Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wassail!

A Wassail Feast
Give us a toast!

Here’s something to warm up your holiday celebrations.

One of the most interesting traditions at this time of year, for me, is the tradition of Wassail, or Wassailing.

The word ‘Wassail’ is actually an expression or toast that comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes hael!’ meaning ‘Be healthy!’

I love ancient traditions and this is one that is great for enjoying the holiday with friends and family.

Wassailing in Somerset
Wassailing was done at the holidays from the Winter Solstice through the New Year, especially in southern England in apple-growing regions such as Somerset. It involved visiting neighbours, singing Wassail songs or carols, and sharing drink.

The Wassail drink, was usually mulled cider and ale, with some variations containing wine or brandy. The oldest versions contained eggs and bits of toast. Hence, ‘Give us a toast!’

A Modern Wassail Queen
The most ancient rite of Wassailing, and my favourite, is when people, led by an appointed Wassail King and Queen, would go in a procession to the orchards and sing to the trees with their drinks in hand. This was intended to scare away any evil spirits who might harm the trees or their harvest.

Pieces of toast were then hung in the branches or buried at the base of the trees as offerings in the hopes of a healthy harvest of apples in the year to come.

Now, you may not live near an apple orchard, but you can certainly make your own pot of Wassail and take part in the singing of these marvelous songs.

Here is a recipe that I find works well:

Ingredients:
2 quarts unfiltered apple juice or apple cider
1 quart cranberry juice cocktail
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
27 whole cloves
15 allspice berries
4 (4-inch) cinnamon sticks
5 small firm cooking apples of your choice
1/2 cup water
1 medium orange
2 cups Calvados (apple brandy)

Instructions:
Combine the apple juice, cranberry juice, and brown sugar in a 6-quart slow cooker. Place 12 of the cloves, the allspice berries, and the cinnamon sticks in a small piece of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine to make a bag. Add to the slow cooker, cover, and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Stud each apple with 3 of the remaining cloves and place in an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Add the water and bake until the apples are just a bit tender when pierced with a knife, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

After the juices have stewed for 4 to 5 hours, add the apples to the slow cooker. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the orange peel in wide strips, making sure to avoid the white pith, and add the peels to the slow cooker.

Remove the spice bag and stir in the Calvados. Serve hot (leave the slow cooker on to keep the cocktail warm).

You can vary this according to your alcoholic preferences and any other areas you might want to tweak things. If you want to be really traditional, you can add raw egg yolks and bits of toast!

Either way, once it has stewed for the right amount of time, you can sit back and enjoy.

Or you can start to singing around the home or in your back yard.

I have a couple favourite albums for atmosphere and singing that I always enjoy this time of year.

For traditional Wassailing songs that you can sing along to (you can Google the lyrics), I love listening to the album Wassail by Linn Barnes and Allison Hampton. Click HERE to check it out in iTunes.

For some traditional songs and melodies that will make you think you are in a medieval hall, you can never go wrong with Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away. Click HERE to get to it.

I hope this gives you some ideas for your celebrations, and by all means, if you have your own recipes for Wassail or other such drinks, please share them in the comments!

I think it best to close with a quote from the Somerset Wassail:

“For its your wassail and its our wassail; And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail.”

Wassail, everyone! 


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