Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Did Bill Drink?

Some of my readers may not know that I am also a regular contributor to Walla Walla Lifestyles, a magazine about the valley's people, wine and food. In fact, some of you may not know about the magazine at all. It is distributed 11 times a year through subscription with the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. The following article is from the June 2011 issue.

The announcement of the 120-year-old gas plant transformation into the new Power House Theatre has been exciting news for our citizens, local businesses, as well as visitors to Walla Walla.

The new theatre will be filled with the sights and sounds of Shakespeare. With all of the hustle and bustle of the remodel and the events and plays planned for the new theatre, we wonder: “What was the favored drink poured at the Blackfriars Theatre in London? What did Bill drink?”

History tells us that wine has been a staple of European diets for centuries and, of course, it was a staple during the life and times of William Shakespeare. The citizens of Shakespeare’s era not only enjoyed sipping wine, but they had started to look at it as more than just a refreshment and actually as a substitute for drinking water. The upper class enjoyed it regularly and would soon come to discuss the virtues and romance of wine.

However, the grapes from England were not satisfactory for winemaking, so Elizabethan oenophiles imported wines from other parts of Europe, such as France and Spain.

“Sherris-sack,” also known as “sack,” from Spain was becoming an important wine for the Elizabethans. “Sack” was an old wine term for aged white wine that had been fortified with brandy. We are familiar with that amber-colored wine, which is now known as sherry. Today there is also a popular mainstream label of sherry that has been around since the late 1800s known as “Dry Sack.”

William Shakespeare declared his love for sherry through his plump fictional character Sir John Falstaff, who was famously featured in “Henry IV, Part 2,” announcing:

“If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”

During the time of Shakespeare, there were at least 100 ale and beer breweries in London. It is believed that “Macbeth” was first performed at a theatre north of London around the year 1605, and at the same time and in the same area of London the town council agreed to restrict the number of brewers as a way to halt the continuing rise in the price of fuel wood.

So, if you think the ongoing battle over gas prices is something new, it might be useful to remember that even back then there were rises in fuel prices

It is said that, of the two fermented malt drinks, Shakespeare enjoyed ale more than the hopped-up beer. Shakespeare was born and raised in rural Stratford, England, and was no fan of these new, citified beers. He was a country boy, after all, and was raised on ale as his father was the mayor and the official ale taster in Stratford. The job of official ale taster was an important and well-respected one, for even the queen drank this brew.

I think Shakespeare possibly used Hamlet to express his disdain for the hoppy liquid. Hamlet contemplates death and asks his companion, “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?”

In other words: In the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” (we) we return to earth as dust, and earth is used to make clay, clay was used to make bungs, and bungs are used as beer-barrel stoppers.

And last but not least, there was mead, the ancestor of all fermented drinks being poured around the tables of the Elizabethans. Also known as “honey wine,” mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man and is simply the result of a fermentation of water, yeast and honey, with maybe a few spices and herbs tossed in. There were many variants added depending on where the mead was produced in countries and cultures around the world.

Mead can also be fermented with additives such as apples, maple syrup, currents, berries, rosehips and even chili peppers.

Shakespeare brings up metheglin, (known as “spiced mead”) in his plays “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Whether it be ale, beer, sherry or wine, these beverages are nothing new to our century and have been produced and consumed since man first discovered that these sugar solutions of different origins, if left standing would ferment naturally and spontaneously. Man also discovered that not only was the beverage rather tasty, but fermentation was a way of preserving liquids — a useful discovery since he didn’t have a fancy stainless steel, French double-door refrigerator to plug into his cave or manger.

One thing we can be certain of, as the fans of Shakespeare gather in Walla Walla to enjoy his works at the new Powerhouse Theatre, they will never have to utter nor will we ever hear those five little words, other than those spoken on stage, “Have we no wine here?”

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