Wassail for Twelfth Night

Ale or Cider that is the question? Down in Devon, these days, we tend to make our mulled wassail using cider but in the past, ale was just as common, particularly with Lambswool.

The word comes from Old English, ‘wes’ or ‘wass’ being a greeting and ‘hal’ or later ‘hail’  meaning be healthful. Traditionally, there are two forms of wassailing, one, a house visiting custom and the other which took place in the orchard (or from orchard to orchard) wishing for a bounteous crop for the coming year. However, the tradition has variations around the country. The most important element of all was the ‘wassailing bowl’ which was filled with warming punch of mulled ale or cider to be shared as a communal group. In the Westcountry, the house visiting wassail took place on Twelfth Night and could include musicians as well as singers. It’s easy to see how the wassail tradition would have been a highlight of the calendar in rural communities – women visiting every house, wishing good luck and cheer to all, drinking, and gathering more and more participants along the way -the evening quickly developing into a long night of raucous, neighbourly fun.

Lambswool is a sweet, a warming draft and plainly a drink to be drunk outside or after coming in from the cold. I’ve made Lambswool with cider, two types of ale, and one with crab apples in the interest of research! The cider version made with ‘Poundhoouse Crisp’ 4.5% from Sam’s cider from Winkleigh in Devon, is easy drinking, like hot apple juice with an alcohol bite and I give the recipe below. The apple mash floats on the tops and you get a mouthful as you sip, so you feel like you’re being fed and watered at the same time.

The ale version follows the same recipe and needs the higher amount of sugar. This drink is bitter/sweet and, I feel, not really suited to most people’s modern taste as the bitterness lingers after drinking.  I tried two fabulous Devon ales – a personal favourite, the rich & full-bodied ‘Jail Ale’ 4.8% from the Dartmoor Brewery and the paler citrusy, hoppy “Ideal Pale Ale’ from Tavy Ales 4.8%.  The Dartmoor Jail Lambswool  was resonant of toffee apples and Tavy ale was sharper which raised the apple flavour. Both ales made a sweet drink with a clearly bitter undertone which the tasters found unappealing, but I rather like.

Ingredients:

1 ½ litres of ‘proper’ dry cider like Sam’s cider from Winkleigh in Devon

4 cooking apples – baked and skinned ( or 2 two large)

a knob of butter

½ teaspoon of ginger

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

½ nutmeg grated

100-200g caster sugar to taste

Wash and core your apples then rub them lightly with a little butter. Place them snugly on a lightly greased oven dish. Put them in a hot oven 200C for about 20 minutes or until golden and bursting out of the skin.

Remove them from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Scoop out the flesh and discard the skins. Mash the flesh up with a potato masher. Meanwhile, add the spices to the cider/beer and place in a big saucepan. Beware, alcohol burns off at 78c within 20 seconds, so it is easy to de-booze your punch with speed. If you don’t have a liquid thermometer you can judge this by sight – take it off the heat at the first wisp of steam or dip your finger in the liquid, you should be able to hold it in without burning. Do not let it simmer. Add the warm apple mash which will float on the top like lamb’s wool. Serve. immediately.

Crab Apple Wassail

The wassail bowl can also be made filled with baked crab apples if you have managed to save any from the Autumn, which I have.  This drink is referred to in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Puck.

And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,

In very likeness of a roasted crab,

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob.

We tried this too, but the apples are quite sour (probably less so to the people of the past, who ate less sugar) and rather woody, so you have to spit bits out! We found Lambswool with its tasty apple froth, was the superior drink of the two.

For a small but perfectly formed selection of West country ales and ciders go the Grape and Grain in Crediton, Devon. You’ll find them at the back of the shop if you can get past the delicious wines on the way.

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Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding by N du pont de bie

The Christmas plum pudding we know today evolved from that old British food staple, ‘pottage’ – a soupy stew made from grain, vegetables and meat, thickened with breadcrumbs and flavoured with spices, and sometimes, fruit and wine. Plum pottage was a medieval Christmas dish and it was served as a first course, which would have been a hearty start to the meal, one wonders if you would have room for anything else.

Oddly, as with so many little kitchen utensils, the re-useable pudding cloth only became common at the beginning of the 17th century, before that few thought to use fabric to cook a pud. The fashion of encasing the popular baked puddings and pottages in a cloth then took off (particularly as most poor households did not have an oven) and some, like plum pudding were also left to hang after boiling or steaming, to improve the flavour.

As the centuries wore on the meat in plum pottage was replaced by suet, the plums (dried prunes) replaced by a wider variety of dried fruits and nuts, and the alcohol content raised considerably. By the 1830’s the ‘cannonball’ crowned with holly we associate with Christmas had firmly taken hold in our culinary calendar

I include below a recipe for Christmas Pudding in Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton (1868 ed) below, but it’s rather late in the day to make this for Christmas so if you wish to buy one, I recommend the superb puddings of Georgie Porgies Puddings https://www.georgieporgiespuddings.co.uk/ which can be bought online.

To steam a pudding, you place it in a cloth in a bowl submerged in simmering water-https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/…/how-steam-pudding

To boil a ball pudding – the pud must be wrapped in calico or very thick muslin (scalded with hot kettle water to remove any chemicals) and submerged in simmering water. The scalded cloth should be floured, then the mixture placed in the middle and the corners of the cloth brought together above it, form the ball and tie it. Boil the pudding according to weight usually about 4 -5 hours but 3 1/2 in the recipe below.  Remove it with tongs and allow to hang in a cool place, over a bowl for two days or until the cloth is dry. I like to re-tie it new dry calico to avoid risk of mould and then hang for a month. Re-boil on Christmas day for 1-2 hours.

Acton Christmas pudding

Eliza Acton – Modern Cookery 1868

Pumpkin Pie for Halloween

Happy Halloween! Punkie Night is a Westcountry custom practised on the last Thursday of October related to Halloween. Children marh from door to door with a jack o’lantern, singing a song and begging for candles or treats. “Punkie” is an old English name for a lantern, and jack o’lanterns for Punkie Night may be made of swedes or turnips rather than pumpkins. The Irish have ‘pooky’ night a Celtic name for sprites. These customs are the probable origins of ‘trick or treat-ing’, and supposedly brought to America by the Irish.EPSON scanner image

To Make A Tart Of Cherries

Fun with the cherry glut. Lady Fanny Truncheon’s recipe is delicious. Use a scant half glass of wine to a kilo of cherries, 1/2 a teaspoon each of the spices and sugar to taste ( 4-6 tablespoons) depending on the sweetness of the cherries.


Lovely

Elderflower Fizz and Cordial

In Summer I like to make elderflower fizz the simple, quick way with nothing but the wild yeasts of the air. The result can be volatile so the best way to bottle Elderflower Fizz is to use old plastic soda or lemonade bottles as you have to let the gasses out occasionally. I’ve done it with swing top bottles but you have to keep your eye on them. The resultant fizz has an alchohol content of 3-5%. If you want to make a finer version you will have to add champagne yeast, use a demi-john with a bubble trap and fiddle about with the bottles quite a bit after decanting. I’m too impatient.

I also make cordial but that is best drunk in the Winter. The fragrance is so redolent of warm summer evenings is seems more special when drunk in the chilly darkness of a winter’s eve.. I make it with lots of sugar so the resultant syrup makes larger quantities, as you need more water to dilute it, I find most recipes too thin. You will need citric acid to bring out the flavour or the sugar overpowers the scent. Drink it now but put some of the syrup in jars in the freezer for the colder months and add it to cocktails.

To make Elderflower cordial

30-40 elderflower heads

3 litres water spring water

2kg caster sugar

1 packet of citric acid (available from chemists)

2 unwaxed oranges, juice and zest

3 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest

Method

  1. DO NOT RINSE the elderflowers or you lose half the fragrance, shake gently to remove any dirt or little creatures.
  2. Boil half the water in a large pan, pour in the sugar and stir to dissolve it . Leave to cool. Add the rest of the water
  3. When ready add the orange and lemon juice and zest and then the flowers. I usually bag them in muslin weighted with marbles as suggested in my cartoon above.
  4. Leave in a cool place COVERED for 24-36 hours, stirring occasionally.
  5. Strain through some muslin and add the citric acid to taste, probably a teaspoon a litre but test it out.
  6. Bottle it or freeze it.

Other things to do with elderflowers:

Make the flowers into fritters

Use the cordial for drizzle cake

Mix the cordial through rhubarb and cream

Make fragrant jelly and entrap the flowers within it

Elderflower ice cubes

Store the flowers in your sugar jar