Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas Wassail

From the Middle English greeting ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’, the ceremony of wassailing takes its name. From Kent and Sussex in the east, to Devon and Somerset in the west, the tradition of drinking the health of the apple trees has existed for hundreds of years. A procession moves through the orchards, singing, shouting and banging pots to drive away evil spirits so that trees will be bountiful the following autumn. Toast soaked in wassail - hot mulled cider or beer - is then hung from the branches. The ceremony usually takes place on the eve of twelfth night, 5th January. However, because of the calendar change of 1753 when 11 days were lost, some insist that the ceremony should be on 16th January. It does not really matter when it’s meant to be: it involves so much drinking of wassail that, by the end of the evening, no one knows what day it is anyway.

In more recent centuries, wassail as a drink became associated with the yuletide season. Beginning on Christmas Eve, the wassail bowl would be drunk from all through the twelve days of the holiday. Dickens probably compounded this tradition. In The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick and his entourage arrive at Mr Wardle’s Dingley Dell:

“'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.'
'Our invariable custom,' replied Mr. Wardle. 'Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now--servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.'
Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.
'Come,' said Wardle, 'a song--a Christmas song! I'll give you one, in default of a better.'
'Bravo!' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Fill up,' cried Wardle. 'It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.'
Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado-
This song was tumultuously applauded--for friends and dependents make a capital audience--and the poor relations, especially, were in perfect ecstasies of rapture. Again was the fire replenished, and again went the wassail round.”

Outside the home, wassailing became something that moved from the orchard to the street and was bound up with carol singing: those less well-off would visit the homes of the wealthy and sing for food and drink - “oh, bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer”. The cup of good cheer was the wassail.

There are a huge number of variations in modern recipes for wassail. Some use brandy and sherry for the kick while others use rum and beer - some even use lager and vodka. And some use cider instead of apples which seems heretical to me: for a traditional wassail, there must be apples. Dickens again:

“they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.”

This recipe uses brown ale and sherry; and apples that will hiss and bubble when your wassail is simmering on the top of your stove. You will need:

* 8 medium eating apples
* 6 bottles of real or brown ale
* 500ml sherry
* 150g brown sugar
* 2 teaspoons of mixed spice
* Sliced orange
* Lemon peel
* Large cooking pot with lid for oven and hob use

To make:

*Remove one strip of skin from around the middle of each apple.
*Put the apples, brown sugar and one bottle of ale in the cooking pot.
*Cover and cook for 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees.
*Remove the apples and set aside.
*Transfer the pot to the hob and add the remaining ale, sherry, fruit and spice.
*Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
*Return the apples and keep hot on a low heat as you serve.

This should serve six drinks. Waes hael!

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