ORGEAT – the drink with the odd pronunciation (I will explain in a moment), is never mentioned by Jane Austen, either in a letter or her novels, but surely would have been known to her. Mentions of Orgeat being served at Almacks and other Society gatherings are scattered throughout letters and commentaries dated during the Regency Era, and long before.
So what exactly is it?
Prior to refrigeration, people could not store milk for long periods so it either needed to be used immediately – usually in a recipe rather than drank straight – or turned into cheese that did store better. Additionally, milk was not always easy to come by unless one was a farmer, and without milk and milk products, a great number of recipes could not be cooked.
The solution from hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago was to use a stable oil/water emulsion that could substitute for milk fats and not spoil. An emulsion is simply a mixture of two unblendable substances that, when shaken together, form very small droplets that appear to “blend” into a cloudy liquid. The droplets of each substance are so tiny that they do not easily separate into layers. Butter, hollandaise, mayonnaise, and even milk itself are examples of emulsions.
Originally barley proved perfect for this, but later almonds were more commonly used since they produced an emulsion with a better taste in recipes. The composition of the emulsion made it possible to whip into a cream or churn into a butter. Somewhere along the line clever, experimental cooks added sugar to the almond emulsion, along with other flavorings such as orange blossom and rose water, to create a syrupy cordial. This is what became known as Orgeat.
Served by itself, Orgeat is tasty… depending on one’s palate since it is a sweet drink. In the past it was often served without alcohol, especially to the very young, and used as a base with fruit juices, tea, and coffee. A Regency Era Starbucks amaretto latte! However, Orgeat was most commonly laced with brandy, rum, gin, vodka – you name it.
The name – ORGEAT – is a derivative of a French word meaning “made with barley” – hordeata – and is pronounced: or-zat.
A tidbit of more recent history: The original Mai Tai was created in 1944 by Victor Bergron, the founder of Trader Vic’s tiki bar in Oakland, California. Orgeat was a key ingredient to that classic recipe. So, if you want to test a bartender’s authenticity and knowledge, tell him you want your Mai Tai with pure Orgeat. Trader Vic’s Mai Tai history
Today Orgeat can be purchased ready made in specialty liquor stores like Bev Mo or stores like Trader Joes and World Market. However, it probably isn’t “real” orgeat, but instead an almond-flavored syrup. It is actually easier to find as an almond syrup, and will often be in the coffee sections of most stores as a mixture for the flavored coffees we like today. Online pure orgeat can be purchased at Okole Maluna and Small Hand Foods, but it isn’t cheap and since it is easy to make, why not do that instead?
The recipe is below, as well as on the image which you can download and save to your computer for better reference. Orange Blossom Water and Rose Water can be easily purchased on Amazon and other online places. Orange flavoring can be substituted and will taste okay, but not as perfect.
2 1/4 cups raw almonds, sliced or chopped
3 1/2 cups water
3 1/2 cups distilled water
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
1 oz. vodka, brandy, etc.
1/4 tsp. orange blossom water (can substitute with other flavors)
- Place sliced almonds in a medium-sized, metal mixing bowl. Cover with tap water and let sit for 30 minutes. Strain, discarding water.
- In a food processor or blender, pulse the almonds until they are coarsely ground.
- Return ground almonds to the bowl, cover with distilled water and soak for 4 to 5 hours, stirring the mixture well every hour or so.
- Strain liquid, which is similar to an unsweetened almond milk, into a glass jar with tight-fitting lid through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, squeezing to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the almonds.
- Add sugar to the liquid, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add liquor and orange blossom water and stir thoroughly. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Makes 3-4 cups of syrup.