Working at the Heritage Shop over the summer, one of the things I had to buy from the store was the cookbook, Fat-Back & Molasses. So many people mentioned that their Mum or Nan had this book. It seemed as though it had to contain some classic Newfoundland dishes that we ought to try.
My favourite thing about the book is that every recipe contains fatback, molasses, sugar, or butter. Some recipes call for 2 or 3 of these ingredients and we are not talking teaspoons or even tablespoons of these oh so tasty items, we are talking cups and cups. Move over Mary Poppins, we ain’t wasting no time with just a spoonful of sugar!
When perusing Fat-Back & Molasses J—– came across Rhubarb Brandy and he decided that he absolutely had to make it. Brandy can be made from apples, plums, pears, grapes, watermelon, corn, cherries – basically anything. But we had a recipe for Rhubarb Brandy and rhubarb was going cheap at our local supermarket. So J—– set out on his little brandy adventure.
Here is the recipe from Fat-Back & Molasses as provided to the author by his “Good Friends”:
“6 lb. rhubarb, 1 gallon water, 1 lb. dates, 4 lb. sugar, 1 lb. barley, 1 oz. yeast”
“Wipe the rhubarb clean with a damp cloth, cut into [small] pieces, and then crush with a rolling pin. Place the rhubarb in the water & allow to soak for 24 hours, crushing as much as possible during that time. Strain through muslin and put the juice through a jelly-bag. Bring the juice to boiling point and simmer for 3 minutes. Strain on to the sugar and stir until all the sugar is dissolved, then add the cut-up dates and the barley. Allow the brew to cool, sprinkle the yeast on top & stir in. Cover as directed & ferment for fourteen days, after which strain and proceed with the first bottling”
J—– veered from the recipe on occasion. We didn’t have jelly bags (small bags used to strain boiled and soaking fruits for such things as jams or syrups) or muslin, but J—– managed to jerry-rig an old (clean) t-shirt and suspend it over a pot using a curtain rail and two chairs. It appeared to remove most if not all of the fruit fragments from the mix – so that would do. Secondly, the recipe tells the cook to “cover as directed”. Well, we’re still looking for those directions… so the makeshift alternative was to stick it in a pot and cover it with a tea towel, then a lid. Perhaps we were meant to seal it, but it didn’t seem to do any harm to the drink itself. However, the assault on our nostrils with the smell of fermenting (or rotting) fruit for 2 weeks in the kitchen wasn’t great. Also, it was the height of summer (a particularly warm summer for St. John’s – thank you Global Warming), so fruit flys were particularly attracted to out fermenting pot! Still, the brandy looked all right once it had been strained after the 14 days and we gave it a go.
And I have to say J—– did a good job. It left a little to be desired in the aftertaste department but it went well with lemonade (it did not go so well with ginger ale – the aftertaste got worse). Food and Drink in American History says that brandy was also mixed into cider or coffee. Well, we had to try one of these so we got out our good old Tim Horton’s Original Coffee (we live in Canada now, deal with it) and we added a good of brandy.
J—– was suffering from a cold and headache on the day we tried out this new coffee and brandy mix, and fortunately, the brandy portion of the drink was quite appropriate. Brandy was often used as part of medicinal tonics well into the 20th century. Indeed it was regarded as being far superior to all other liquors when it came to medication, used to treat fainting, hypothermia, shock, insomnia, delirium and angina, and was even used by diabetics to increase their calorie intake. So basically it’s a miracle cure. Interestingly, when it came to ridding yourself of maladies, oral ingestion was not the only means to get the substance into your system. Other treatments of brandy were “given by injection, rectally and even intravenously” (Gully 2011: 953). When having his dose of coffee and brandy, however, J—– only drank it. But, should his cold and headache remain, I shall suggest he tries alternative means of getting this curative substance into his body (I have no shame in suggesting this to him as one year he gave me an archaic enema for my birthday that he’d purchase from the local auction house).
Unfortunately, the coffee and brandy produced mediocre results. It was good, just nothing to rave home about. Perhaps the ratios of brandy to coffee were not quite right. Perhaps the Tim Horton’s coffee and our rhubarb brandy were not the right blends of flavour. Perhaps a different fruit in our brandy or a different coffee bean might create the perfect drink. That being said, before a night out, I think I would occasionally enjoy having a coffee and brandy to kick start the evening.
And now for a few lines from “A Satyr Against Brandy” written by Joseph Haines in 1689:
Farewel damn’d Stygian Juyce, that dost bewitch,
From the Court Bawd, down to the Country Bitch;
Thou Liquid Flame, by whom each fiery Face
Lives without Meat, and blushes without Grace,
Sink to thy Native Hell to mend the Fire,
Or if it please thee to ascend yet higher,
To the dull Climate go, from whence you came,
Where Wit and Courage do require your Flame.
Gully, G. 2011 Medicinal Brandy. Resuscitation 82: 951-954.
Haines, J. 1689. A Satyr Against Brandy. London: P.W.
Jesperson, I. 2014 Fat-Back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite Old Recipes from Newfoundland & Labrador (8th ed.). St. John’s, NL: Jesperson Publishing.
Ladies Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed 19/10/2016]
Smith, A. F. 2013. Food and Drink in American History: A “Full Course” Encyclopedia Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.