Museum Cocktail Hour

In honour of #MuseumCocktailHour, Trustee, Kathryn Sutherland, toasts Jane Austen's resourcefulness and Martha Lloyd's recipe book - the perfect combination for an early evening tipple:

As the cocktail hour approaches in these strange times when drinking alone assumes an air of social responsibility, let us toast Jane Austen.  Always an inspiration, when it came to drink she was especially resourceful.  If the recipe book kept by Martha Lloyd, the Austens’ companion at Chawton Cottage, is anything to go by, the kitchen and bakehouse must regularly have been heady with fermentation: mead, currant wine, elder wine, green gooseberry wine, orange wine, not to mention those little emergencies catered for by ‘ginger beer fit to drink in 24 hours’—no last-minute Friday night dash to supermarket or off-licence was possible then.

It wasn’t just the fruit bushes in Mrs Austen’s garden that they stripped with dedicated resolve; Martha’s recipe for cowslip wine requires eight gallons of picked cowslip flowers.  Please don’t try this at home; cowslips are endangered—and no wonder!  Mrs Henry Austen’s recipe for noyau (a fruit-flavoured liqueur) includes ‘Two Quarts of common Gin’ and is to be filtered through blotting paper; an alternative favours ‘the best Brandy’.

Thanks to Martha’s recipes, we can, with some confidence, place the Chawton Cottage alcohol stash somewhere between the contents of Miss Marple’s cut-glass decanters (‘I prescribe a glass of my cowslip wine, and later, perhaps, a cup of camomile tea’, she advises her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy who has just witnessed a murder on the 4.50 from Paddington) and a 1970s’ cocktail cabinet—babycham poured over cherry brandy, anyone?

And there was always spruce beer, brewed in Southampton in anticipation of Martha’s return in October 1808.  Even its official website cannot summon up more enthusiasm than to describe spruce beer as cola with cheeky notes of disinfectant.  But any port or bottle in a storm; we can all relate to that as we turn out the cupboards for the dregs of the Christmas Baileys.  For preference, though, Jane’s tipple was French wine, the best incentive for a visit to brother Edward at Godmersham, where amid ‘Elegance & Ease & Luxury’ ‘I shall eat Ice & drink French wine’.

After a glass or two a girl can face whatever life throws at her: even that overflowing Godmersham nursery.  Jane seems to have learnt this early on: the heroines of her teenage mini-novels are a boozy lot; and you don’t mess with them when they’ve had a few.  Alice Johnson, ‘a little addicted to the Bottle & the Dice’ is a bad-tempered drunk as Lady Williams finds to her cost in ‘Jack & Alice’.  In Sense and Sensibility, super-sensible Elinor Dashwood reaches for a stiff drink when Marianne has one of her turns.  ‘Dear Ma’am’, she replies to Mrs Jennings’s offer of a glass ‘of the finest old Constantia wine’ to calm her sister’s latest hysterics, ‘if you will give me leave, I will drink the wine myself’ (ch. 30).

So, this Friday evening, whether in gooseberry wine or finest burgundy, or spruce beer if you really must, let us raise a glass, at a safe distance, of course, to Jane Austen, to female ingenuity, and to the glory days of the Chawton Cottage microbrewery.

-By Kathryn Sutherland