Dark Roast: Drinking Coffee in the 17th Century

A Midnight Modern Conversation. Hogarth.

In The Southwark Saga, the coffee is terrible. Sally regards it with suspicion in Tyburn, and it’s one of the first bad things Jane smells as she arrives in Southwark in Virtue’s Lady. But how bad could it have been?

Pretty bad. Here are the instructions they were using: 

“Take a gallon of faire water & boyle it until halfe be wasted, and then take that water one pint, and make it boyle, & then put in one spoonful of the Powder of Coffee and let it boyle one quarter of an hour, stiring of it two or three times, for fear of it running over, and drink it as hot as you can, every morning, and fast an houre or two after it.” (1)

Although the coffee was powdered, it would have been likely to leave a thick sludge at the bottom of a cup (if not in the rest of it). When Jane says that she could have stood a spoon up in it, she isn’t exaggerating. Drinking it very hot would go a ways to disguise the burnt taste of coffee powder and well water left to boil too long in a pot over a fire. It would have been rare to add milk to it. People did not commonly drink milk because it was thought to be unsafe, and they were probably right. As for sugar, it was sold in loaves that had to be broken up and pounded before it could be added to anything, let alone coffee.

It was a far cry from Starbucks, but they were lucky to have it. 

Coffee was a luxury drink like tea or chocolate, but became popular in England before either of the others. Coffee houses were a predecessor to the men’s clubs of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequented primarily by men (and perhaps women of ill-repute). The first coffee house in England was opened in 1650 in Holborn, and by 1663, there were 82 of them in London alone. 

Now when we think of Britain, we think of tea. Samuel Pepys mentioned drinking it as early as 1660, but it wasn’t until after Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662 that tea came into its own. Her affection for the drink from her native Portugal started a trend among the wealthy that only intensified as tea became more readily available with the founding of the East India Company. (2)

When Jane returns to drinking tea after trying Mark’s coffee, she can barely taste it. For a truly interactive experience, try boiling up some coffee powder when you’re reading The Southwark Saga. Your taste buds will never be the same again.*

(1) Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997. P. 158
(2) UK Tea & Infusions Association: Catherine of Braganza. 

*Or go to your coffee house of choice. I hear they admit women now. 

Cantarella: Potent Renaissance Poison Made from Insects

As you now know (and probably could have guessed), I’m a big fan of the Borgias. What’s not to like? Every other week, it seemed like somebody was poisoning someone else with something called cantarella. Because I become fixated on odd little details, I had to know what it was, and now it’s part of my database of poisons (yes, I have one of those. You don’t?). 

So what was it?

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly. 

Poisoning your enemies with bugs.
Because f*** you, that’s why.


Although it was rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely associated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little added toxicity

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, the powder engorges the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, it raises blisters, causes inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. So the next time you’re watching the Borgias (or re-watching, in slow-motion, as Cesare smolders through three seasons of political intrigue), pay attention to the poison, because the symptoms are all there. Nicely done, Neil Jordan. Nicely done. 

Of Cakes and Kings (With their Heads on or Otherwise…)

Guest post by Hannah Methwell

Bosse. The Pastry Shop, 1632

Now I am a somewhat bloody-minded historical novelist. I write about a rather ruffianly troop of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry, all very rough and manly, and they spend a deal of their fictional career engaged in violent mayhem. 

Which is all very well, but when not smiting the heathen hip and thigh, what would an Ironside officer, circa 1642, do with himself at home? 

In the case of Captain Holofernes Babbitt, the answer is – hang around the kitchen hoping for cake. Known for it. Every time his good lady appears in those books, she’s either trying to feed him, or fatten up somebody else in his troop. Het Babbitt is a lady after my own heart. 

But what? Parliamentarians? Puritans? With cake

Cakes. Custard tarts. Fruit pies. Biscuits. Cheesecake. You betcha. 

Cake in the seventeenth century did not, on the whole, come as a snack, but rather, as part of a course at dinner in which multiple dishes would be set forth. A menu from a 1594 recipe book, “The Good Huswife’s Handmaid for the Kitchen”, gives the somewhat exotic guidance for a two-course dinner as: 

Brawne and Mustard. Capons stewed in white broth: a pestle of Uenison vpon brewes: A chine of Beefe, and a breast of Mutton boyled: Chewets or Pies of fine Mutton: three greene Geese in a dish, Sorrell sauce. For a stubble Goose, mustard and Uinigar: after Alhallowen day a Swanne, sauce Chaudron: A Pigge: A double ribbe of Beefe roasted. Sauce Pepper and Uinigar. A loyne of Ueale or breast, sauce Orenges: Halfe a Lambe or a Kid: Two Capons roasted, Sauce Wine and salt, Ale and salt, except it be vpon sops: Two pasties of fallow Deere in a dish: a Custard: A dish of Leash. 

The second course. 
Jellie, Peacockes, sauce Wine and Salte: Two Connies, or halfe a dozen Rabbets, sauce Mustard and Sugar: halfe a dozen of Pigions, Mallard, Toyle, sauce Mustard and Uergious: Gulles, Storke, Heronshew, Crab, sauce Galantine: Curlew, Bitture, Bustard, Feasant, sauce Water and Salt, with Onions sliced: Halfe a dozen Woodcockes, sauce Mustarde and Sugar: Halfe a dozen Teales, sauced as the Feasants: A dozen of Quailes: a dish of Larkes: Two Pasties of red Deare in a dish: Tarte, Ginger bread, Fritters

Pieter Claesz. Still Life With Turkey Pie, 1627


Fruit, both candied and fresh, would be a given at this type of formal dinner. As we can tell, the “sweet” dishes are a minority, but expected as part of both courses. (Leash – if you’re curious – is leche lombard, another kind of spiced baked custard.) 

But back to the cake thing. Without baking powder, and thus without self-raising flour, the “sponge” cake didn’t arrive until way after the 17th century. Het Babbitt’s baked cakes would have been sweetened, enriched bread doughs – possibly, but not necessarily, baked in cake hoops, wooden or metal versions of our modern cake tins which stood on a plank in the oven. A 1617 recipe book, “A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlemen”, gives the following recipe for sugar cake: 

Bake a pound of finewheat flower in a pipkin close couered, put thereto halfe a pound of fine Sugar, foure yolkes and one white of egs, Pepper and Nutmegs, straine them with clouted creame, and with a little new Ale yeast, make it in past, as it were for a Manchet, bake it in a quicke ouen with a breath fire in the ouens mouth, but beware of burning them. 

(I feel your pain regarding the burning. Every time…) 

Rosewater, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves were popular flavourings in period cakes. What is interesting is that honey as a sweet ingredient in confectionery doesn’t seem to appear in any of the period recipe books I’ve consulted, apart from in one recipe for apple and orange tart where the orange peel is stewed in water sweetened with honey before it’s added to the apple puree. There’s a lot of talk of strewing with sugar, and a deal of sweetening with same, but I have as yet been unable to find an authenticated recipe using honey, apart from an uncooked gingerbread recipe from Gervase Markham’s “English Housewife” (1614): 

 A Seventeenth Century Cookbook


Take a quart of honey clarified, and seethe it till it be brown, and if it be thick put to it a dish of water; then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it, and stir it well, and when it is almost cold, put to it powder of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a little liquorice and aniseeds; then knead it, and put it into moulds and print it; some use to put to it also a little pepper, but that is according to taste and pleasure.

Hannah Methwell
Read more of Hannah’s posts and find her books on her blog, An Uncivil War

Five More Common Ways to Die in Restoration London

This is a page from John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality listing some of the recorded deaths from 1662. Here we have Excessive Drinking, Executed, Grief, and Leprosy, as well as “French Pox” and the King’s Evil. Although some people did die of “Itch” (12, to be precise), most deaths were caused by much scarier things. To follow up from Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London, here are five of the most common (but no less horrible) ways to die in Restoration London.

Childbirth and Puerperal Fever (Childbed Fever): Complications and infections related to childbirth were the number one killer of women. Puerperal fever could be contracted during or after childbirth or miscarriage, and was often caused by genital tract sepsis from improper hygiene. Of course, they might not even get the chance to contract it: if it took too long for the afterbirth to come out, impatient midwives might reach in and just pull it out. This could result in acute inversion of the uterus, which would definitely kill them.

Being a Child: If infants survived birth, teething could kill them. Infants’ gums would sometimes be lanced for relief, after which the wounds would become infected, causing fever and death. If they made it past teething, they were vulnerable to mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, German measles, diphtheria, meningitis, erysipelas, typhus, and rickets.

Smallpox: Smallpox was incredibly infectious and could lead to death, especially in children. It was treated by bleeding and could be survived, but might cause loss of sight and scarring, and as many as half of all Londoners had smallpox scars. Smallpox scars were even seen as desirable in servants as their employers know that they would not catch the disease again.

Tuberculosis (Consumption): Probably the most prevalent killer during the Restoration period, this chronic condition was blamed on everything from witchcraft to “vapors from women.” Graunt estimated that at least 44,500 people were killed by tuberculosis between 1641 and 1661.

Fire: The Great Fire destroyed at least 13,000 houses and it’s impossible to know how many people were killed. The Bills of Mortality weren’t published that week. The areas hit the hardest were the poorest with very dense populations, and there were few remains that were recognizable as human. Fire was also the second biggest killer of women as their sleeves and skirts could easily catch while they were cooking over open fires.