Text and Photography by Paul Himmelein
Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Jan Vermeer—think back to the days of the old Dutch Masters, when cultured men and women of the Netherlands dressed in somber black tones and wore white lacy ruffs and jabots about their necks. Most formal portraits of this class show them with stern countenances and a conspicuous lack of joy. But things seemed to have lightened up a little in winter when the canals froze. With the exuberance of a London Frost Faire, people from all classes and walks of life took to the ice.
Imagine them balancing upon the frosty banks of a frozen canal on a cold winter’s day, beneath a sky the color of tarnished silver, strapping themselves onto wooden platforms atop long iron runners—the rustic version of ice skates. Picture their breath condensing into tiny clouds as they push off onto the shimmering pewter ice, gliding past windmills and the flat quiet countryside. After miles of sliding over frozen canals, lined by naked trees with their thick trunks and spindly vertical branches shivering in the wind, dodging hockey players, gangs of laughing children, and ducking under bridges, our exhilarated and exhausted 17th century skaters are in need of refreshment. It was Anijsmelk to the rescue! That’s anise milk if you prefer the English translation, a simple concoction of milk, crushed aniseed, and honey.
Vendors set up little roofless three-sided huts made of reeds to protect skaters from the whipping easterly winds. In the center, a stove sits warming a large pot of anise milk, its licorice scent rising up on a curl of steam. Rough-hewn wooden benches provide seating for the tired skaters as they warm their hands around a hot cup of this sweet herbal restorative until they feel they are ready to skate on.
A lot has changed in three centuries. We have modern, state-of-the-art ice skates, brightly colored polar fleece, and Thinsulate gloves, and the canals of Holland no longer freeze that frequently. There is one thing that hasn’t changed: the tradition of Anijsmelk.
Whether it’s taken while skating the canals or as a nightcap to encourage sleepiness and sweet dreams, this centuries-old elixir is a Dutch treat that is just as popular today as it ever was. Free of alcohol, it’s a great winter alternative to mulled cider or hot cocoa. It has a subtle—in no way overpowering—licorice flavor. (I don’t like licorice, and I love anise milk.)
Here’s a fairy-friendly version of the Dutch original to help spice up the Solstice and get you through the winter doldrums:
4 cups almond milk
1 tablespoon crushed aniseed
¼ cup honey or raw unrefined sugar
Optional: 2 tablespoons cornstarch or arrowroot dissolved in a little water. This will thicken the anise milk and make a heartier drink.
Combine almond milk and aniseed together in a saucepan and bring to just shy of a boil. Reduce heat, add honey (and cornstarch if desired), and simmer for a good five minutes, stirring frequently. Strain to remove seeds when pouring into cups. Serve hot. Adjust sweetener to taste. Serves four.