for the acid taste testing.

Bottoms up!
Bottoms up!

As he’d made it, Marc was the gallant guinea pig first to try it, and on watching him take the first swallow his face painted quite a picture…

If a picture paints a thousand words...this look speaks volumes!
If a picture paints a thousand words…this look speaks volumes!

After a moment of silence accompanying the quizzical look, the verdict…”hmm, not bad!” Turns out he was right, not bad at all; very, very smooth and velvety with a sort of butterscotch taste that when you put your mind to it actually tasted of liquid hot cross buns. Very tasty in small quantities, very spiced but not too spicy, all in all highly recommended and well worth the effort, just a shame we couldn’t get it to the boil.

As it happened, Marc gave it another go on the last day with a pint of the IPA to see if the hoppy nature of that bitter would impact on the flavour…it didn’t! What did happen though was that Robin pinched the chafer when Marc wasn’t looking, removing the beer from the heat so he could cook his custard for the pastry knot garden. By the time he’d given the burner back to Marc to finish off the beer, the time was again against him and there was no chance of getting to the magical boiling point that time either…oh well, never mind.

So would the pot have melted? Very probably not, though clearly without actually trying this is only supposition; however with the melting point of the pewter around 100° higher than the maximum temperature that the underside of the pot ever attained, I would be very surprised to see the bowl melt before the liquid boiled. If we can, I’d like to try this again as I said earlier, just boiling water to test the principle, but whether that will happen in the near future I couldn’t say. I vaguely remember that I might have promised graphs with this post when I originally mentioned it on Twitter so I’ll stick one below that shows the temperatures of the liquid, underside of the bowl and the charcoal fire throughout the cooking; I’ll also stick another gallery up with all the images I took for this, poor though they may be. I’ll finish with a couple of caveats.  I have not found out the composition of the alloy that the bowl is made from and in an ideal world I would be able to compare it to surviving sixteenth century pewter. To be honest I can’t see that comparison happening with what is for us, a fairly rough and ready ‘throw away’ little side project but if anyone fancies taking that on then just let me know. Clearly, the ingredients we used are modern and bear little resemblance to their historic counterparts but this is always going to be a problem with reconstructing recipes from history, you simply cannot get ingredients that are the same as they were in the past; in short, you can’t recreate the taste of the past, only our modern pastiche of it!

Buttered Beere Cooking Temperatures. At 2.25 more charcoal was added to the chafer. At 2,55 constant application of the bellows began.
Buttered Beere Cooking Temperatures. At 2.25 more charcoal was added to the chafer. At 2,55 constant application of the bellows began.

6 thoughts on “Buttered Beere…Pewter Pot…Just Add Heat!”

  1. I would be very surprised at there being any risk of the pewter melting before it boiled – while you couldn’t bake pewter in the oven necessarily, it would seem highly unlikely that a boiling pot would get close to 170 degrees (which is pewters lowest melting temperature).

    1. oooh… I just had a connect the dots moment. Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck held an exhibition in which a set of tin pastry molds – Lobster, Pear, Apple, Grapes from Southern Germany, from the 16th century were displayed. So it as there was a pretty reasonable proportion of tin in your pewter, it could potentially be used even in the oven (tin’s melting temperature is 231 degrees C. References for the items: Inv-Nrn 2294, 23023, 23022, 23024

      1. Pewter is essentially tin, with a small percentage of other metals added to alloy it and harden it; copper and lead mostly in the c16 (now copper, antinomy and bizmuth). Lead wasn’t used in tablewear, only hollow ware and decorative things like badges…which seem in most cases to be mostly lead with a little tin, rather than the other way round like hollow ware was.
        I wouldn’t want to try it in an oven as the floor it would sit on could easily be hotter than the melting point for a while after firing I’d think….besides, that’s what pies are for ;o)

  2. Markham (I know he’s a little later than your period) specifies pewter at least once:
    A Spinage Tart
    Take good store of Spinage, and boyl it in a Pipkin with White wine till it be very soft as Pap: then take it and strain it well into a Pewter dish, not leaving any part unstrained: and put to it Rose-water, great store of Sugar and Cinamon, and boyl it till it be as thick as Marmalad, then let it cool, and after fill your Coffin and adorn it, and serve it in all points as you did your Prune Tarts and this carrieth the colour green

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