Bien faire hypocras demande talent et temps!
To make good hypocras requires talent and time!
( – Medieval French recipe set to music, La Fête des Fous)
A couple of years ago, whilst lost in rare leisure somewhere in the Loire Valley, my Frenchman and I attempted to make this storied spiced wine for the turning of the year, armed with nothing but an old rudimentary recipe. Don’t let that emphatically French voice from the Middle Ages, echoed above in quotation, deceive you: although instructions vary and call for a wee bit of creativity, making your very own Hypocras is a simple process.
Hypocras (or hippocras, ypocras, and hippocras, amongst other spellings) is commonly believed to have originated with Hippocrates, the great Greek physician of the 5th century BC, but the name more likely stems from the cone-shaped filter used to strain the wine (the manicum hippocraticum). The history of spiced wine in general nonetheless extends back to the ancient Mediterranean.
Later on, the Crusaders apparently encountered Hypocras while in the Orient. Captivated by this magical “potion”, the knights carried it back to the West, where it subsequently garnered a reputation as an aphrodisiac and was served as a digestive aid. As the concoction evolved into the fashionable drink of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, it was favored by personages such as Henri IV and Louis XIV.
Although Hypocras is still produced in France in small quantities, it is usually only glimpsed at recreations of medieval feasts, where the sweet beverage once played an important role in the meal’s finale. The first extant recipe in English appears in the famous recipe collection known as the Forme of Cury (1390) and many later recipes were published in French.
Hypocras – along with sugar – was taken as a medication, and a bottle of the stuff was also a fine gift to give to one’s host (you might obtain the packet of spices from the local apothecary).3 After the 16th century, recipes began incorporating fruit and even milk, but the drink fell into disuse in the 18th century.
The simple mingling of warming spices and herbs with wine encourages circulation during the winter months. Although the drink is traditionally served very cold, we re-heated a portion of our Hypocras to try as a mulled wine – with pleasant results.
The sheer variation in recipes may have led Medieval households to create their own peculiar recipes and thus to uniquely affirm their social identities,3 so use whatever combination of the herbs and wines that you want and call it your house blend!
What You’ll Need
White wine and/or red wine OR a dessert wine
We used French (2012) Chardonnay (12.5%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (13%). The suggestion from the seasoned French folks who witnessed our efforts is to use light ordinary wines, and to not exceed 11% for the white and 11.5% for the red. As you can see, our choices were a bit too strong.
(There is some argument that Hypocras is made only with red and served at the end of a meal, while white wine denotes a related drink that was served at the beginning as an aperitif. On this topic, explore Scully and Scully’s book below).
Herbs and Spices of your choice
Standard historical choices: Cinnamon, Ginger (dried or fresh), Grains of Paradise, Cardamom, Clove, Nutmeg, Mace, Rose petals, Long Pepper, Vanilla bean, Marjoram, Rosemary, Spikenard, Coriander, and even Juniper Berries.4
The Frenchman’s mother had on hand another mysterious packet of Hypocras herbs that featured Anise. Be careful to use Clove in moderation, as it is capable of a powerful and harsh domination in the infusion.
Honey or Sugar