A posset (also spelled poshote, poshotte) was a British hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced, which was popular from medieval times to the 19th century. The word is mainly used nowadays for a related dessert similar to syllabub. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a cold and flu remedy and was more of a drink than a mousse.
It was considered a specific remedy for some minor illnesses, such as a cold, and a general remedy for others, as even today people drink hot milk to help them get to sleep.
The OED traces the word to the 15th century: various Latin vocabularies translate balducta, bedulta, or casius as "poshet", "poshoote", "possyt", or "possot". Russell's Boke of Nurture (c. 1460) lists various dishes and ingredients that "close a mannes stomak", including "þe possate". Posset is frequently used as a starting point for other recipes (e.g. "Make a styf Poshote of Milke an Ale", and "Take cowe Mylke, & set it ouer þe fyre, & þrow þer-on Saunderys, & make a styf poshotte of Ale", each of which is the first sentence of a longer recipe). Recipes for it appear in other 15th-century sources: boil milk, add either wine or ale "and no salt", let it cool, gather the curds and discard the whey, and season with ginger, sugar, and possibly "sweet wine" and candied anise.
In 16th-century and later sources, possets are generally made from lemon or other citrus juice, cream and sugar. Eggs are often added.
"Posset sets" for mixing and serving possets were popular gifts, and valuable ones (often made of silver) were heirlooms. Such sets contained a posset "pot", or "bowl", or "cup" to serve it in, a container for mixing it in, and usually various containers for the ingredients, as well as spoons. The posset set that the Spanish ambassador gave Queen Mary I of England and King Philip II of Spain when they became betrothed in 1554 is believed to have been made by Benvenuto Cellini and is of crystal, gold, precious gems, and enamel. It is on display at Hatfield House in England and consists of a large, stemmed, covered bowl, two open, stemmed vessels, a covered container, three spoons, and two forks.
The word "posset" is mostly used nowadays for a cold set dessert loosely based on the drink, containing cream and lemon, similar to syllabub. It is also used to refer to the semi-digested milk brought up by babies after a feed.
- Lady Macbeth uses poisoned possets to knock out the guards outside Duncan's quarters in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii:
- The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms
- Do mock their charge with snores. I have drugg'd their possets
- That death and nature do contend about them,
- Whether they live or die.
- David Balfour, the narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, makes a reference to possets in the sense of being pampered:
- "But I was by this time so weary that I could have slept twelve hours at a stretch; I had the taste of sleep in my throat; my joints slept even when my mind was waking; the hot smell of the heather, and the drone of the wild bees, were like possets to me; and every now and again I would give a jump and find I had been dozing."
- Kay Harker, of John Masefield's book The Box of Delights, takes a posset to help clear his head, on the advice of the local police inspector. The posset is said to be a jorum of hot milk, egg, treacle and nutmeg.
- The Warden in Incarceron says that Claudia used to give her young, ailing tutor Jared sweetmeats and possets. This was used to illustrate how she only cares for Jared.
- In The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, the queen of Harfang asks that one of the protagonists, Jill Pole, be given "...all you can think of—possets and comfits and caraways and lullabies and toys."
- Mary Renault has Bagoas give Alexander the Great an egg posset with honey, wine and cheese to break a long fast in her novel The Persian Boy.
- In Michael Frayn's play Noises Off, the Brents' country home is described as "a delightful 16th-century posset mill".
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett contains numerous references to posset, which is described as consisting of milk, ale, eggs and spiced with nutmeg.
- "Posset Pot". Metalwork. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
- Hieatt and Pensado 1988.
- Austin 1888.
- Hieatt and Pensado 1988, Item 130.
- Robina Napier 1882.
- Hieatt and Butler 1985, Item 1, Diversa Cibaria; items 32, 54, Forme of Cury; item 26, Diuersa Servicia; item 32, Utilis Coquinario.
- Austin 1888, Item 89, Harleian ms. 279; "Stwed Beef" and "Stwed Mutton", Harleian ms. 4016.
- Rachel Waddilove 2006, p. 65.
- "The Box of Delights". Home Cinema @ The Digital Fix. Retrieved 2011-01-21.
- Thomas Austin (1888). Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books. Early English Text Society. ISBN 978-5-87685-811-5.
- Constance B. Hieatt; Sharon Butler (1985). Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (including the Forme of cury). Early English Text Society. ISBN 978-0-19-722409-0.
- Constance B. Hieatt; Eulalia Pensado (1988). An Ordinance of pottage: an edition of the fifteenth century culinary recipes in Yale University's Ms Beinecke 163. Prospect Books and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 978-0-907325-38-3.
- Robina Napier (1882). A Noble Boke Off Cookry Ffor a Prynce Houssolde Or Any Other Estately Houssolde: Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare Ms. in the Holkham Collection. London: Elliot Stock.
- Rachel Waddilove (2006). The Baby Book: How to Enjoy Year One. Lion Books. ISBN 978-0-7459-5213-0.