Inspired by Matt’s sorbet post, I recalled an attempt I made many years ago to reproduce the common ancestor of sorbet, sherbet, and ice cream: the ancient Middle Eastern drink known as charbet.
These days, when the problem of keeping food and people cool in summer has been effectively solved, it’s hard to imagine just how awesome frozen treats must have seemed in the Ancient World, particularly in the more arid countries. In fact, it’s hard to imagine frozen treats existing at all, but they did. Socrates and Plato snacked on a mix of snow trucked down from mountains and mixed with honey and fruit. The Persians were even more dogged for their refreshment, constructing enormous insulated buildings called yakhchals that included windcatchers to create a draught that sucked air over an underground stream, chilling the basement to freezing and allowing the consumption of ice throughout summer.
A genuine charbet, I was told, is nothing more than a fruit syrup concentrate, to be added to a glass of ice water for summer refreshment. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep the recipe and I can’t remember who told it to me, so what follows is my own interpretation of the principle.
This charbet is extremely simple, requiring only strawberries and sugar. The strawberries I got from a local farm, known as Spooner, as I prefer small tasty strawberries to the tennis ball-sized bland ones supermarkets offer.
My original attempt used common refined sugar, but it occurred to me that if you are going to make a recipe involving only two ingredients, both ingredients probably warrant some consideration. Raw sugar has been around since the Gupta dynasty (350 AD) when the Indians figured out how to crystallize sugar from cane. I have no idea when refined sugar was first invented, but I’m guessing it was some time around the Industrial Revolution. (After serving up several hundred white chocolate raspberry mochas with whipped cream, I have become concerned with the amount of refined sugar most people consume. It is highly addictive and causes many health problems. Unlike natural forms of sugar such as those found in fruit, refined sugar comes without any of the vitamins or minerals required by your body to metabolize it. The vitamins and minerals are thus leached from your own body every time you eat or drink refined sugar. According to some definitions, this makes refined sugar a lethal poison. ‘Empty calories.’ Doesn’t sound so benign now, does it? Maybe it should be a controlled substance, like certain other white powders.) In the end, I settled for evaporated and unrefined cane sugar, found in the bulk section of an upmarket supermarket.
The recipe is simple if esoteric. I halved the strawberries and put them in a cheesecloth-lined bowl, sprinkling them liberally with sugar as I went. I don’t know how much sugar I used, but I would guess ten or twelve tablespoons for a pint of strawberries. You’ll notice I didn’t bother to husk the strawberries, since the strawberries won’t make it to the final concoction. Also, bones add interest to a stew, so I was working on the theory the green stems might add an interesting taint (they didn’t).
Once the cloth was almost full, I tied it into a bundle and suspended it in the refrigerator above a bowl. Then by the miracle of osmosis – the tendency of water to move across a semi-permeable membrane to an area of lower concentration – the sugar leached the strawberries of their juice, which dropped into the bowl (at least, that’s my understanding, but keep in mind I failed O-chem). The same principle would presumably work with salt, if anyone can find an application for strawberry-flavoured brine.
Twenty-four hours and a couple of squeezes of the bag later, the result is a cup of red syrup. Take a tall glass of ice water and mix in a few spoons of charbet. Stir well, as the charbet, being denser than water, will sink to the bottom.
The taste? Stronger than you may expect, though still a far cry from the super-intense sugary sodas we lucky folks in the future are accustomed to. It’s very cool and tasty, and worth making just so you can partake of something once reserved for kings (there wasn’t enough ice in the yakhchals for everyone, after all). Also, the technique used is almost identical to that for making certain consommés, most notably tomato water – more on that in a future post.
I was surprised by how much syrup a pint of strawberries yielded, and so I used the rest to make granita. Granita is a part of my Italian-infused childhood. Granita is simply frozen dilute syrup (I mixed water with the charbet at a ratio of about 2:1) but it differs from sorbet in that the ice crystals are intended to be large, not silky-smooth. You simply freeze a baking pan full of mild syrup and then break it up into chunks, put it in glasses, and serve it with a spoon when the mercury is pushing ninety. Lemon is my favorite for the pith that gives it texture.
My wife Leslie subsequently came up with this recipe:
Strawberry Granita Mojito
for each glass:
crush 6 mint leaves into the juice of half a fat lime (we use a wooden muddler for the crushing, but you could use a pestle, or the wrong end of a wooden spoon)
add equal parts soda water and white rum
add six reasonable chunks of strawberry granita (about the size of ice cubes)
garnish for photo opportunities.