It is truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen liked to make her own beer and eat good apple pie. Ever wonder what else lies between the lines of Pride and Prejudice? Well put the kettle on and keep reading. Modern Austen is a new series of blog posts featuring all things Austen and all things food. Posts will highlight aspects of historical foodways as well as various recipes the authoress enjoyed during her own lifetime. 18th-century dishes, etiquette tips for modern eaters, literary themed mixed drinks! Learn what the witty writer ate during the Regency era, the kind of cocktail Lizzie Bennet might order at Happy Hour, and how a modern Austen might enjoy the culinary melting pot of today.
Today is both Jane Austen’s birthday and now the official Austen Day per the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. I’m sure she’s had enough of scones and cakes and dainty little things. The lady has accomplished so much, I think she deserves a drink. I’ve always wanted to make Spruce Beer just like Austen talks about in her letters and like the recipe listed in her friend Martha Lloyd’s family cookbook. Large, dashing spruce trees grow all over the British Isles and even here in North America. Thing is though, I can never find one. Balsam, fir, juniper, cedar. I can find it all, but no such luck with spruce.
White spruce-beer — To five gallons of water put seven pounds of loaf-sugar, and three-fourths of a pound of the essence of spruce. Boil and skim this. Put it into a vessel, and, when nearly cool, add fresh yeast (about a half-pint or less.) When the beer has fermented for three days, bung the cask, and in a week bottle it off. N.B. — For Brown spruce use treacle or coarse brown sugar, instead of loaf-sugar. (M.D. 1829).
Recipe by Austen’s friend, Martha Lloyd, printed in The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black.
Real spruce beer calls for spruce tips, the part of the tree that starts to regrow in the spring. These tips are soft and light, but still contain all that special spruce flavor. So there’s the other rub, it is definitely not spring. But spruce is just one of several edible evergreens and right now I have plenty of access to these perennial conifers, in particular, fields and fields of lovely Balsam fir.
And since Austen’s birthday is today, I don’t really have time to ferment a batch of beer, the lady needs a drink now. So we’re going to take the alcohol up a notch and let a good Scotch Whiskey do the work and focus all the evergreen flavor into a simple sugary syrup spiked with a sprig of rosemary.
After boiling the sugar and the water, the balsam sits and steeps until cooled, filling the house with the perfect Christmas scent. I know this syrup is intended for cocktails, but I’m sure Jane would equally appreciate it drizzled over hot pancakes, in a cup of tea, or just right off the spoon.
As I’ve said before, Austen was a big fan of alcoholic beverages and often brewed them herself. However she is still a lady and must express her affinity for such beverages with decisive aplomb. This Balsam, Scotch, + Soda, while fit enough for the stiffest of whiskey drinkers, is just the right amount of mild-mannered to fit within the more sensible tastes of the fairer sex. Essentially, I think everyone should drink their whiskey with a bit of seltzer and the essence of nature. And I like to think Jane would agree.
Be sure to thoroughly wash your Balsam even if you picked it fresh from the wild. A good 20 minute soak in a solution of water and vinegar will help remove most of the pesticides or chemicals or other natural nasties. The leaves are sturdy enough, you could even give them a good scrub in mild dish soap and then a thorough rinse in cool water. If you are able to forage for edible conifers in your area refer to this lovely sketched guide from Kinfolk.
Balsam Fir Syrup
inspired by traditional Regency recipes and this one from Local Milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup balsam needles, thoroughly cleaned and roughly chopped
1 small sprig of rosemary
1. In a small sauce pan, bring the sugar and water to just under a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in balsam and rosemary. Let the mixture sit until completely cooled. Strain and bottle. Store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
Balsam, Scotch, + Soda
for one drink
plain unsweetened seltzer or club soda
balsam fir syrup
In a small glass, add crushed ice and top with a teaspoon or so of balsam syrup, 1 to 1.5 ounces scotch, and finish with soda.
After you’ve made yourself a drink, toast the lovely lady by visiting some of the most recent news and happenings about Austen from around the web:
Take a tour through What Jane Saw, a virtual art gallery reproduction of the same artwork Austen saw at the British Institution in 1813. A lovely site produced by the University of Texas and the darling brainchild of my old undergraduate thesis advisor and fellow Janeite, Dr. Janine Barchas.
Get excited for the upcoming exhibit at the Folger Library in D.C. on Will + Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.
And check out this nifty article celebrating the anniversary of Sense and Sensibility with a visual representation of Austen dust jackets through the ages.
Happy birthday, dearest Jane.