Did this Renaissance superman invent the modern wine bottle?

Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth century philosopher, pirate – and cook
Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth century philosopher, pirate – and cook

If you've ever heard of Sir Kenelm Digby, you'll probably know him as a seventeenth century courtier, diplomat, philosopher and all-round Renaissance superman, with a wife who died in rather mysterious circumstances.

But few people realise that this talented figure was also a trailblazing cook, who nagged royals for their family recipes, published the first Chinese recipe in England and invented the modern-day wine bottle.

Here are nine fascinating food facts about Sir Kenelm.

1.  His kitchen was better-equipped than Nigella's

When Kenelm Digby died in 1665, in his rooms on Covent Garden Square, he owned one of the best-stocked kitchens in London: it boasted eight ‘Pye plates,’ seven ‘smale silibub glasses,’ forty pewter dishes, and a dizzying array of skillets, spits, knives, weights, and tins.  Four years after his death, the fruits of Digby’s lifetime of culinary labours were made available to the wider world with the publication of The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Open’d, a collection of his recipes.

2. He fell in love with food on his gap year 

 Digby’s interest in food had been formed by his youthful travels. In his teens he journeyed to Italy, spending two years in Florence. His recipe book recorded a preparation for ‘Sucket of Mallow Stalks,’ which involved soaking the soft young shoots of this leafy plant repeatedly in ‘a high Syrup of pure Sugar’.  As well as being delicious, their medical benefits hinted at the naughtier pleasures of Italian travel: ‘These tender stalks of Mallows,’ Digby wrote, ‘are called Mazzocchi,’ and ‘in Italy they eat much of them…in Gonorrhoea’s to take away pain in Urining.’

People eating in a street cafe in Florence, Italy, where Kenelm Digby lived for two years

3.  He feasted with pirates

At the end of 1627, aged twenty-four, Digby set sail for the Mediterranean, and spent a year as a privateer or state-sponsored pirate. This was a chance not only to perform heroic deeds, but to indulge his love of foreign food. Forced to seek refuge in Algiers, Digby negotiated the release of dozens of English slaves, and was invited to grand feasts thrown by the city’s pirate chieftains: he was ‘treated in such a noble and sumptuous manner as they say noe Christian hath bin the like’, he observed in a letter home. Algiers was both feared by Europeans and admired for its splendid delicacies, from richly spiced fish to ‘Melons of marveilous goodnesse, and incomparable sweetnesse’.

4. He might have poisoned his wife with 'viper wine'

After Digby’s triumphant return to England he was rewarded with a position overseeing the Royal Navy, but at the start of 1633 his life was turned upside down by the sudden death of his wife and childhood sweetheart, Venetia.  She had lived a life plagued by rumours of promiscuity – John Aubrey called her a ‘celebrated Beautie and Courtezane’ – and now new gossip swirled that Digby had poisoned her out of jealousy.  The lines between food, medicine and poison were blurry, and Digby was known to have plied his wife with wine made from ‘the Flesh, the Heart, and the Liver of Vipers’ for her complexion.

Kenelm Digby was rumoured to have killed his wife Venetia Stanley, pictured on her deathbed, out of jealousy  Credit: AP/Dulwich Picture Gallery

5. He had a special oven for pies

After Venetia’s death, Digby retired into Gresham College, where, in Aubrey’s words, he dressed in ‘a long mourning cloake…look’t like a Hermite, his beard unshorne, as signes of sorrowe for his beloved Wife’, and ‘diverted himself with his Chymistry’. While it is easy to assume that the intrusion of scientific equipment and techniques into the kitchen is a quintessentially modern innovation, for Digby alchemy and cookery were intertwined: both were ways of investigating the nature of the material world and effecting remarkable transformations.  In his laboratory at Gresham, Digby had not only cutting-edge furnaces and an array of alchemical glassware but a ‘New Oven to bake pies in’. 

6. The Queen taught him how to make marmalade

As Digby began to re-emerge into the world he grew close to the Queen of England, Henrietta Maria, partly due to their shared love of cooking.  She taught him how to make white marmalade and baste roasting meat with egg yolks, and he exchanged recipes with many notable figures: from the Queen of Portugal’s eggs flavored with ‘Orange-flower-water’ to the great physican William Harvey’s ‘pleasant water cider’.

7.  He invented the wine bottle

As England hurtled towards civil war Digby was drawn back into political life, and in 1640 he was imprisoned by Parliament. While incarcerated Digby continued his culinary-chemical experiments, making ‘tincture of strawberries’ for the treatment of kidney stones, as well as artificial gems from glass. These latter experiments led him to develop a new kind of wine bottle, sturdy and globular, which made transportation much easier: decades later he was rewarded with a patent, and he has been called the inventor of the modern wine bottle.

Kenelm Digby developed his wine bottle while imprisoned

8.  He baked lute strings in a pie

During his imprisonment Digby drafted his greatest philosophical work, the Two Treatises of Body and Soul.  Though concerned with the most fundamental and abstract of questions, it also showcased another side of Digby’s love of cooking – food as theatre, which could surprise and shock as well as delight.  ‘Short endes of lute stringes baked in a juicy pye,’ he wrote, ‘will att the opening of it moove in such sort, as they who are ignorant of the feate will thinke there are magots in it’, while mercury placed inside a loaf of freshly baked bread would make it jump and spring about as if it were alive.

9. He published the first Chinese recipe in England

 Digby never relinquished his love of food and of cooking.  In the 1640s he travelled as ambassador from the Queen to the Pope, and found time to learn a recipe for making a ‘Pan Cotto ’ (or cooked bread) ‘as the Cardinals use in Rome’.  This involved boiling ‘lumps of fine light-bread tosted or dried’ in mutton broth for hours on end.  Even when illness and advanced age made him too ill to travel, Digby wasted no opportunity to transcribe recipes from far afield: one, for tea whisked with eggs and sugar, had been brought by a Jesuit from China, and was the first Chinese recipe to appear in England.  Even a small sip, Digby wrote, ‘flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly’.  Food remained a way for him to transform his bodily state, and to experience, whether in person or vicariously, the farthest flung corners of the world.

A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby by Joe Moshenska is published in hardback by William Heinemann