If you drink sparkling wines, you’ve probably been drinking glera for years. I hadn’t realized it either.

This isn’t quite cutting-edge news, in the world of wine. Glera became specifically so back in mid-2009 when prosecco received D.O.C. status, its name only applicable to versions produced within a specific geographic part of Italy. Only about 160 producers in one small part of the Veneto near Treviso, in Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (map), now have the right to call what they make “prosecco”. This means that all producers of what was they previously thought to be prosecco are now known by the name “glera”.

The reason “glera” is starting to show up in articles now is timing. The name-change only applied to vintages starting in the fall of 2009, many of which are now available in shops. There are still plenty of prosecchi around from areas further afield, produced before 2009. This also means it is a word which is not yet in any of the mainstream Italian dictionaries I checked.

It all requires a bit of shuffling. Prosecco was the name of both grape and drink. Now that the drink of that name has D.O.C. status, the grape is changing its name. Name-changing grape varietals are surely not that frequent an occurrence, especially when the grape was already in such widespread cultivation.

The word is an old synonym for the grape, apparently, but my initial half-hour of internet and book searching for an explanation have so far not explained it. A nickname specific to a particular place? (Presumably it is not related to places by that name in Iceland (a river) and Norway,) A previously-defunct, now revived word? What was “glera” doing while waiting for its revival?

lamb’s wool

9 November 1666. Samuel Pepys had had an anxious day, what with the Horse Guards building being on fire, and this after all the other fires which 1666 had wrought on the City of London, Westminster, and Southwark. By the evening, news came that the fire was out. Delighted and relieved, Pepys and friends celebrated: “We got well home … Being come home, we to cards, till two in the morning, and drinking lamb’s-wool.”

Lamb’s wool is a drink made of ale, apple purée, nutmeg, ginger, and sugar. It was popular in the seventeenth century, when Pepys mentioned it in his diary and Robert Herrick composed a verse in a wassail song, describing its ingredients. Herrick was a poet more earnest than good, but his verses include some of the best records of early seventeenth-century twelfth night practices.

In “Twelfe night, or King and Queene”, published in his poetry collection, Hesperides, he writes of the choosing of the King and Queen of Twelfth night through beans, baked into a plum cake.

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Beane’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The Pea also
Must revell, as Queene, in the Court here.

In its fourth verse, it describes lamb’s wool:

Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle lambs-wooll;
Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must doe
To make the wassaile a swinger.

The origin of the name “lamb’s wool” is contested, although my favorite version is that it is named for its froth. The Old Foodie discusses alternate name origins in a post on the subject.

Because this historic drink is so well-documented, modern recipes for it are moderately common. Today would be an appropriate day to mix one up, in fact. Pepys drank it in November since lamb’s wool was common during apple harvest season, but it is also – as Herrick attests – a drink with which to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas. Rather than the noisiness of twelve drummers drumming, consider a mug of lamb’s wool.

stewed tea

Perusing early uses of “stew”, I noticed that “stewed tea” warranted its own OED notes. It made perfect sense: it’s the only case in which “stewed” reliably means “overcooked”, unless, of course, you prefer your dried fruits unrehydrated in any way or know someone inevitably prone to overcooking all foods.

The earliest use of “stewed tea” the dictionary has is from 1908. The phrase appears in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Old Wives’ Tale. Two new guests arrive at a hotel, avidly watched by the assembled guests, gathered for afternoon tea: “They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not re-appear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.”

Rudyard Kipling uses the phrase twice in his 1926 collection of short stories, Debits and Credits, in “The Wish House” and “A Friend of the Family”. (The stories were written between 1923 and 1925.) In both cases, it is part of a larger repast, whether “buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig’s tail to help down the muffins” in the first case, or “stewed tea with your meat four times a day”, as in the second.

A few intriguing snippets from Google Books pushes the earliest date of its use further back, if those dates of publication are correct. In 1905, a local education authority in Great Britain advised that “If you take this stewed tea it will prevent you from getting the proper goodness out of your food.” It continues on to recommend that tea being drunk promptly after brewing. In 1904, Vol. 8 of The Queen Cookery Books uses it, although the available excerpt is not enough to provide anything more than a description of what stewed tea is.

In any event, “stewed tea”, as a phrase, first shows up in print at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving me wondering about the earlier history of words used to describe over-steeped tea. Quickly checking Google Books again: “Over brewed tea” goes back at least to 1884. “Over steeped tea”, a rarer phrase, at least to 1915. And before 1884?

liquorice water

Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,

They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)

In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.

This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.

It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.

The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)

As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?


One country’s or time’s commonplace is another’s obscurity.

Yesterday was the first time I’d heard of pulque, a fermented drink made with the sap of the agave cactus, or “maguey plant”. I was at the British Museum’s new Moctezuma exhibit, and it was occasionally mentioned as an exclusively ceremonial drink for priests and sacrificial victims among the Méxica (or Aztecs). It was served in elegant spherical pitchers with long necks, widely consumed among the nobles and priests of early sixteenth-century Méxica, but not the majority of the population. One such jug was on display, decorated in swirling black and red.

Post-conquest, its consumption grew, peaking in the nineteenth century. An entire industry, with dedicated trains and delivery services, revolved around this form of alcohol. A campaign for beer, as a “hygienic and modern” drink, finally succeeded in largely killing off the drink, its consumption declining over the last century. It is largely a poor and rural drink in Mexico these days, and demand is dying. From an eGullet commenter, here’s a (largely unappealing!) description of its consistency and taste, along with a recipe for its use in salsa.

Pulque is also known as octli. At the end of the exhibit, a recent excavation in Mexico City unearthed jewelery made in honor of “the goddess of pulque”. Not named on the label, she is Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey and thus, by extension, of pulque.

*© S. Worthen 2009