Sherries and cream

Drink - Victoria Moore discovers how to make a posset

There is doing things properly and there is doing things like Ivan Day, who, for the past three years, has worked on English Heritage's "Eat, Drink and Be Merry: the British at table 1600-2000" exhibition, which is currently at Kenwood House in London. The exhibition features over 30 paintings depicting British gourmands and about 400 decorative art objects, but the show is comprehensively stolen by the food tables - heavy with bisque of pigeons, wild-boar pie, pickled crawfish and so on - that are the focal point of each room. The very sight of them has the stomach growling and the mouth slavering in greedy expectation.

But only the marzipan sweetmeats and the nursery tea boiled eggs (which had to be turned upside down to hide the supermarket purple date stamps) are real. The rest has been painstakingly cast out of latex from the perishable original which, in most cases, Ivan had first cooked up in his kitchen in Shap near Penrith. My cousin played a small part in this feast-making - driving north a few months ago, her car laden with London-bought delicacies, which would have included a live lobster snapping at her gearstick had the man in Selfridges not pointed out that it would be unlikely to survive overnight in the sink in her hotel room.

Knowing that there is almost no limit to the trouble to which Ivan will go in order to get things right, I was still surprised when I phoned to ask him to recommend a recipe for a posset. No one thinks much of possets nowadays (the only people in Britain still to drink a version, which uses whisky, are the Orkney islanders), but, in the 16th and 17th centuries, they were highly fashionable nightcaps. They are delicious, consisting of a rich, aerated custard topping, floating on a spirit base (most often sack, a strong Spanish white wine, usually matured in wood for a couple of years - a sort of poor man's version of oloroso sherry). You need a special pot to drink a posset from. A posset pot looks like an imperious, big-for-its boots teapot with a spout through which you can suck the liquor from the bottom. The custard is eaten with a spoon from the top.

Indeed, when I mention possets to Ivan, he says: "Ah, yes. I've just been throwing some pots" - by which he does mean that he's been taking lumps of clay and fashioning his own tableware. This is at least one step further than I'd expect anyone to go, but Ivan believes that it's necessary: "I'm of the school that thinks that, if you're going to write about art, you should get your paintbrushes out and try painting." It is not, then, a surprise when he sends me not one but 14 recipes, one of them in verse.

These recipes frequently come in quantities that would alarm today's beady cholesterol-watchers, partly because, from the 17th to the 19th century, they were very popular at weddings, when the "Bridal Cup" containing the Benediction Posset was passed from guest to guest before the newly weds ascended to their nuptial bed. "Boil three pints of cream with some nutmeg," says one, as casually as if it had asked you to open a can of baked beans and put some bread in the toaster. Another calls for "the yolks of 20 eggs", while a delicious-sounding variant, for an almond posset, uses "half a pound of almonds blanched and beaten very fine with rosewater". One recipe recommends tying cushions round the posset pot as it stands separating, in order to keep the drink warm.

Who knows which of these delicious possets is contained within the bridal cup being brandished in the painting A Wedding Fete at Bermondsey by Joris Hoefnagel - part of the current exhibition - but the cup itself is decked with the red and white silk ribbons that symbolised childbirth and fecundity (red for blood, white for milk) and rosemary sprigs. Probably, given that the cup is made of gilt, the posset would have been brewed with hippocras, a heavily spiced wine used by the nobility and gentry - the poor farmers in the north of England would have used ale.

If your appetite is whetted, here is a simple recipe taken from John Nott's The Cooks' and Confectioners' Dictionary, London, 1723. Don't forget to throw a pot first.

"To make a posset: set a quart of milk on the fire; as soon as it boils, take it off, and set it to cool a little; then, having put four spoonfuls of sack [sherry] and eight of ale into a basin with a sufficient quantity of sugar, pour your milk to it; then set it before the fire and let it stand till you eat it."

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit