This 1808 image of an old vendor woman selling salop in London seems simple at first glance. Created by William H Pyne for The Costumes of Great Britain (one of 60 beautifully produced hand-colored drawings), the image shows the vendor surrounded by customers waiting for a warm drink, which she pours fresh and hot into white bowls from a samovar (still). One wonders if the sight was common enough for Jane Austen to have observed it during her visits to her brother Henry in London, or if she purchased the drink or had tasted it. This description shows how even a whiff of salop caused the writer to wax eloquently about the drink, which he had liked long ago:
Suddenly we came upon a still, whence arose the steam of Early Purl, or Salop, flattering our senses. Ye Gods ! what a breakfast ! In vain a cautious scepticism suggests that the liquid was one which my palate would now shudderingly reject; perhaps so; I did not reject it then; and in memory the flavour is beatified. I feel its diffusive warmth stealing through me. I taste its unaccustomed and exquisite flavour. Tea is great, coffee greater ; chocolate, properly made, is for epicures; but these are thin and characterless compared with the salop swallowed in 1826. That was nectar, and the Hebe who poured it out was not a blear-eyed old woman, though to vulgar vision she may have presented some such aspect. – Unctuous Memories, The Cornhill Magazine, 1863 p. 613-617
The problem is not with the drawing; it is with the definition of salop, which is variously spelled salop, salep, saloop, and even sahlib. Experts have offered several explanations and recipes of the drink. I examined three sources, all of which offer different ingredients. Even dictionaries from the 19th century cannot agree with the precise meaning of the drink that was commonly served in coffee houses and stalls and on the streets of London. We can, however, agree on a few observations. A night watchman stands behind the vendor and her mobile table. Thus, salop was a typical nightly drink of Londoners.
Sold between midnight and 6-7 o’clock in the morning for some it was the probate cure of a hang-over while the early birds drank it for invigoration and warming up. (Luder H. Niemeyer)
Detail of the chimney sweep drinking salop
Salop was definitely popular during the first part of the 19th century.
Charles Lamb, in his essay upon Chimney Sweeps, mentions the public house of Mr. Reed, on Fleet street in London, as a place where Sassafras tea (and Salop) were still served daily to customers in his time, about 1823.
The hot mixture was affordable even for the lowly chimney sweep, who is seen drinking from a bowl. But how was the drink made? The Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, first published in 1886, says that salop was derived from the tubers of various species of orchis found around Europe. It had the reputation of being a restorative and highly nutritious, and a decoction of the substance, spiced and sweetened, was thought to make an agreeable drink for invalids. – p. 784.
The tea woman sitting behind her street booth – a mobile table with samovar – amidst varied customers, just filling another cup of her much demanded herb-tea. Aquatint printed in color and colored by hand for William Miller in London. 1805.
Hobson-Jobson went on to say that in 1889 a correspondent wrote that the term could also be applied to an infusion of the sassafras bark or wood. Sassafras was imported from the colonies; it did not grow in Europe.
There is also the question of what time of day people preferred to drink salop. In 1850, a source stated that sassafras tea, flavoured with milk and sugar, was sold at daybreak in the streets of London as saloop. In 1882, The St. James’s Gazette said:
Here we knock against an ambulant salep-shop (a kind of tea that people drink on winter mornings); there against roaming oil, salt, or water-vendors, bakers carrying brown bread on wooden trays, pedlars with cakes, fellows offering dainty little bits of meat to the knowing purchaser.”
From the description, one gets the true flavor of an early morning street scene – its sights, smells, and sounds . One also gains the sense that salop was sold much like coffee today – that there was a preferred time to drink it, but that it could be obtained at all hours. But what about the recipe? Was it made with Sassafras bark or with orchis root?
Gourmet Britain says it was made with orchis root, and provides the reader with a history and recipe. Soupabooks mentions that it was made of dried sassafras bark and offers this recipe:
To make Salop
Put a Tea spoonfull of Salop to a Pint of Water, with 3 or 4 Blades of Mace, & some Lemmon Peel cut very thin. Boyl it, & Mill it as you do Chocolate, Sweeten it to your Taste; add some grated Nutmeg, & juice of Lemon to make it Palateable. — Mrs. B.P. Benet, Lathrop Lodge, Swindon, Wilts. From her Book of Recipes from about 1796.
Note that Mrs. B.P. Benet does not describe the Salop, but simply assumes that the reader will know what ingredient to purchase. The salop made with sassafras bark would have a slight taste of licorice.
Early American settlers learned from American Indians how to brew sassafras tea from the root bark and drank it has an herbal remedy. Later they made sassafras the original root in root beer and used it as an important ingredient in Sasparilla, a different but related beverage. Those first Sassafras supporters didn’t know how or why it tasted so good, but a few hundred years later, we do. Sassafras root contains an essential oil called safrole which imparts that characteristic licorice flavor.
Charles Lamb. Image @NNDB
Charles Lamb in his essay about Chimney Sweeps corroborates the sassafras root ingredient:
There is a composition, the groundwork of which I have understood to be the sweet wood yclept sassafras. This wood boiled down to a kind of tea, and tempered with an infusion of milk and sugar, hath to some tastes a delicacy beyond the China luxury. I know not how thy palate may relish it, I have never ventured to dip my own particular lip in a basin, a cautious premonition to the olfactories constantly whispering to me, that my stomach must infallibly, with all due courtesy, decline it. Yet I have seen palates otherwise not uninstructed in dietetical elegancies, sup it up with avidity. This is salop—the precocious herbwoman’s darling—the delight of the early gardener who transports his smoking cabbages from Hammersmith to Covent Garden’s famed piazzas—the delight, and oh ! I fear too often the envy of the unpennied sweep.” – Unctuous Memories, The Cornhill Magazine, 1863 p. 613-617
To complicate matters even more, I found this description of salop: “The tea produced from the male root of the Ragged Robin, so-called salop, was the typical nightly drink of Londoners.” (Luder H. Niemeyer) Ragged Robin seems to be the common name for the cuckooflower lychnis, which is a perennial that has very hardy, fibrous roots. Since Ragged Robin was not mentioned in other encyclopedias, descriptions, or dictionaries that I consulted, I will discount this ingredient from the discussion.
The following is a sampling of definitions of Salop, Salep, or Saloop from various dictionaries:
- an aromatic drink prepared from sassafras bark and other ingredients. – Online Encyclopedia
- salop (or saloop, a hot starchy drink made with an infusion of dried salep, or orchid tubers) – Science and Society Picture Library
- An aromatic drink prepared from sassafras bark and other ingredients , at one time much used in London . – – J . Smith ( Dict . Econ . “Saloop” is a common misspelling or typo for: Salop. – Webster’s Online Dictionary
- saloop/seuh loohp”/, n.: a hot drink prepared originally from salep but later from sassafras, together with milk and sugar. [1705-15; var. of SALEP] – Collaborative International Dictionary
- Salep, sal′ep, n. the dried tubers of Orchis mascula: the food prepared from it.—Also Sal′op. [Ar.Salep from Arabic: سحلب saḥlab, is a flour made from grinding the dried tubers of the orchid genus Orchis (including species Orchis mascula and Orchis militaris). These tubers contain a nutritious starch-like polysaccharide called glucomannan. Salep flour is consumed today in beverages and desserts, in places that were formerly part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The term salep may also refer to any beverage made with the salep flour. – Wikipedia
So which ingredient did Pyne’s old female vendor use to make her salop? Orchis tubers, which were found in Europe, or dried Sassafras bark,which had to be imported? In any case, one shudders at the thought of the bowls that the vendor used to pour the drink in for her customers. I see no water jug near at hand to rinse the bowls after each use. Heaven knows how many germs were spread around via these used dishes, which could not be tossed aside or washed easily.
About The Costumes of Great Britain: Between 1800 and 1818, London publishers William Miller, T. M’Lean, and William Bulmer published a series of color plate books, including one that featured 60 color plates of Britain’s working classes just as the Industrial Revolution began to take off. William H Pyne (1769-1843) was commissioned to write and illustrate the book by the publisher, William Miller. The first edition was printed in 1804, but the edition from which this coloured plate was taken was published in 1808. – Science and Society
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