So my experiment with a cerate for mastitis was not a success last week; the preparation was far too hard to be applied. Obstinate as I am, I decided to do so more research and try again. Mentions of cerate are extremely frequent in ancient pharmacological works, but recipes, on the other hand, are few and far between. The clearest I found was in Aetius (sixth century AD), an author of whom I am growing extremely fond.
Prepare the cerate in this way: 6 ounces of wax; rose oil 4 ounces. Melt the wax with some rose oil in a double pot (diplōma) and pour over cold water. While it is cooling take it, melt it again, pour over water and soften with the hands, washing the wax with the water. And again, melt for a third time and wash having poured over water. Then add the remainder of the rose oil; melt; stir; cool down and pour into a mortar. Crush it, letting the water fall in drops, as much as can be taken. Remove from the mortar and put away.
This is quite an exceptional recipe in that it clearly outlines preparation stages and mentions cooking implements. Its reference to the double boiler (diplōma) in particular is very noteworthy. I will need to do some more research in the future to find out what double boilers looked like in antiquity. Mine is a rather simple affair: a Pyrex bowl in a pan of simmering water. The quantities given by Aetius are quite large; certainly sufficient for several applications. As I did not want to waste too much of my precious ingredients, I decided to use 12 g of beeswax and 8 g of oil, thus respecting the 3/2 proportion. I cheated by using sweet almond oil to which I added some rose absolute. Making my own rose oil will be for another time.
I carefully followed the steps outlined in the recipe. I am still not sure why I needed to throw the melted beeswax in cold water three times and ‘wash it’. My beeswax comes in clean little pellets, but I do not know enough about wax production to understand what unprocessed wax would look like. Anyway, melting the wax three times (plus of fourth time with the oil) seems to have made it softer. I also took great care to pound the preparation in the mortar, slowly adding water to it. Actually, I am not being truthful: I put far too much water in one go. I could almost hear my French grandmother telling me off for ruining my efforts by being lazy and hasty, as she did teach me the gentle art of pastry making. I did manage to remove some of the water and I worked hard on the wax (it was a good workout). The final consistency of the preparation was somewhere between that of a cream and that of chewing-gum – very interesting. I stored it in a tin box, and it has remained moist since then. I now can see how a cerate can serve as the main ingredient in poultices. My research efforts have paid off. Here is the recipe ‘translated’ for the modern reader.
You will need:
– beeswax: 12 g
– Sweet almond oil: 8 g
– A few drops of rose absolute
- Add a few drops of oil to the wax and melt in the double boiler.
- When the wax has melted, throw it in cold water. The wax will immediately congregate and will become malleable. Knead it a little.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 (without adding any oil) twice more.
- Now add the remainder of the oil and melt again in the double boiler.
- Remove from the heat and add a few drops of rose absolute.
- Place the preparation in a mortar.
- Slowly (very slowly) add drops of lukewarm water, while pounding with the pestle. This is hard work but worth it.
- When the preparation has reached a consistency between a cream and chewing-gum and has cooled down, place it in an air-tight container.
- Use as a base for poultices.