The Secret Recipes Of The 19th Century

The Secret Recipes Of The 19th Century

It’d be too easy for me too look at the famous secret recipes of products like Coca Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken. We all know these are old products and their recipes are jealously guarded. It’d also be too easy to look at the false secret ingredients like powdered chalk bulking out flour or fake nutmegs carved out of wood. Today we’re going to look at some of the the product which have carried into the 21st century.


Many of you may never have heard of these complex, herbal Italian liqueurs. They are right on trend at the moment and coveted by Bartenders all over the world and are using amari in all the best cocktails. From the quirkily-named paper plane right through to the curious Eeyore’s requiem. Very few will be drinking gthem the way they were originally intended such as a Brancolada. Drinkers are taking to them like a duck to water but they are moving away from the original Italian tradition.

The spirits themselves remain arcane and mysterious, but where do they come from and how exactly are they made? The range of products is immense; Montenegro, Averna, Fernet-Branca and Nonino among them, and there are hundreds of producers all over Italy. Each has its own distinct flavours and profile. Each Amaro has treats the recipe for their own amaro as though it were the formula for Coca-Cola, or the 11 secret herbs and spices.

At the Amaro Averna production facilities in Caltanisetta in Sicily, secrecy reigns supreme. The original recipe for this rich and treacly amaro, was gifted by the monks of the Caltanisetta’s Santo Spirito Abbey to Salvatore Averna in the middle of the nineteenth century. Very few of people currently know the full recipe. The company has divulged only three ingredients: lemon, bitter orange, and pomegranate peels. They go to great lengths to keep the recipe a secret: sacks of botanicals arrive stripped of names and labelled only with codewords to prevent other staff members from piecing the recipe together. Another version was developed by a pharmacist, Francesco Peloni, in 1875 – its recipe, too, remains a closely guarded secret.

Onions Rings

Another product which seems very contemporary also has roots in the 19th century. Onion rings has a delicious twist from a recipe from John Mollard’s 1801 cookbook, “The Art Of Cookery Made Easy And Refined. Use Spanish onions if you can get them, and cut them into half inch rings. Dip them into a batter made of flour, cream, salt and pepper, and Parmesan cheese, and then deep frying them in “boiling” lard. It further suggests serving them with a sauce made of melted butter and mustard.

This recipe sounds amazingly modern, yet wasn’t even new in the 18th century. Who’s up for trying it?

Dr Pepper’s

Bill Waters, a rare manuscripts collector from Oklahoma, stumbled upon a 19th-century sales ledger underneath a wooden, medicine-bottle crate, while he was rooting through a store in the old Wild West town of Shamrock in 2008. He bought it for $200 (£130), hoping to clean the book up and sell it for a small profit on eBay. However when Mr Waters began researching its contents , he chanced upon a handwritten recipe for a “D Peppers Pepsin Bitter”. Several sheets contained in its pages had letterheads from “W B Morrison and Co. Old Corner Drug Store”, a business that existed in nearby Waco at the end of the 19th century. An internet search revealed that the soft drink Dr Pepper was first served at the same store in 1885.

Faded letters on its brown cover say that it contains “Castles Formulas”. John Castles was a partner at Morrison’s for a time and was a drugist at the store as early as 1880, according to Mary Beth Webster at the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute.
The yellowing pad suggests the distinctive drink was originally concocted from a mixture containing mandrake root and a large quantity of syrup. It was probably sold as a “digestive” to help make stomach medicine palatable.

Today, the sweet-but-spicy drink which descended from the recipe Mr Castles noted down is part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and is distributed across several continents. Dr Pepper is made from a top-secret combination of 23 different ingredients and the exact combination is only made known to three senior employees of the firm at any one time.

Though it does not dispute the book’s authenticity, they believe that the recipe it contains – which is partly illegible – is for a medicine rather than a soft drink. A spokesman for the firm told the Associated Press that it bore little resemblance to the real Dr Pepper recipe

Elixir For Long life

The finished elixir, bright orange from the saffron and tumeric, sits next to the original bottle of the elixir found at 50 Bowery. It’s garnished with the tip of an aloe leaf — one of the ingredients in the bitter drink. It’s likely that only a few drops are meant to be consumed at a time.

This particular recipe needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt, but it’s a perfect example of the quack medicines which were rampant in the 19th century. They aren’t an elxir but modern-day herbalists state that they could ease symptoms.

During a recent excavation beneath a hotel site at 50 Bowery, Chrysalis Archaeology discovered a tiny, greenish glass bottle that once contained the “Elixir of Long Life.” The bottle found amid a cache of 150-year-old liquor bottles beneath what was once a German beer garden sparked the archaeologists’ curiosity, and they decided to hunt down the original recipe so they could try the elixir themselves. They enlisted colleagues in Germany to rack down the recipe in a 19th-century medical guide. After they translated it for her, they discovered it contained ingredients still used by modern-day herbalists: aloe, which is anti-inflammatory, and gentian root, which aids digestion. Mostly, though, the elixir was made of alcohol.

“These types of cure-alls were pretty ubiquitous in the 19th century, and always available at bars,” Loorya said. “Similar bitters and ingredients are still used today, in cocktails, and in health stores, but I guess we don’t know if it was the copious amounts of alcohol or the herbs that perhaps made people feel better.”

Loorya and her team are gathering the ingredients for the elixir and plan to try making it within the next couple of weeks.

They also plan to recreate Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters, a once-popular 19th-century medicine, after finding two of those bottles at the 50 Bowery site and seeking out that recipe as well.

The Hostetters recipe is a bit more complex, containing Peruvian bark, also known as cinchona, which is used for its malaria-fighting properties and is still used to make bitters for cocktails, and gum kino, a kind of tree sap that is antibacterial. It also contains more common ingredients, including cinnamon and cardamom seeds, which are known to help prevent gas. When DNAinfo New York showed the recipes to herbalist Lata Kennedy, who’s owned the East Village herb shop Flower Power for 19 years, she said many are still used to naturally treat ailments.

“All those ingredients are about your digestive health, and that’s really a key to good health in general,” Kennedy said of both the Elixir of Life and Hostetters recipes. “Those ingredients make a liver tonic, one that soothes your stomach, and also helps you poop — get out the toxins.”

Using alcohol to extract the beneficial properties of herbs and roots is still a common practice used by herbalists today, Kennedy said. She sells many of the ingredients used in the recipes, both in raw form and alcohol-based tinctures, and she believes they improve people’s health — and could even prolong their life.

“Long life has a lot to do with how healthy our guts are, so it makes sense to see these used back then,” she said. “We should all be eating more bitters.”