If there is one thing that I need when the cold weather sets in here in Cornwall, its wassail; a mulled cider drink that warms you up on a chilly evening. Wassail had both Norse and Medieval importance and the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning to ‘be healthy’. Traditionally, wassailing took place nearer to Christmas, but with the weather dropping to nearly zero degrees overnight now, it’s never too soon for wassail.
Wassailing was intended to celebrate the apple harvest – a way of ensuring it is a good. Partakers believed that it would awake the apple trees and frighten off evil spirits who might spoil the harvest. Many villages would have their own celebrations, appointing a Wassail king and queen who would lead a procession from orchard to orchard, playing music and signing. The queen would then be lifted up into the boughs of the trees where she would place a piece of toast in some wassail as a gift to the tree spirits. Then the group would recite some sort of chant such as:
Wassail! Wassail! All over the town;
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.
The whole crowd would then bang their drums and shout, before gunmen who let loose a folly into the trees as a way of honouring them. Although this might seem a little out there, there are people who still enjoy this celebration in the West Country today and there are many more who enjoy the drink.
Original versions of wassail was a sort of mead with a crab apple dropped inside, however these days the drink involves a more intricate mixture of spices. Also, there tends not be toast with the more modern versions!
Here is my recipe should you wish to make your own:
2 bottles of dry cider
1/5 of a small ball of nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
2 oranges quartered
1 star anise
1 dessert spoonful of sugar
Pour the cider into a pan on a low heat. Let it warm to do not let it boil; if it begins to boil, then lower the heat. When the mixture begins to steam, add in the spice mixture, continuing to stir. At this point you can add a couple of drops of rum if you want it to have a kick. Keep it on a low heat for around 15 minutes then bring it off the hob. Serve whilst still warm in a glass or a tankard and squeeze some of the juice from one of the oranges on top. Enjoy!