Digested Digest: Scaíltín

Posted December 12, 2022 in Food & Drink Features

Every Christmas my other half makes eggnog for my family. It’s a big deal – it’s seasonal, served over ice and laced with the good stuff. It’s American, she’s American, and we like it. We appreciate it as a heartfelt gift and patriotic ode to her homeland. The irony is that her family doesn’t have a tradition of drinking eggnog. In fact, the sheer quantity of yolks present in the beverage might send her egg intolerant brother into anaphylactic shock (not the seasonal gift one might hope for). Fear not Nicholas (coincidentally her brother’s rather festive name), there exists a delicious seasonal beverage served in Ireland that is not based on eggs, but on milk, Irish whiskey and butter. It’s called Scaíltín (pronounced scawl-teen) and is a luxurious, creamy beverage served warm and finished with crushed caraway or nutmeg. It’s almost like a hot milk toddy!

There is a saying in Irish “An té nach leigheasann im nó uisce beatha, ní aon leigheas ar” – What butter and whiskey cannot cure, there is no cure for.

Not just for reindeer
It might seem odd to include caraway in an Irish beverage, but the spice has been an unlikely staple in Irish recipes for centuries. Caraway, also uncommonly referred to as Persian cumin, is a member of the Umbelliferae family (the what?) or carrot family (ah ok), just like dill, anise, garden angelica, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, fennel, parsnips and parsley. Walk along almost any beach in Ireland during late summer and you will come across wild carrots, especially along infertile saline patches. With white flowers and notable black or purple dots at their centre which often attract insects, wild carrots are quite easy to identify! I wouldn’t suggest eating the root (the carrot itself) as it’s very fibrous, but the flowers can be picked, dried and used for infusions or herbal tea.

I read somewhere that caraway has a nutty, bittersweet flavour to it, finishing with aniseed. I’m currently chewing on a seed to determine whether I agree with this description…I do (kind of). Its unique flavour works wonderfully with roasted pork, cheese and sweet preparations. In Scandinavia, caraway is commonly found in rye bread or rye crackers served with cheese, making it a great spice to use for this celebratory season! However my mother, whose family come from a very modest village in Connemara on the West Coast of Ireland, recounts how it was once typical to find caraway served in tea at local homes in the area. One family had 13 kids in a two room house with no toilet and one cow. Nevertheless a spice from North Africa and Asia was a cupboard staple in their household. Historically sailors brought these spices and dried fruit to our shores, trading with locals for fresh meat and vegetables. Oranges became marmalade stored in traditional ceramic jars, spices were baked in speckled loaves with currants and sugar and tea was spiked with caraway (and the occasional drop of something more traditional).

Milk washing?
Now, if drinking spiced tea while sitting next to a cow in a crowded sitting room hasn’t whetted your palate, let’s talk about milk washing. No, not bathing in milk, I mean the process of curdling milk with alcohol and acid. Still with me? In the 18th century before developed distilling methods were applied to alcohol, milk washing was used to soften the harsh alcohol available in that era which was much harsher than what is found today.

When milk is mixed with intense compounds like acid or harsh alcohol, the pH in the milk drops (i.e. increased acidity). This causes milk protein molecules (casein) to become attracted to one another and the milk to curdle, much like when old milk acidifies. These proteins form curds and separate from the whey present in the milk. As the curds form, they too trap a number of the harsh properties within the alcohol, such as tannins, polyphenols, pigments and unwanted flavour compounds, and when strained, what is achieved is a far more palatable alcohol. A fun fact for sure, but why should I care?

While removing flavour compounds from alcohol may seem counterintuitive today, there are a lot of positives to milk washing. For example, let’s say you make a dark punch with tea, sometimes red wine, citrus, sugars and liquor. This in its own right is a delicious blend which can, of course, be consumed there and then. However, if you mix it into full fat milk (not the other way), leave it for a couple of hours to curdle and strain well through a coffee filter, the protein in the milk clarifies your cocktail. What you achieve is a crystal clear liquid – remember it was dark brown. What’s more, the milk has now been converted into clarified whey which adds its own depth, as the protein enriched water contains more body and texture than H20. The result is a smoother beverage with improved viscosity and a flavour that is more mellow and cohesive

Let’s recap
Full fat milk + alcohol + acid (lemon juice or ascorbic) = pH in milk drops = curdling.

Result of curdling: separation of curds + whey. 

Intense straining through a coffee filter = crystal clear solution of whey and alcohol.

*pH is a measure of how acidic/basic water is. The range goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. pHs of less than 7 indicate acidity, whereas a pH greater than 7 indicates a base. So when we say the pH drops in milk, the acid in milk increases. 

Words: Cúán Greene

Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter.  You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com


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