Tuesday, December 22, 2009

17th Century Wassail

Illustrated London News 1850

Although Wassailing today is synonymous with Christmas and 12th Night, its origin is in Anglo-Saxon pagan ritual that has seen many variations in its history. From the Middle Ages onward, peasants have solicited charitable spirit from their feudal lords with the Wassail. It was not begging. This distinction explains the lyric in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing". The Wassailers inform the lord of the house that:

"We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before."

Wassailing ceremonies took place at a number of different times throughout the year including Christmas, January 6th (Twelfth Night) and Shrove Tuesday.

In cider-producing areas of England (in another pagan-inspired tradition), wassailing refers to drinking (and singing) to the health of trees in the hopes that they might thrive in the coming year.

An old rhyme goes: “Wassaile the trees, that they may beare / You many a Plum and many a Peare: / For more or lesse fruits they will bring, / As you do give them Wassailing.”

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit. The wassail was poured at the roots of a tree or soaked pieces of toast that were hung in the branches for the robins that represented good spirits. A gun was sometimes fired to scare away the bad spirits (after a few too many turns at the Wassail Bowl?).

Wassail was traditionally served in bowls that were generally made in the shape of goblets. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made a very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver.

Traditional Wassail bowls were made of lignum vitae in the 17th c, a wood that was virtually indestructible and extremely tolerant of alcohol. Fortunately, many beautiful examples remain.

There are surviving examples of "puzzle wassail bowls", with many spouts. As you attempt to drink from one of the spouts, you are drenched from another spout. The drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale and the custom shows the playfulness of the celebration.

As for the drink itself, Robert Herrick, (1591-1674) said:

“Next crowne the bowle full

Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger

With a store of ale too

And this ye must doe

To make a Wassaile a swinger.”

I’ve combined the best of 2 centuries and come up with this traditional wassail drink that you can serve however you wish… a punch bowl or footed wine bucket/wassail bowl or pitcher would work splendidly

Wassail of the 17th-18th Century

1 lb of apples, cored and cooked at 375º for 1 hour in a foil covered baking dish. Remove peel when cool and mash... they should look fluffy like “lambs wool” when you are finished.

1-2 c light brown sugar (this should be to your taste and that of your ale)

6 bottles of ale (a double bock is a good choice)

1 c sherry

1nutmeg, grated

2 tsps ginger

1/8 t cloves

6 beaten eggs, optional

Toasted Bread slices, optional

Dissolve sugar in 1 bottle of the ale over low flame. Add spices and stir. Add rest of ale and sherry and remove from heat and let sit for several hours, covered. Warm and add the apple “wool”. You can add the eggs at this point if you would care to and beat it into a froth. Garnish with thin baked apple slices and the toasted bread if you wish.

Royal Lamb's Wool "Boil three pints of ale; - beat six eggs, the whites and yolks together; set both to the fire in a pewter pot; 
 add roasted apples, sugar, beaten nutmegs, cloves and ginger; 
 and, being well brewed, 
drink it while hot."-Royal Household of 1633

Lamb's Wool

Place a pound of sugar in a large bowl and pour on a bottle of hot ale (A good hand crafted brown ale). Stir well. Grate about 
1/2 of a nutmeg into this. Add 1 cup of sherry and five more bottles of ale. Let stand for several hours, then top off with several lemon slices 
(roasted apple slices are perhaps more traditional) and two slices of toasted bread (the bread is traditionally white- better to absorb than the heavier breads?. -served by Sir Watkin Wynne to the faculty of Jesus College, Oxford University, in 1732:

If you want to change it over from an ale drink to a wine, there is also this alternative:

A recipe from The Book of Days, an 1863 history


2,4,or 6 bottles of port, sherry or Madeira

12 egg yolks, 1 teacupful of water

6 egg whites 1/12 lbs sugar for 4 bottles of wine

12 roasted apples

For each bottle of wine used, take the following whole spices 10 grains mace (1), 46(3) grains cloves, 37(2.5) grains cardamon seeds 28(2) grains cinnamon 12(1) grains nutmeg 48(3) grains ginger 49(3) grains coriander. (I include the numbers in parenthesis to give a sense of proportion… figure a pinch is the closest to a grain… which is .00208 oz.)

Simmer the spices with the water and add to the wines with the sugar, warm and wish yolks and whites of eggs and pour some of the warm wine into the container… when you have a froth, add the roasted apples and serve it.

Wassail Set

A very elaborate wassail set. This example includes not only the bowl and five of the six original cups, but a stand for them. The bowl has a cover with an integral container for spices on top in the form of a smaller bowl. Exhibition of Drinking Vessels Held at Vintner's Hall, London, 1933.

The Rare Wine Company has generously given me some spectacular Madeira to work with. During the next few weeks I'll be sharing some amazing Madeira-enhanced recipes... this is going to be fun! Stay tuned!


food with style said...

ah yes, the origins of eat drink and be merry! i always think of the peter, paul and mary's a'soalin' when wasailing comes to mind. fun post.

in case i miss you i wanted to wish you a happy holiday and thanks for sharing at fws~

Deana Sidney said...

Thanks so much for your incredible support... wassail photo should be up later today!!!

A very happy holiday to you and yours!

Ben said...

Very interesting blog. I am a history buff so finding your blog has been a great Yule present for me :) I'll be following it on my reader.

Cheers and Happy Season!

Deana Sidney said...

Thanks for the visit, Ben! I try to put a little history into things... because I find it interesting! Glad you feel the same... happy holidays back at you!

Kitchen Butterfly said...

I love medieval + food history!

Deana Sidney said...

Thanks, Kitchen Butterfly! me too!

Julian said...

Another fantastic posting. I love the history and the photos, and appreciate the recipes. I was just recommending Wassail to a friend who is organizing a Moravian Love Feast. Really enjoyed reading this.

Tres Jolie Studios said...

So interesting! I had read about pouring the cider on the roots of the trees but the rest of the info is new to me! Happy holidays!

Deana Sidney said...

David, I have become obsessed with getting the facts right as best I can... oh, and any one out there with a 17th c lignum vitae wassail bowl... xmas is tomorrow... I love them!

Megan. Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed the history... I liked the boozy bread in the trees for the robins... must have been some happy birds after that feast!

Kate at Serendipity said...

What an informative post! I'm so glad I found your blog. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

Deana Sidney said...

Kate...merry merry to you too... and I am thrilled you enjoy the blog!

Mae said...

This is such a cool concept for a blog! I love the recipes, the history of the food we eat is fascinating! I'll be reading!

- Thanks for stopping by Peas Love Carrots!

Deana Sidney said...

Oh Mae... your blog has a great concept too!!! I look forward to reading more as well...

Pam said...

Love this post. The photos are beautiful and the folk lore surronding wassailing is intriguing! Your posts are always so interesting. I look forward to finding the updates in my google reader.
Merry Christmas to you! So happy I found your blog!

Y said...

I've never heard of this but it sounds really interesting! Love the traditional bowls Wassail used to be served in, especially that puzzle one.

Deana Sidney said...

Thanks Pam! I really learned alot on this one... the line in the wassail song was a find! It was like when I learned that ring around the rosy was about the plague! Who knew?
Y... I want a wassail bowl...so gorgeous!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Deana, a wonderfully researched story as always! I hadn't actually heard of a wassail before so this was even more intriguing to me! :D