Monday, 23 September 2013

Posca


Posca, the Roman vinegar-based wonder-drink, is a bit of a mystery, because as much as people keep mentioning it, it is oddly absent from ancient literature.  Posca appears in books and articles, being sipped by soldiers and passed around by pals, yet we don't even have a recipe for it!

Basically, we know that soldiers were given a vinegar ration (Vegetius, Concerning Military Matters, 3.3), and that this vinegar could be mixed with water and drunk. (Celsus, On Medicine, 2.27)   Hadrian drank posca to 'be one of the soldiers' (Historia Augusta: Hadrian, 10.2), and from this we can infer that it wasn't a drink usually served to the rich.  On the contrary, this was a drink sold on the streets! (Suetonius, Vitellius, 12.1)  If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense - vinegar is what is left when wine production goes 'wrong', or if wine is left exposed for too long.  Knowing how much wine the Romans got through, it stands to reason that there was a lot of vinegar knocking about - so, why not put it to use?

Clearly posca was good enough to keep a Roman army marching - in his soldiering days, Cato the Elder drank posca to fend off raging thirst. (Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 1.10).  The sharpness of the vinegar masked the taste of questionable water, the acidity would have helped to kill off certain bacteria, and, according to a recent study, vinegar makes you feel more full after eating bread.  We shouldn't rush to say that the Romans knew all of this, but it is important nonetheless.  What wasn't so important to the Romans was writing the recipe down, which leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

I've encountered several recipes online, some simplistic, and others quite complex.  They're all feasible with regards to ingredients, so we're going to try them all and see how they taste.  If anybody can find a reliable source for any of these recipes, please do get in touch!  Before starting, make sure you use brewed vinegar (red-wine vinegar preferably), rather than distilled.

1) Ever-so-simple Soldier's Posca


All the sources say is that soldiers drank a mixture of vinegar and water, so that's going to be our starting point.  Nothing fancy here.


Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water

Methods

  • Mix and drink!

Notes

  • If you want to replicate that 'stuck-in-the-freezing-cold-north-of-England' feeling, or fancy something a bit more refreshing, use chilled water.


2)  Sharp-but-sweet Posca


I've seen several websites suggesting that honey was added to posca (without providing sources mind you).  It's a feasible suggestion, so let's pretend we're an entrepreneuring posca salesman looking to one-up the competition, and give it a go.


Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water
  • 1 tbsp Honey

Methods

  • If using set honey, melt it in the microwave for 20 seconds first.
  • Add the honey to the water, give it a stir, then add the vinegar.


3)  Posh Posca


Everybody loved the honey idea, so now they're all doing it.  We have to go one further and make our posca even tastier!  I've seen claims, again unsourced, that crushed coriander seed was a favourite addition to posca.  It's certainly feasible, although I can't imagine it's what the soldiers and common people got to drink, hence why we're calling it posh posca.


Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
  • 250ml Water
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1/2 tsp Coriander Seed

Methods

  • If using set honey, melt it in the microwave for 20 seconds first.
  • Add the honey to the water, give it a stir, then add the vinegar.
  • Crush coriander seeds, add them to the drink, and stir it about for a bit.  After a few minutes, strain the seeds out, and serve the drink.

Results


Vinegar and water sounds quite horrific if we're being honest, but my oh my is it good!  First up was Soldier's Posca, undoubtedly the most 'realistic' version of the drink.  No matter what you add to it, posca is always going to smell strongly of vinegar - this makes taking that first sip difficult.  Struggle through the smell and you have a very refreshing drink with a bit of a tangy taste.  The closest comparison I can think of is lemon water, or lime cordial.  Secondly was posca with a touch of honey.  This was, in my opinion, the tastiest version of the drink; the sweetness of the honey and the acidity of the vinegar work well together, making the mixture much more drinkable.  Finally there was 'Posh Posca' with its added coriander seeds.  This tasted much the same as the second drink, with the coriander seed emphasising the citrusy taste.  With the added expense and hassle however, you have to ask if it's worth it.

Without a written recipe, we can never truly know what went into posca, meaning that all of the above is just guess work.  Given what we do know, I think it's safe to say that posca resembled at least the first of these recipes, although all are equally plausible.  All I can do now is urge you to try them, and see what you think.

16 comments:

  1. The oft repeated claim that we have no recipes for posca is incorrect. In fact I know of six! Granted, these are all in medical texts, so probably do not represent the everyday form of the drink, but the line between food and medicine was much thinner in antiquity, and in particular the Romans seem to have been fond of drinks with purported medical effects. Each recipe calls for vinegar-water (unfortunately none of them says in what ratio!) and pennyroyal. All but one of them call for salt. None of them contains a sweetener (well, one counts for melon flesh—and seeds!—to be mixed in. The same one, in fact, that omits the salt.)

    If you think about it, we still like to drink acidic drinks in hot weather, particularly lemonade. And furthermore, what is Gatorade if not acid and salt? It makes a lot of sense for worn out soldiers baking in the sun, loaded down with packs and armor, to drink this stuff.

    Here are my sources:

    P.Oxy. 1384
    • Anthimus De Observatione Ciborum 58
    • Aëtius Iatrica 3.81—82 (two recipes)
    • Paul of Aegina, Epitomæ Medicæ 7.5.10 (two recipes)

    If you want more information, e.g. the measures given in those recipes, get in touch.




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    1. Fantastic! Cheers for providing some sources. I think that their relative obscurity is why I've not yet encountered them, although I'm surprised that they weren't mentioned in any of the secondary material I read either. I shall do my best to find them, try them out, and get them online too.

      It's very interesting that the vast majority call for salt. I'm sure you've often heard that in the bible, a Roman soldier offered Jesus a mixture of vinegar and gall. I know that the 'vinegar' was actually posca, so the addition of salty gall makes sense. That rather changes the meaning of the gesture from one of mockery to one of mercy, don't you think?

      Feel free to post the measures here in the comments, for all to see, and when I try them out I'll make sure to mention you.

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  2. In North America, switchel (vinegar, water, and molasses) was often served to labourers as a sort of proto-gatorade: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switchel. It's not half bad, either, but then I've always liked molasses.

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    1. Fascinating! It's really interesting that most of us would turn our noses up at drinking vinegar, when it's been happening for so long!

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    2. Another vinegar drink popular in colonial times is shrub (a name derived from the Arabic sharab, meaning to drink) - this one uses a fruit with the vinegar and sugar/honey. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrub_(drink)). Another similar drink is sharbat or sekanjabin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharbat), popular in the Middle East.

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  3. Yeah, I too had read there were no recipes about them. On the other hand, I do remember seeing a scholarly article about pennyroyal and posca, which I did not read at the time, but really need to track down now.

    Seems like Anthimus is not obscure to those interested in food, so it's particularly weird he's not generally quoted. Aëtius and Paul of Aegina may not be well known, but both are excellent sources of drink recipes! As for that Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, well I was just lucky enough to stumble on it by chance, and found, to my surprise, a recipe for posca... that's what got me looking for others in the first place.

    The incident with Jesus is difficult to interpret for a number of reasons:

    1. The details vary slightly, but significantly, from account to account:
    • In Matthew 27 "they" (it is implied, but not stated, to be Roman soldiers) give it to him at Golgotha, but before he's actually crucified, and he tastes it but refuses to drink. This is the account that mentions gall.
    • In Mark 15 "someone" (implied, but not stated, to be a Jew) gives it to him on a reed. No additives are mentioned (however, earlier in the chapter, "they" offer him wine with myrrh), nor whether he drank it or not. He dies immediately after.
    • In Like 23 the soldiers (explicitly mentioned) offer him vinegar, apparently early in the crucifiction. Nothing is stated about additives, the stick, or whether he accepted it or not.
    • In John 19 "they" give it to him "upon hyssop" (referring, apparently, to the stickused to raise the sponge to his mouth, but interestingly one of Aëtius' recipes calls for hyssop—unfortunately it's usually thought to refer to a different plant in the Bible than in classical literature. Of course it surprises me that *anything* called "hyssop" could reach the mouth of a man on a cross!) He accepts it, and dies immediately after.

    2. The NT accounts generally assume this is a form of mockery. They well be misunderstanding the Roman custom, but it's hard to imagine gall being added to posca *except* as a form of torment. Furthermore, the use of a sponge on a stick is suspicious.

    3. Since posca was refreshing, it could certainly be seen as an act of sympathy. On the other hand, it was also seen as improving stamina, and when you're dying on a cross stamina is not necessarily a good thing!

    So, yeah, I've considered the incident before, but I'm still not entirely certain what to make of it!

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    1. A very thorough analysis there! I appreciate now that it's not so simple as I had assumed.

      Given the disparity between the gospels, it really is hard to come to a conclusion about the meaning of the gesture.

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  4. I wondered about verjus/verjuice when I read this, which makes a refreshing drink with soda/water. Verjuice was known to the Romans, I understand, and the one I have tried (we have a local producer, Maggie Beer) was certainly slightly sweeter than vinegar.

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    1. I've never heard of verjuice before now! I see that it is used as an ingredient too, which, coincidentally, is what we'll be doing with the posca next week.

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  5. I'm sitting in the garden drinking your version two now. It indeed quite palatable. Not sure I'd like salt in it (could never stand gatorade). The point about Jesus is very well made.

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    1. Version two is undoubtedly the winner in my eyes - I've had several glasses of the stuff in the last few days.

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  6. It sounds like sekanjabin to me! Sekanjabin is frequently made from vinegar, water, and honey.

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  7. This sounds very much like the Shrub's being served in posh restaurants these days. I love them, so I'm sure I'll like this as well.

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  8. My father said when he was growing up in Portugal they had a version of this. A little vinegar and (in his case) sugar in water. Never believed me, but historical ties between Rome and Portugal (land of the Gauls, after all) show some interesting tie-ins.

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  9. My grandmother gave me a vinegar, water and honey mix for my regular sore throats - the vinegar was later replaced with lemon juice.

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  10. There was a recent "My Grandmother's Ravioli" episode where a drink was served which had the ingredients vinegar, shiso leaves and sweetener. Water was not mentioned. I wonder what kind of vinegar it was....

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