Digby 101: Documentation and Quince Lime Cordial

One of the first recipes I remember is the one Baron Ernst taught me from Digby:


Sir Kenelme Digby was one of the first individuals to actually write thing down for future generations.  And although he didn’t have any sort of format for his recipes, he still was able to convey the general creation of food and beverages from his time period and long before.

Digby is an oxymoron because although he’s slighty out of period (1669), most of his recipes are from families well before 1600.  These obviously are still acceptable although newer sources for “in period” cordials and other brews are being excavated all the time.

Digby uses a lot of flowery language which is virtually useless in figuring out how something was created. Take for example the following excerpts from recipes:

Let it stand till you may see your shadow in it“, “Boil it for as long as it takes a man to walk a mile“, or “till it begin to blink.”(*1)

Thanks a lot.  Excuse me while I gouge my eyes out with my corkscrew.

Thankfully, some enterprising members of the East Kingdom Brewer’s Guild (*2) went to the USA Dept of Weights and Measures and figured out that the average walking speed is 3 miles an hour which can give us a rough estimate of 20 min.  This is conjecture obviously but it’s the most accurate timing reference we can come up with.

So let’s get our documentation together.  This is needed for competitions and paneling .  For competitions is is 25% of your score and in paneling it’s 15%.

I Listing the Original Recipe

This recipe is a cordial from his book:


If you will make a Cordial Liquor of Sack with Clove-gilly-flowers, you must do thus. Prepare your Gilly-flowers, as is said before, and put them into great double glass-bottles, that hold two gallons a piece, or more; and put to every gallon of Sack, a good half pound of the wiped and cut flowers, putting in the flowers first, and then the Sack upon them. Stop the glasses exceeding close, and set them in a temperate Cellar. Let them stand so, till you see that the Sack hath drawn out all the principal tincture from them, and that the flowers begin to look palish; (with an eye of pale, or faint in Colour) Then pour the Sack from them, and throw away the exhausted flowers, or distil a spirit from them; For if you let them remain longer in the Sack, they will give an earthy tast to them. You may then put the tincted Sack into fit bottles for your use, stopping them very close. But if the season of the flowers be not yet past, your Sack will be better, if you put it upon new flowers, which I conceive will not be the worse, but peradventure the better, if they be a little dried in the shade. If you drink a Glass or two of this sack at a meal, you will find it a great Cordial. (*3)

For those of you not familiar with Gilly Flower, you may be more familiar with the current name “Clove”.   The recipe mentions using “a good half pound” which may have been needed at the time because the cloves were probably put into box in the middle east, put on the back of a camel and walked across the desert, moved onto the back of an elephant, over the Alps and then thrown onto a horse and ridden across the last part of the European continent to either Italy or England where (8-10 months later) you’ve got “exotic spices” aka cloves.  The wooden box was not much protection and thus was exposed to the hot, cold, wet, dry, etc and the end result was a sad spice with hardly any flavor and even McCormicks wouldn’t take it.  Thus the need for a half pound to ensure enough flavor is withdrawn.

Sack wine (*4) is a fortified wine much like sherry which is used as the alcohol base to extract flavor from the cloves.  Flavoring lower grade wines is fairly common even today.  Maywine (Rhine wine flavored with woodruff), Claree (Red wines flavored with spices), Hypocras (White wines flavored with spices or fruits), Boones Farm (available at Giant Eagle), nuff said!


The author of this blog does not condone the consumption of anything the color of Sterno

II Redaction

So now that we have established a “period-esque” recipe, it’s time to redact.  Redacting is the process of reading the recipe and coming up with what you think is being stated.  This may be a language translation or reading Old English and trying to turn it into modern language.

“Clean and prepare your cloves and put them into a 2 gallon glass container you should have 1/2 lb of cloves for each gallon of sack wine.  Pour the wine in over the cloves and seal the jar.  Put the jar in your cellar (or other cool dark place) and let it sit until the wine extracts the color from the cloves **.  Remove the spent cloves and pour off the sack wine.  enjoy.”

**  Notice no time reference, just observation of the cloves pallor.

III List of Equipment and Ingredients

We’ve got our instructions, now we want a list of our equipment:

  1. A Stainless Steel Pot
  2. A Stainless Steel Spoon
  3. 1 Ball Jar (canning jar)

Ingredients are important for a couple reasons.  First, we want to see all the materials that go into making the cordial so we know what to expect when we smell and taste the finished product.  If you say there’s plums in there, we want to make sure we can taste and smell them.  Secondly, if any of your judges have allergies we want to know that before having to call the ambulance. (my Laurel is allergic to oak which is popular in many wines and some hard liquors that are aged).

IV Substitions

Which brings us to our next discussion.  Listing substitutions is important so we can expect changes and why they were changed.  If you make a Roman wine which calls to serve it in a Lead Pitcher, and you choose to serve in glass and throw a tablespoon of sugar in to simulate the effect, we will applaud you.

If you don’t have an ingredient but instead use something similar, we would like to know that as well so we can anticipate the flavor variation.  In paneling, you can actually affect your score in both “Authenticity” and “Creativity” by making substitutions.

V Process

Case in point.  I don’t have any Gilly Flowers (Cloves) so I’m creating an alternate cordial using the same basic recipe with a slight change due to the fruit being used.

Back in July I received a surprise gift of Quinces (*5).  Digby makes mention of Quinces multiple times throughout his writings in other recipes so we know they were period and we know they were available to him to use.

Fresh Quinces grown locally by a neighbor of mine.

Fresh Quinces grown locally by a neighbor of mine.

First thing we did was wash, clean and halve the Quinces to remove the stone and stems.  The stone will make the fruit extremely bitter and with the Quinces already being extremely sour, we need to boil the fruits to lose that astringency.

Boiling the Quinces to remove the astringency

Boiling the Quinces to remove the astringency

When the skins of the Quinces starts to pull away and the fruit starts to become transparent they are ready.  Throw away the water and take the Quinces and put them in the Ball Jar.  We had 1 lb of Quinces and used vodka instead of Sack Wine.  The reason we changed is because the flavor of Quinces would have been steamrolled by the Sack Wine.  Vodka, with no strong flavors, would take the Quince flavoring and because of a previous experience I decided to add some Lime (*6) into the cordial as well.

Quinces steeping in vodka.  Lime was added shortly after this picture.

Quinces steeping in vodka. Lime was added shortly after this picture.

So we started this process almost 2 months ago.  It was very cloudy and did take a bit of time to clear by gravity but the color came through beautifully

Color of the Quinces came through very nicely.  A beautiful golden color.

Color of the Quinces came through very nicely. A beautiful golden color.

Now comes the final alteration to the “Gill Flower” Cordial.  We needed to sweeten it.  When I tasted it, it was very alcohol strong and sour.  We definitely want to compensate with sweetness.  In this case, sugar syrup (*6) was added to bring the flavor slightly below perfect.  The reason why is from my own personal experience where the fructose sugars from the Quinces and Limes will blossom in that short time it needs and it will be spectacular.  Hopefully I can enter this in the next paneling at Birka and score well.

VI Personal Comments

This is the part where you’ve finished the process and seen everything involved and maybe run into some problems during the construction of the beverage.  We want to know what you’ll change and why.  Maybe even some personal thoughts of how to make the beverage better.

VII Bibliography

Give us your sources and try to have more than just 1 resources.  2 is better, 3 is spot on!  If you use a product that has medieval origins, list it.

It takes some time but with some practice you’ll have the process for documentation down pat.




(*1) Kenelm Digby. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened (Kindle Location 517).

(*2) Baron Ernest (formerly known as the miscreant Father Scrumahli)

(*3) Kenelm Digby. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened (Kindle Locations 753-762).

(*4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sack_(wine)

(*5) http://greekfood.about.com/od/greekcookingbasics/p/prof_quince.htm

(*6) Sugar Syrup added with a 1/3 water and 2/3 sugar ratio to slightly below perfect.

3 thoughts on “Digby 101: Documentation and Quince Lime Cordial

  1. This is a lovely description! I’d like to pick a small nit about your assumption that “clove gillyflowers” must be dried cloves from Asia. Certainly they may be, but there was also a garden plant by the same name, more like a Carnation or a Pink, which has a lovely aroma and can be used to flavor brews. Somehow the idea of the garden plant seems more likely in this context, though I certainly wouldn’t rule out dried cloves. Here’s a non-scholarly link that might give you some more background on the garden-variety clove gillyflowers : http://www.thymewilltell.com/dianthus.html

    Also there’s this, from this website: http://foothillsfancies.blogspot.com/2011/05/clove-gillyflowers-botanical-ramble.html:
    Another plant truly was sopped in wine: the Clove Gillyflower, to which the name “sops in/of wine” is also applied. We’ve all seen these flowers, we just know them by another name: Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus and others). John Parkinson described “gilloflowers” in 1629, in his “Paradisus Terrestris.” He notes:

    To avoid confusion, I must divide Gilloflowers from Pinkes and intreats of them in several chapters, of those that are called Carnations or Gilloflowers as of the greater kinds in this Chapter; and of the Pinkes as well double as single, in the next. But the number is so great that to give several descriptions to them all were endlesse… I account those that are called Carnations to be the greatest, both for leafe and flower, and Gilloflowers for the most part to bee lesser in both…”

    Parkinson thereafter names some nineteen types of Carnations and 29 of Gillyflowers, not including the small wild gillyflowers he calls “Pinkes.”

    Dianthus, literally from the Greek, means “divine flower” (dios plus anthos). It is in the family Caryo-phyllaceae, and the specific epithet of Gillyflowers, D. caryophyllus, adopts the family name. The carnation is also linked to cloves, and was once called “clove pink” for its scent and frequent use as a substitute for the expensive imported spice.

    • Excellent information. Thank you for adding that. I was going off of information given to me by other brewers concerning the Clove/Gilly Flower connection. That’ll teach me to take common knowledge for granted. 🙂

  2. There’s always something new to learn, isn’t there? Keeps us humble! I look forward to tasting your quince concoction at Birka! Be well and keep on brewing! — Marieke

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