For those who have ever participated in a hunt, one of the initial pleasures of riding through the autumn colours in the brisk fall air is the stirrup cup served before moving off….the delicious bravery from a bottle or liquid courage, usually port or sherry.
While today horse people think of stirrup cups as something to enjoy before a hunt, in days gone by they also referred to a drink given to guests when they were leaving a home and had their feet in the stirrups and/or a drink given to guests at the door. And, while they refer to the partaking of a drink, they also refer to the vessel that the drink is in.
While the origins of stirrup cups are not definite, they are traditionally tied in with the advent of fox hunts in England, but have also been manufactured in America, Europe and as far away as South America where the gauchos or cowboys keep the tradition alive and well.
Centuries ago – between 1670 and 1760 – riders were handed “dram cups” or “tot cups”, small two inch silver handled bowls with feet on the bottom. The difference between these “stirrup cups” and ones that came later is that the later versions did not have feet. They were handed to riders who drank them quickly and then handed them back to the servers who carried them on a board or tray with holes cut out to accommodate the footless cups. They are very rare today and include a thick stem with glass ball at the bottom presumably to help keep the glassware straight.
In The Stirrup Cup book by Jt. MFH Bull Run Hunt, Grosvenor Merle-Smith states that in Anya Seton’s book Katherine the custom happens often before English nobility and royalty leave on travels abroad or on progresses or trips around the countryside. In G.G. Coulson’s book Chaucer and his England, the practice is mentioned in relation to the Canterbury pilgrims setting out.
The Scots were also thoughtful hosts and asked their guests to tarry for a farewell drink called a “dochan dorius” which comes from Scottish Gaelic “deoch an dorais” which means “drink at the door.”
Over time, the glass “cups” gave way to ornate and beautifully detailed silver versions and those in good condition can fetch prices at auctions in the five figure mark. While silver was favoured for years and often included engraved mottoes from the hunt, Staffordshire porcelain and ceramic examples of stirrup cups can be found and date back to 1770 with inscriptions often found around the base.
The silver versions – frequently fox or hound heads were often created in two pieces and then soldered together. There are, however, fine examples of stirrup cups that were made in different forms such as women in long skirts, horse heads, boars and even rabbits and mules. The snout and ears of the animals were often created so that the vessel could stand upright and in doing so became a fine table or mantle decoration. More modern versions of stirrup cups are now created in pewter and silver plate and are often used as jiggers.
Jeni Sandberg, antique appraiser claims that: “fanciful, grinning human heads can also be found, evoking the boozy high spirits of Bacchus and his Satyrs. Political and erotic motifs were created too – no subject was off limits.”
So, all this talk of stirrup cups begs the question: Does the port or sherry enjoyed before the hunt help to make one braver or simply lessen the discomfort in case of an unscheduled dismount?
In my next blog we’ll take a look at Hunt Breakfasts through the ages… the dining after the dash!