If you read my book Doctors and Distillers you know that cure-all theriacs often contained viper flesh. Now one person has recreated a recipe for a branded theriac called L’Orvietan, with everything but the snake.
Bernardini had to travel across Europe on the trail of L’Orvietan. He scoured historic archives and antique bookstores. He acquired rare medical books and documents, and met with scholars, herbalists and pharmacists. Finally, in a Venice library, he found the missing link in his search: a 1623 recipe, written by Ferrante’s son Gregorio, which lists the ingredients, and, importantly, their measures, for the original L’Orvietan. Bernardini says he left just one ingredient out of his modern mix: burnt viper’s flesh.
Yet the mixture of herbs that Ferrante developed and others copied wasn’t necessarily all that original. L’Orvietan and its imitators had their roots in a more antique antidote called theriac. Theriac was a preferred preventive and cure of Roman emperors who were justly afraid of being poisoned, either from something slipped into their food or drink or by a venomous snake slipped into their bed at night. In fact, Theriaca Andromochas, developed by Nero’s physician, also contained viper flesh — similar in concept to antivenoms made of snake venom — and became the gold standard of antidotes.