A sherbet was a cold, sweet, non-alcoholic and refreshing drink that originated in the Middle East. The name derives from the Arab word for a drink – sharâb. However, later this word came to mean an alcoholic drink, and the word sharbât was used for the non-alcoholic version (‘to drink’, rather than ‘a drink’). The word evolved into serbet (in Turkey), eventually spreading to Europe by the 16th century via. Italy and Spain. It became sorbetto (Italy), sorbete (Spain) and finally sorbet (France). In England they added an ‘h’ – sherbet.
Up until the 19th century, it kept to its origins as a sweetened fruit juice (frequently made with citrus), optionally with added spices, served cold (with ice). During the 19th century it reversed (in France) from an iced drink to a soft ice (usually incorporating alcohol) that was eaten. Sorbets have been associated with this form ever since.
In Britain, sherbet became a powder but retained its basic flavour components. Typically, a sherbet was a lemon-flavoured sugar with an acid salt (such as cream of tartar), and bicarbonate of soda. When added to cold water it would fizz (from CO2 released by the acid-bicarbonate reaction). Alternatively, the powder could be eaten directly and fizz in the mouth. This became very popular in the 20th century.
So, we still eat or drink sherbets and sorbets, but what’s a shrub?
A vinegary sherbet (the drink version) and not dissimilar to pickling. The vinegar can be replaced with alcohol. Both versions are referred to as shrubs. In common with sherbet, shrub evolved from the Arabic sharâb, which became shurb and then shrub. The word syrup (a kind of shrub concentrate) had a similar origin. The word for the plant (shrub) is old English (scrybb), possibly Scandinavian in origin, and related to scrub.
The first drinkable shrubs were probably fermented sherbets. Natural microbes in the fruit (or the air) could ferment the sugars (fruit and added), acidifying and souring the mix. This would have made the drink less sweet and more refreshing. In time, the fermentation step was skipped and vinegar was added directly. Either approach had a preserving effect, which made shrubs popular until the age of refrigeration. They were an ingenious solution to two waste products: over-ripening fruit and oxidised wine – just combine them, add sugar, and you’ve got yourself a shrub. Mix with cold water or soda.
An alternative preserving agent was alcohol, manifesting at first as punch or as a flavoured rum. Alcohol may have also been a component of early fermented shrubs (if they were fermented under anaerobic conditions). Arguably, the ultimate anaerobic shrub is wine (grapes, unlike most fruits, contain enough natural sugar to sustain the fermentation).
Punch originated in India and spread to Europe with colonial rule. The word comes from the Sanskrit for five – puñc, because the original version had 5 ingredients (lemon, sugar, water, alcohol, spice).
Rum and sugar are closely linked, because rum is produced by fermenting and distilling the waste from sugar manufacture – molasses. Early rums were pretty rough, and it made sense to add a bit of sugar and some fruit juice (typically lemon) to make it palatable. The lemon/rum combination preserved well, and retained vitamin C. It became a staple for warding off scurvy on long sea voyages (but popular on any sea voyage).
What has this to do with modernist cooking?
Modernist cooking is about exploring. Not just using science and technology, but also exploring food and culture, which includes looking into a forgotten past. Heston’s Michelin-starred restaurant Dinner serves dishes he has developed from a detailed exploration of forgotten English recipes.
Plus, shrubs are easy and fun to try.
The standard approach it to take some fruit, chop it and mix with sugar. Leave a day or so (refrigerated) to allow the sugar to extract the juices. Maybe muddle occasionally. Strain and add vinegar. Most recipes seem to use the 2:1:1 proportions (2 cups of chopped fruit, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of vinegar). It is diluted, as a cordial would be, for drinking. The word cordial means ‘of the heart’, deriving from the Latin for heart – cor. Cordials were originally a medicine to stimulate the heart. Sugar was a medicine too.
There might be a reason for the fruit-sugar maceration stage, but it’s not clear to me. The cup method is highly variable – juice extraction from 2 cups of fruit will vary wildly even for the same kind of fruit. I prefer to juice the fruit and work according to the volume (or weight) of juice. The 2:1:1 rule still works as a starting point, but can be varied to taste. For example, if using citrus juice (which is already acidic), then decrease the vinegar. If the fruit is very sweet, reduce the sugar. I prefer to reduce the sugar anyway, and commonly use 2:½:1. There are no rules, adjust the combination to suit yourself.
If juicing, think about the solid residue. For example, gather the solids from juicing strawberries, mix with cracked pepper, roll out thinly and dehydrate. The sweet-hot strawberry leather works a treat on a cheese platter.
The fruit can be bought in bulk when it is on special as damaged or seconds or overripe. Frozen fruit is fine too. Use any vinegar you like, but I tend to go for apple cider vinegar or champagne vinegar. Strawberries (or cherries) can be matched with balsamic. For sugar, table sugar is fine. Brown sugars might carry a little more flavour (from the molasses) but they can also muddy the drink with their colour. The original sweetener was likely to be honey – the process for refining table sugar came later.
There is no need to stick with fruit, vegetables are fine – or vegetables that are fruits (tomato, capsicum, squash, pumpkin, cucumber). I recommend celery shrub and soda (put the leaves through the juicer too). Pretty much anything you would see at a juice bar can be ‘shrubbed’. Add herbs or spices if desired (ginger, cinnamon, salt, pepper, thyme, bay, mint, basil etc), overdo them a bit (the shrubs are served diluted).
Sweet shrubs make a fine dressing for ice cream/yoghurt. Acidic shrubs are an alternative (fat-free) vinaigrette.
Alcoholic shrubs are undergoing a bit of a revival at top-end cocktail bars. They offer a sophisticated and quick alternative to muddling for adding flavour to cocktails. Any vinegar shrub can be served with alcohol, but a true alcohol-shrub replaces some (or all) of the vinegar with alcohol.
Apparently Benjamin Franklin was a fan. His orange-shrub recipe was 200g orange juice, a bottle of rum and 125g of sugar. Those are his proportions – he made it by the gallons.
Not to be outdone, Martha Washington (wife of the more famous George) fancied a brandy-wine shrub. Combine 1 bottle of brandy (of course, Martha used cognac), 1 bottle of dry white wine, 750ml of water, 125ml lemon juice and 375g sugar.
For both of these, the peels were steeped in the spirit for some days beforehand to extract their flavour. A quicker alternative is to muddle the peels with the sugar, mix everything together then strain.
The convolutions of history, food and language have emerged more than usual on this topic. Sherbet, sorbet, syrup, punch, cordial, etymology and a forgotten shrub that’s not a shrub.