Friday, December 16, 2011

Here We Come A-wassailing!

What are wassail and wassailing? I had to look them up because I don’t ever remember being told of a specific definitions. I recall from Christmas carols, the aptly named “Here We Come A-wassailing” is of course the most famous, that wassailing was some form of social custom designed to spread good cheer. I also inferred that the presence of wassailers at your door commanded a gift of wassail. Hmmmm. Enjoy the carol for a minute while I figure out what’s going on here.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here We Come A-wassailing (audio clip from Wikimedia)

It turns out both of the things I thought about wassail and wassailing are true. But how did that come to be? First the name, and then the custom. The word wassail comes from the phrase Waes Hail, the greeting “good health”, that originated from Middle English as waes hael. Singing that message amounts to caroling to good health. I can dig that.

It seems the custom of singing this refrain was adopted by farmers and their surrounding communities as a toast to the apple trees and a bountiful harvest the next year. Whether it was for eating or making some form of fermented beverage, both things we love here at Ancient Fire, I really see the imagery created here. I love the apple trees I see in my town, the ones on my street are soon to developed over sadly, and look forward to harvest every year and making apple treats with the apples that they bear.

Since then, and likely it was implied originally, the act of wassailing door to door to people’s homes wishing them the same good health was adopted. This brings us back to the mythology we find in our contemporary Christmas traditions. Very few people I know have ever wassailed, but I do know a few who have, which is likely unusual. Maybe it’s something about New England and traditions from the English homes of many of our families here. I honestly don’t know how common it even is in England where it began.

So it is no surprise then that apples show up in one form or another in wassail beverage recipes. There is no recipe that I can find that has widespread support as a classic or the original, and the plethora of them I did find prompted me to make my own. Many had brown ale in them and the prospect of using my homemade maple brown ale locked it in as the first ingredient. Incidentally, many holiday themed beers will express at least the spices present in wassail. I can’t tell which was the chicken and which the egg in this situation. Old school wassail is purported to have been made with ale or mead, but whether either also contained spices or were spiced in the construction of this drink is not clear.

Into the holiday laboratory!

Ancient Fire Wassail

1 pint plus 1/4 cup Ancient Fire Maple Brown Ale
1 cup sweet apple cider
2 cinnamon sticks
2 cloves
Zest from 1 lemon
2 apples
1/2 cups brown sugar
¼ cup demerara sugar
1/2 cup dry sherry
¼ cup Madeira wine
1/4 cup sweet red wine
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground all spice
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
super fine sugar, to sweeten to taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large sauce pan, pour in the pint of ale and the cider. Add the cinnamon sticks, lemon zest and cloves and bring to a simmer over low heat.

Core and cut the apples in half. Place in a baking dish. Cover with 1/2 cup of brown sugar, remaining 1/4 cup of ale, sherry, Maderira and the red wine.

Cover baking dish and place in oven, cooking for 30 minutes.

Add the demerara sugar and spices into the sauce pan, ensuring it's well mixed.

When the apples are done baking, place entire contents of baking dish into sauce pan. Allow to cook over a low heat for another 30-40 minutes. Serve hot.

Margot and I both felt this was very reminiscent of mulled cider. It has complexity beyond that, but the other liquors don’t leave enough of their own influence to pick them out. It came out balanced a bit too much to the spice side, but that is something that can be handled with some more beer or cider right before serving.

It was drinkable almost immediately, but a short time to cool was necessary. No need to injure those who come to wish you good health!

I stored the leftover wassail in a jar in the fridge. In the photo to the right you can see the apples and lemon zest floating in the brown, spicy punch. It is likely to be even more spicy by the time I drink it again. More beer!

I’ve brought forth another festive and traditional drink today. Yesterday was a more general treatment of punch, with the possibility of producing similar tipples to wassail quite likely. I’d still say wassail is a punch of a different sort, if only because of its own specific story. The vessel it was served from has its own lore as well. Check the lyrics at the link to the carol at the top if you don’t believe me. There are people who specialize in making wassail bowls, something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. Find one person’s adventure in Making a Wassail Bowl. I broke out the punch cups to ladle Margot and I’s first tastes into, but serving it from a saucepan on the stove wasn’t quite the image you all had here. No picture.

Margot and I wish all of you and your families good health as we hurtle towards the end of one year and beginning of another.




Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Nice Job Jason, next year maybe we should meet up in Woodstock, VT for the Wassail parade, and get rowdy drinking next year's batch?

Jack said...

Good post. 'Twas the Night Before Good Eats spends some time describing Wassail, Wassailing, and AB makes a batch of Wassail in a crock pot.

Jason Phelps said...

Thanks Todd & Jack!

Todd we should do that. Seasonal stuff in VT always feel so good!

Jack - AB's recipe was one of the first I saw and gave me some ideas.


Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table said...

Interesting - I always wondered about wassailing.

Nice combination there. I bet the fruit was quite tasty after some time in the fridge!

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