Eva Ekeblad

Eva de la Gardie (1724-1786), Swedish scientist

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I could use a nice cold drink.  We’ve talked about the origins of beer (Please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/nin-kasi-lady-fills-mouth-beer/), but sometimes something a bit stronger is necessary.  So we move on to vodka.  In fairness, the lady who is the subject of this post did not only pave the way for vodka but many other things.  However, as I sip a Moscow Mule, vodka seems the most important.

Eva Ekeblad was born July 10, 1724 to statesman Count Magnus Julius De La Gardie and his wife Hedvig Catharina Lilja.  Interestingly, her brother was married to Catherine Charlotte De La Gardie, who also a scientist.  Catherine invented a smallpox vaccine and was instrumental in stopping Sweden’s last witch trial in 1758.  Perhaps Eva took inspiration from her sister in law.

As was customary for the nobility, Eva was married at the young age of sixteen to Count Claes Caesson Ekeblad.  It was considered a good match and the two eventually had a son and six daughters, and the family spent time in their two castles-  Mariedal Castle and Lindholmen Castle, Västergötland.  Nice work if you can get it.  Eva was quite active in management of the family lands, and her mind had a definite scientific bend.  At that time in Sweden, there was a shortage of oats and barley.  If someone could find a substitute, they would be not only helping the country but rich to boot.  In an effort to exploit a new cash crop, Eva began experimenting on potatoes.  At that time, potatoes were not considered fit for human consumption and used only for animal fodder.  Eva grew her own patch of potatoes and began to study them.  Her experiments discovered a way to cook and powder the potatoes to form a form of flour.  From there, it was a short step to distilling them to make a clear alcoholic beverage- our old friend vodka.  

In 1784, Eva submitted her findings to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and at twenty-four became the first female member.  Her work promoting the use of potatoes in place of other cereal grains, alleviated the food shortages in Sweden.  The potato wasn’t used for general food consumption in Sweden until the 19th century, but the popularity of vodka swept Northern Europe.  With potatoes being used for vodka, the oats, rye and barley it freed up was used to feed the poor.  Despite these achievements, her membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was downgraded to “honorary” in 1751 because she was a woman.  Nice.  I wonder if they were sipping some nice vodka when they did it.  She was the only female to make the academy’s list until nuclear physicist Lise Meiner was admitted in 1941.

What Eva thought of the downgrade we don’t know.  She continued her scientific work, researching a way to bleach cotton and yarn without using toxic dyes.  She also continued her experimentation with potatoes and found that potato flour could be used as a substitute in cosmetics for more dangerous materials such as lead.  All of this while raising her seven children, running her family’s estates and later being a lady in waiting to Queen Sophia Magdalena, as Mistress of the Robes and governess to Crown Prince Gustav IV Adolf.  This extraordinary woman passed at age 61 at her home in Mariedal.

So let’s raise a glass to Eva Ekeblad, without whom we could not enjoy delicious cocktails.


More Magic Beans- This History of Chocolate

Stone detail: Ek Ahau, the Mayan Deity of War, trade and cocoa, standing next to a cacao tree. Photo Credit- Enrique Perez Huerta/Demotix/Corbis

That most delicious of desserts that we all crave.  It was rightly named as “food of the gods” by the ancients.  However, the chocolate the pre-Olmec cultures were making was nothing like the chocolate we eat today.  It was consumed as a beverage, and was quite bitter.  The peoples making this drink were living in Mesoamerica prior to the cultures of the Olmecs, Mayan and Aztecs.  Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania have found cacao residue on pottery found in Honduras from as early as 1400 BCE.  Some sources place the discovery of chocolate even earlier at 1900 BCE.  Anthropologists surmise native peoples found the cacao plants in the tropical rainforests of Central America.  From there, they cultivated the plants.  The beans were harvested and roasted much like coffee beans.  Then they were ground into a paste and mixed with water, vanilla, honey, chili peppers and other spices to create a drink.  The word “chocolate” comes from the name of this bitter frothy drink-  “xocoatl”.  

This drink was passed to the later cultures of Mesoamerica- the Olmecs, the Aztecs and the Mayans.  These cultures found the drink to be invigorating, probably because of the caffeine, and used it as a mood enhancer and aphrodisiac.  The cacao beans were so prized that they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs.  Historical sources show the rate of exchange.  One cacao bean could by a tomato.  Thirty beans could buy a rabbit and an entire turkey could be purchased for two hundred beans.  Cacao beans were also demanded as tribute from conquered cities.

Because the cacao bean was believed to have divine and magical properties, it was used in sacred rituals.  In the book The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Rossel, she describes Aztec sacrifice victims being given gourds of chocolate mixed with the blood of previous victims to help their mood.  I’m not sure that would reconcile me with being a sacrifice, but thanks for the thought.  Chocolate was only enjoyed in special vessels.  The Olmecs only drank it in round jars called tecomates.  The Mayans used tall cylindrical beakers as did the Aztecs.  Despite the difference in the shape, the meaning was the same- to mark out the higher status of those able to enjoy such a rich treat.  Although chocolate was mainly for the upper classes, some historians believe the lower classes got a version of it- a chocolate and maize mixture that had a porridge like consistency.  The drink was the most prized version and reserved for the nobility.  Supposedly the 15th century Aztec emperor Montezuma drank three gallons of the drink a day.  European Bernadino de Sahagún describes how the drink was prepared,

“The seller of fine chocolate [is] one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam…She sells good, superior, potable [chocolate]: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers – finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; [with] chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. [Inferior chocolate has] maize flour and water; lime water; [it is] pale; the [froth] bubbles burst.”

Vase for pouring chocolate, earthenware, Belize, Late Classic Maya, Altun-Ha style. (De Young Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco) Photo Credit- Mary Harsch (photographed at the de Young Museum of Fine Arts)
published on 26 June 2014

When the Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, they were not impressed by chocolate.  Legend has it chocolate was offered to Hernando Cortes at a banquet by the Aztec king Montezuma because he thought Cortes was a returning deity.  However, the Europeans turned up their noses and described it as a “bitter drink for pigs”.  Then someone got the bright idea of mixing it with cane sugar and cinnamon.  The newly sweetened drink was a hit and it took Spain by storm.  As before, chocolate was a symbol of wealth and decadence and was only for the taste buds of the nobility.  It remained a secret in Spain until King Philip III’s daughter, Anne of Austria,  married French King Louis XIII in 1615.  She brought with her from the Spanish court a love of chocolate and introduced the French court to the delicacy.  It spread through Europe from there.  By the mid 17th century, chocolate was the most fashionable drink in Europe and was believed to have medicinal and nutritious properties.  It is rumored that great lover Casanova used it copiously as an aphrodisiac.  To feed their appetite for chocolate, European powers fought for land in the colonies to plant sugar and cacao plantations.  Everyone was making money hand over fist.  Everyone except the native Mesoamericans and the African slaves brought in to work the plantations, but that is another post.

Chocolate did not find its way to the masses until the 19th century and the invention of the steam engine.  In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press.  This press squeezed the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted beans leaving behind a dry cake which could be pulverized into a fine powder.  This powder was called “Dutch cocoa” and could be mixed with liquids and other ingredients and poured into molds.  This invention both dropped the price making chocolate affordable and also changed the nature of consumption allowing chocolate to become a confection not just a drink.  Joseph Fry took this a step further in 1847 when he added the melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa to make a moldable chocolate paste.

By the end of the 19th century, several of the names of chocolate makers we recognize were in play- Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey.  The average American consumes twelve pounds of chocolate each year.  However, lately, there has been another chocolate trend focusing less on mass production and more on handmade chocolates.  There has also been an emphasis on sustainable cacao farms, which use more earth friendly farming and harvesting techniques.  Even major corporations are cashing in on the trend as Hershey’s has expanded their artisanal chocolate lines.


The Green Fairy – Absinthe

15965613_395407387468016_154262216018447124_nIts precise origins are unknown but it has its roots throughout history. Absinthe is an anise-flavoured spirit derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium (“grand wormwood”), together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. It traditionally has a natural green colour but may also be colourless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as “la fée verte” (the green fairy).The medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt, and is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, c. 1550 BC. Wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves were used as remedies by the ancient Greeks. Moreover, there is evidence of the existence of a wormwood-flavoured wine, absinthites oinos, in ancient Greece.

The first clear evidence of absinthe being drank as a spirit dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792. Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. The Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. Either way a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils. It was extremely popular in France until the drink was banned in 1914.

Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventive. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe home with them. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). By the 1880s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply.

Absinthe was exported widely from its native France and Switzerland, and attained some degree of popularity in other countries, including Spain, Great Britain, USA, and the Czech Republic.15894602_395407377468017_8853685904483398138_n

New Orleans has a profound cultural association with absinthe, and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar, located on Bourbon Street, serves as a prominent historical landmark. Originally named The Absinthe Room, it was opened in 1874 by a Catalan bartender named Cayetano Ferrer.

In 1905, it was reported that Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and attempted to take his own life after drinking absinthe. The fact that Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed considerable quantities of wine and brandy prior to drinking two glasses of absinthe was overlooked or ignored, therefore placing the blame for the murders solely on absinthe. A petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland collected more than 82,000 signatures. A referendum was subsequently held on banning the drink on 5 July 1908.After it was approved by voters, the prohibition of absinthe was then written into the Swiss constitution.

In 1906, both Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and distribution of absinthe, although these were not the first countries to take such action. Absinthe had been banned as early as 1898 in the colony of the Congo Free State.The Netherlands in 1909, Switzerland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.

In the 1990s, realising the UK had never formally banned absinthe, British importer BBH Spirits began to import Hill’s Absinth from the Czech Republic, which brought its popularity back. In December 2007, St. George Absinthe Verte, produced by St. George Spirits of Alameda,California, became the first brand of American-made absinthe produced in the United States since the ban. Since that time, other micro-distilleries have started producing small batch artisanal absinthes in the US. In May 2011, the French Absinthe Ban of 1915 was repealed following petitions by the Fédération Française des Spiritueux, who represent French distillers.


Nin-kasi-  “The Lady who fills the mouth (with Beer)”

ninkasiThe first beer was discovered by the Sumerians around 6000 BCE.  In ancient Mesopotamia and Sumeria, women were the first to develop, sell and drink beer.  In fact, women were the only ones who were allowed to brew beer or run taverns, according to beer historian, Jane Peyton.  This first beer was baked grains were broken into pieces and stuffed into a pot. Water, and sometimes aromatics, fruit or honey, were added (creating a basic mash and wort) and left to ferment.  The brilliant Babylonians then came up with the straw, which allowed drinkers to get the fermented liquid out of the pot without having to chew through the grain pulp.

Because women were in charge of this important commodity, it made sense that the Sumerian goddess of beer was Nin-kasi.  She is described as “the lady who fills the mouth” and “she who sates the desires”, and was the goddess of brewing as well as the personification of the beer itself.  Her name appears in the god lists and other texts from the Sumerian Early Dynastic period, 2900 – 2350 BCE.  Some legends name her parents as En-lil and Nin-khursag, the birth goddess.  Other traditions say her parents were Nin-ti and En-ki,  god of wisdom.  Her birth was formed of sparkling-fresh water.  She appeared with her spouse, or brother sometimes things got confusing, Siris, who was a minor deity of alcoholic beverages.  She had many children.

Nin-kasi’s main duty was the being the Chief Brewer of the gods.  She had to provide beverages, above all beer, for the temples of the Mesopotamian sacred city of Nippur.  The beer was then poured out for the gods or left at their altars to drink.  Beer was also thought to be used by priests to trigger states of ecstasy in which they would prophesy.  In one Sumerian poem, she provides the beer where the goddess Inanna and En-ki get drunk together.  Sumerian drinking songs still survive on clay tablets.  One of them praises the goddess for producing in drinkers, “a blissful mood … with joy in the [innards] [and] happy liver.

The other surviving hymn to Nin-kasi was a hymn of praise, but also the oldest recipe for beer.  Here is its text in full as translated by Miguel Civil.

Borne of the flowing water,

Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Borne of the flowing water,

Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,


Having founded your town by the sacred lake,

She finished its great walls for you,

Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,

She finished it’s walls for you,


Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,

Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,

Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.


You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,

Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,

Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,

Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,


You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,

Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,

Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,


You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,

The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,

The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,


You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,

The waves rise, the waves fall.

Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,

The waves rise, the waves fall.


You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes,

Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes,


You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,

Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)


The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on a large collector vat.


When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.


So raise a glass of your favorite beer and toast Nin-kasi, who’s worship made it all possible.


Sources available on request

Magic Beans-  The History of Coffee

13620170_300103160331773_3065572534168637032_nJava.  Cup of Joe.  My reason for living.  These are all euphemisms for that most delicious of things-  a cup of coffee.  But how did coffee become the popular pick me up it is today?

There is a legend that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi around 850.  While out with his flock, he noticed that his goats were eating red cherry-like berries off a plant and afterward they were always frolicking and full of energy.  Kaldi tried the fruit and had a similar reaction.  A local monk observed Kaldi and his goats, and took some of the fruit back to his monastery and shared it with his fellow monks.  After eating the berries, they also spent the night awake and alert.  Whether this legend is true or not, we do know that the Galla tribe of Ethiopia mixed the coffee berry with ghee, a clarified butter, making a candy.  They gave these coffee infused bars to their warriors before battle because they were believed to make them invisible.  In present times, similar bars are still eaten in Kaffa and Sidamo, Ethiopia.

In the 11th century, coffee spread to Yemen from Ethiopia.  At this time, the drink was made from the whole fruit, including the beans and the hull.  The physician and philosopher Avicenna Bukhara writes of the medicinal properties of this drink.  The word in Yemen was “qahwah”, which was a romantic term for wine or sometimes “qahwa”, that which prevents sleep.  It was not until the 13th century that coffee people began to roast the coffee beans, and make a drink we would recognize as coffee.  From there, the drink reached Istanbul, where it was called “kahveh” in Turkish.  The Ottoman Governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha brought it back to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  In Istanbul, the coffee became more refined.  The beans were roasted over a fire, finely ground then slowly cooked with water.  Then spices like clove, cardamom, cinnamon and anise were added.  

Coffee  became very popular in Muslim society for its stimulant powers, making it perfect for staying awake during long prayer sessions.  It also became an important part of palace cuisine.  There was a Chief Coffee Maker, who prepared coffee for the Sultan and was renowned for his ability to keep secrets and give counsel.  Many Chief Coffee Makers rose to the position of Grand Vizier.  What became fashionable at court, soon spread to the homes of the nobility down to the common people of Istanbul.  Coffeehouses opened, first in the district of Tahtakale then all over Istanbul, and became an integral portion of city life.  They became social hotspots as people stopped in to read, play games and discuss literature and poetry.  Coffee is so important that it is legal for a wife to divorce her husband if he does not provide her with her daily quota.  However, there was a coffee backlash.  In 1511, the Governor of Mecca outlaws the beverage and coffeehouses as far away as Istanbul are shut down.  People riot and unrest spreads across the Ottoman empire until the Sultan of Cairo declare it sacred and the Governor of Mecca beheaded.  Do not come between a man and his morning coffee!

Coffee makes its way west and appears in Venice in 1570.  It is sold in lemonade stands to the very wealthy for medicinal purposes.  Then coffeehouses like in Istanbul began popping up all over Italy.  It was there Monsieur de la Roque, the French ambassador, first had a taste.  Declaring it a “magical beverage”, he imported it to Marseilles and then on to Paris.  In Paris, the ambassador from Sultan Mehmet IV, Hossohbet Nuktedan Suleyman Aga further popularizes it.  Guests flocked to his home for witty conversation over steaming cups of coffee.  Paris’s first real coffee house, Cafe de Procope, opened in 1686.  The literati of the age, such as Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, could all be found sipping a cup there.  Coffeehouses began opening on every street in Paris.  Vienna and London followed suit and coffeehouses were soon a familiar site in both cities.  In London, they were called “penny universities”, where patrons could get an impromptu lesson in art, law, literature, philosophy and politics for the entrance fee of a penny.  These coffee houses were considered a hotbed of controversial thought and revolution.  Tea did not become popular until the late 18th century.  Before that, coffee was what the Brits drank.

Far from being enraptured with its deliciousness, the Dutch smelled profit in the coffee bean.  Prior to 1600, all coffee beans coming from the East were parched and boiled, rendering them infertile.  Therefore, no new coffee crops could be planted anywhere else.  In 1600, Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim, left Mecca with fertile beans fastened to a strap across his abdomen.  From these smuggled beans, the European coffee trade was born.  The Dutch began planting coffee in their colonies of Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Java.  Throughout the 17th century, the new sources of coffee beans fueled the creation of coffeehouses in almost all major European cities.

During the American Revolution, it became patriotic to switch from English supplied tea, making it much more popular.  The Civil War and other conflicts also boosted coffee consumption as the soldiers used it much like the Ethiopian warriors in the 11th century.  The caffeine kept them awake and made them feel good.  Americans quickly became enthralled to the delicious beverage.  Theodore Roosevelt was said to have drunk a gallon of coffee a day, and have coined the Maxwell House slogan “Good to the last drop”.  

So the next time you pick up your Starbucks, thank a goat herder named Kaldi


Sources available on request