As we sojourn in another steamy southern summer, I thought I would post about period recipes for refreshing and replenishing beverages. Oxymel, sekanjabin, syrup of roses, and syrup of lemon are just a few examples of sweet concentrates that were intended to be drunk with hot water for medicinal benefits (which make them ok for the winter, too), but that can be diluted with iced water for refreshment and restoration on a hot day. All three are prepared and consumed by members of the SCA as a period alternative to lemonade and iced tea. There are many variations and modern twists on the original recipes, perhaps initiated to help these ancient beverages appeal to a modern palate.
Oxymel, from the ancient Greeks meaning “acid-honey”, is a blend of honey, water, and wine vinegar. It was a beverage syrup used as a vehicle for medicine, as one could infuse the mixture with herbs and oils. Sabur Ibn Sahl wrote recipes for plain and purgative oxymel in the 9th Century. The 12th Century physician Moses Maimonides wrote a treatise on health for an Egyptian sultan in which he prescribed oxymel for overall well-being. The 15th Century Italian writer Bartolomeo Sacchi, called Platina, mentioned oxymel many times in his book On Right Pleasure and Good Health. Several recipes for oxymel are listed in Culpeper’s Herbal and, like the pre-17th Century writers, he describes the benefits of these syrups as decongestants and digestives. In Culpeper’s book, too, they are vehicles for herb medicines and the Oxymel of Squills is prescribed for treatment of the “falling sickness, head-ache, vertigo, and …it opens the passage of the womb”. In Persia, oxymel was known as sekanjabin (pronounced “say-can-jah-BEAN”).
Sekanjabin is a Persian beverage syrup made of vinegar and honey (or sugar) and is a concept more than a specific recipe. In the 10th Century a physician named Ibn Sina (or Avicenna) wrote a Canon of Medicine which listed the medicinal benefits of sekanjabin. When writing his encyclopedia in the 12th Century, royal physician Ismail Al-Jurjani described the types of “sharbat”, or syrups, popular in Persia. He speaks of their beneficial properties that ease indigestion and other “body imbalances”. These same types of syrups are presented again in the Manuscrito Anonimo, an Arabic Cookbook of 13th Century Andalusia. The name sekanjabin is an Arabic transcription of the Persian term, “sirka anjubin”, literally meaning “honeyed vinegar”. The beverage, sharbat-e sekanjabin, was used medicinally from ancient times through the middle ages and is still imbibed for pleasure today.
Syrup of roses and syrup of lemon are two types of sharbat that are described by Ambrosio Miranda in the Manuscrito Anonimo of the 13th Century. That of the rose is said to bind the constitution, benefit dropsy, and provoke the appetite. That of the lemon is said to cut the thirst and bind the bowels.
In summary, oxymel is a water, vinegar, and honey (or sugar) syrup. Sekanjabin is the Persian term for oxymel, and made of vinegar and honey (or sugar). Sharbat is a generic term for eastern beverage syrup, and most of the examples I found do not contain vinegar. All of these concentrates were made to be diluted with warm water and taken for health benefits.
Go here to see my recipe and redaction of these refreshments.