Conditum Paradoxum: Surprise Wine?

With colder winters and the conclusion of Saturnalia and the modern holiday season, now seems like as good a time as any to write about the Romans’ version of mulled wine. Here, a brief history of spices in wine and a recipe to try yourself.

A photo of the conditum paradoxum I made. Real peppery!

Step aside, eggnog! The Swedes call it glögg, the Germans glühwein, and the English wassail, but no matter the name, the pairing of spices and wine seems to be perfect for cold-weather beverages. This has been the consensus for millennia — even the Romans drank spiced wine.

Nowadays, these drinks and their ilk contain many of the same ingredients — cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise, orange — plus a base of wine sweetened with sugar. The Roman recipe, we could assume, would be largely the same then, right? Well, I’ve found that many of the spices steeped in today’s iterations of mulled wine were in fact familiar but were incredibly expensive in antiquity.

Pliny the Elder writes that a Roman pound (328.9 g) of cinnamon could cost as much as 1,500 denarii, evidently as much as some laborers would make in fifty months of work. Other ingredients, namely the orange, were completely foreign to the European continent (only being introduced by the Moors centuries later).

In any case, modern mulled wine wouldn’t have been an option for any ancient drinkers. However, it does descend from an ancient drink over a centuries-long evolution. Where do we begin?

The oldest recipe for mulled wine that modern drinkers would recognize can be found in The Forme of Cury, or The Way of Cooking in Middle English. This cookbook, written in the 14th century, is a watershed source in the development of modern cuisine — it documents the arrivals of ingredients like mace, gourds, and cloves in European dining — and contains medieval forms of other recipes like juscellum.

It contains many of the ingredients we could expect to see today: wine and sugar, along with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom, much to my dismay. But there’s something vital about this recipe’s name: it calls the drink not mulled wine, but ypocras.

Ypocras, or hippocras, comes from the medieval Latin vinum Hippocraticum, or “Hippocratic wine,” not necessarily for its connection to the Greek physician, but because it was poured through a Hippocratic sleeve (essentially a water filter) before drinking. As we’ll soon be able to see, filtering wine before it was drunk was a practice among the Romans that seems to have been continued by medieval vintners.

It’s possible, then, that mulled wine evolved from an initial Roman recipe, one that was filtered, becoming fancier as more exciting spices took root in medieval European kitchens. The Romans would have called their proto-hippocras “surprise wine,” or conditum paradoxum. This drink’s recipe comes from the pages of Apicius, where it begins the book:

Conditi paradoxi compositio: mellis pondo XV in aeneum vas mittuntur, praemissis vini sextariis duobus, ut in coctura mellis vinum decoquas. quod igni lento et aridis lignis calefactum, commotum ferula dum coquitur, si effervere coeperit, vini rore compescitur, praeter quod subtracto igni in se redit. cum perfrixerit, rursus accenditur. hoc secundo ac tertio fiet, ac tum demum remotum a foco post pridie despumatur. tum ‹mittes› piperis uncias IV iam triti, masticis scripulos III, folii et croci dragmae singulae, dactilorum ossibus torridis quinque, isdemque dactilis vino mollitis, intercedente prius suffusione vini de suo modo ac numero, ut tritura lenis habeatur. his omnibus paratis supermittis vini lenis sextaria XVIII. carbones perfecto aderunt.

The composition of surprise spiced wine: Put fifteen pounds of honey into a copper vessel and send forth two sextarii of wine, so that in the cooking of the honey you may boil off the wine. This is heated on a slow fire with dry firewood, stirred with a cane while it is cooked. If it begins to boil over it will be quenched with the moisture of wine, then removed from the fire.

When it is cooked through, it will be lit again. This will be done for a second and third time, and then finally, after having been removed from the hearth the day before, it is skimmed. Then add four ounces of pepper now ground, three scruples of mastic, a drachm each of saffron and bay leaves, and five roasted date pits softened in wine that have been ground lightly. When all this is done, pour over eighteen sextarii of light wine. Charcoal will make it complete.

The first thing I noticed as I read this recipe was how much it called for. Fifteen pounds of honey! That amount is monstrous for most anybody to cook with — I’d imagine this conditum was intended for a banquet — so as with the Punic porridge recipe, I decided I would need to shrink the quantities provided.

Related to this are the units in the original text. Though I’ve simplified these on my own for you to use, I felt compelled to comment on two of the measurements used: scruples and drachms. These two tiny measures — around 1 and 3 grams, respectively — are remnants of the now-extinct apothecaries’ system, once used to weigh medicine.

Curiously, they’ve survived in common parlance: just think of someone compunctiously commenting they “have scruples” about something or hearing a Scotsman ask for a dram of whisky. Not entirely pertinent to this post, but I find these words fun to mull over (and worth taking a short etymological detour!).

Finally, I’ll address an ingredient that befuddled me as I first checked out this recipe: mastic. As it turns out, mastic is the resin drawn from the bark of a Mediterranean evergreen closely related to the pistachio. It’s collected almost exclusively on the Greek island of Chios, where there are even designated mastic-harvesting villages. The mastic beads are also sometimes called “tears of Chios.” They find uses as incense, as flavoring for a Greek liqueur called mastiha, and as chewing gum (sharing an etymon with “masticate”).

I ordered my mastic online in a little 10-gram sachet. It wasn’t terribly hard to find vendors selling mastic, but I’m not sure how many were genuine — sometimes other lesser pine resins are sold instead because of mastic’s rarity. The stuff I ordered took a long time to arrive, probably due to shipping delays and the fact that it came from Greece!

I’d recommend not omitting mastic as it adds a fragrant and, well, piney flavor to the wine. If you’re not able to get your paws on any, though, I’ve read that fennel seeds work just fine. Without further ado, here’s my take on the recipe for conditum paradoxum:

1 tsp of peppercorns
¼ tsp of mastic
2 bay leaves
1 date with pit
A pinch of saffron
¾ cup of honey
2½ + ¼ cups of dry white wine (plus a few squirts more)

Pour the honey and ¼ cup of wine into a pot and bring to a boil, stirring gently the whole time. Right as the mixture begins to seethe, add in a dash of cold wine and quickly take off the heat. Once the big bubbles have disappeared, skim off the white foam floating at the top. Repeat this process twice more. After letting it cool slightly, pour the honey mixture into a container and let it sit overnight. Fill a small bowl with extra wine and begin soaking the date in it.

The following day, skim off any scummy foam floating on the honey-wine’s surface. I found it easiest, then, to transfer the wine into a pitcher. Grind the pepper and add it to the pitcher, along with the mastic, saffron, and bay leaves. Take the date from its wine bath and remove the pit. Crush it if you can — I wasn’t able to as it was rock-hard — and toss it, too, into the wine pitcher. Pour over the 2½ cups of wine. I would recommend letting this steep for another day, but it can be drunk sooner. Strain, warm slowly, and enjoy!

Photos of a mastic tree, the ingredients for conditum paradoxum, and the finished wine in a glass.

This recipe was long, in content and in preparation, but it makes an interesting drink. It’s really sweet. I think that should go without saying, but even starting with a dry wine didn’t prove to be enough. I was surprised, as the recipe’s name would suggest, by the other flavors I was able make out.

There was a nice nip from the pepper and the mastic was balanced enough that I could taste some bitterness without it feeling like licking a pine tree! Plus, what’s not to love about the color the saffron imparts? Though not anything like mulled wine today, this recipe was a joy to make, offering a taste of the glories of Saturnalias long, long ago.

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