In historical cooking, many recipes include ingredients that are unfamiliar today. Garum, long pepper, and amydon are no longer common in our kitchens, although we do use similar ingredients like fish sauce, pepper, and cornstarch.
One ingredient which often appears in early modern recipes is sack, a kind of fortified wine. Whenever I’ve come across sack in a recipe before I’ve always just substituted it with sherry or whatever fortified wine I’ve had to hand but when I recently found a bottle of Williams and Humbert’s dry sack I knew it was time for a deeper dive.
The term ‘sack’ starts appearing in English sources during the early 16th century but its origin is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it comes from the French ‘sec’ for dry, but sack was a sweet and not a dry wine. Sherry expert Julian Jeffs offers a more convincing etymology from the Spanish ‘sacas’ which referred to export wine. This was a category that included sherry as well as fortified wines from the Canary Islands and Malaga.
But what did sack taste like? Jeffs says “It is difficult to say exactly what Elizabethan sack wines were like; they were certainly fortified, and the methods of making arrope had long been known, but they were seldom matured in the wood for more than a year or two. Even the cheapest wines sold today have to show at least two years’ maturation and the vast majority are older, but perhaps the very cheapest sweet olorosos are not so very far removed from sack.”
Willams & Humbert sack, a blended sherry which is aged in oak casks for six years, is a little too fine then to be an exact substitute and a cream sherry might have been a better choice. Still, now I have a bottle of sack, what can I do with it?
To Make Sack Cream Take a quart of thick cream sett it over the fire and when it boyls take it of & put to it a peice of lemon peil & sweten it well with fine suggar, when it is milk warm put it into the bason you intend to serve it up in and put to it half a lemon juce & nine spoonfulls of sack stiring it in by little & little after that sett it by till ye next day & serve it with waffers round ye dish you may mill it with a chocolate mill & serve it in glases if you please
One popular recipe was a sack cream which was one of the many cream recipes developed in the seventeenth-century. Made from whipped or thickened cream flavoured with fruit, alcohol, chocolate, or spices like cinnamon these creams came to play a central role in the evolving banquet course which was a separate course of sweetmeats often served in private rooms or a detached banquetting house. Stephen Schmidt suggests that the explosion in cream dishes at the banquet from the 1650s onwards reflected the shift from Italianate to French cooking in fashionable English households.
I’ve made a chocolate cream before, from Jane Dawson’s manuscript cookbook, and it was thickened by boiling the cream and adding an egg yolk before frothing it with a molinillo. This recipe, taken from the mid-eighteenth-century Carr Family Cookbook also boils the cream but instead of adding egg to thicken it acid is added in the form of lemon juice to just slightly curdle it. The trick here is adding the lemon juice very slowly, and then refrigerating the cream overnight. I did not try frothing it with a molinillo, but it would be interesting to know what effect that would have. It makes a rich, sweet dip for serving with biscuits which is good in small quantities.
 “Sack, n.3,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2022), https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/169485.
 Julian Jeffs, Sherry (Durrington, UK: Infinite Ideas, 2016).
 Peter Brears, Cooking & Dining in Tudor & Early Stuart England, 1st edition (London: Prospect Books, 2015), 84–90; 519–79.
 Stephen Schmidt, “Italian Cooking: What, Exactly, Was the Tudor and Stuart Banquet?,” Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, August 2019, https://www.manuscriptcookbookssurvey.org/category/italian-cooking/.
1 1/4 cups cream
Sugar, to taste
2 pieces lemon peel
1/3 tbsp lemon juice
2 1/4 tbsp sack or dry sherry
- Bring the cream to a boil then take off the heat and add the lemon peel and enough sugar to sweeten to your taste.
- Allow the cream to cool to just warm then add the lemon juice and sack bit by bit, stirring well between additions.
- Pour into the serving bowl, then refrigerate overnight before serving with plain biscuits (pizzelle or something similar are a good choice). Grate over some nutmeg if desired.