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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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

Nettles

It’s Nettle Week, let’s celebrate with beer! Nettle beer can be ready to drink in a ten days but you could wait longer for a better brew. The flavour can vary from something similar to ginger beer to pale ale depending on your recipe. Traditionally, you add ginger and other hedgerow herbs such as goosegrass (pictured below) wild sorrel or horehound, for flavour.

Nettles are home to many species of moth and butterfly larvae such as the Red Admiral, Peacock and the Magpie moth and the plant supports over forty kinds of insects.

Nettle Seeds (dried before eating) are supposed to give one clarity of thought, a sense of well being, and heightened energy. I put them in smoothies to add a zing.

Nettle tea aids digestion and is good for the skin, kidneys and disorders of the urinary tract. Steep a few leaves in a mug of boiling water for 5 minutes first thing in the morning, for an excellent mild-tasting herbal tonic to start your day after the night before’s nettle beer drinking.

Nettle Beer

Nettle Tops (approx a carrier bag full or about 450-550g)

Optional – Mix with a handful of sticky wild goosegrass (also called cleavers)

5 lts water

10g of fresh ginger root crushed a little

450g sugar

Juice of two lemons

50g cream of tartar

A sachet of beer yeast

 

  1. Boil the nettles and ginger (add a handful of the cleavers, horehound, a little dandelion root or a little sour sorrel for different flavours) for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain through a colander lined with some muslin into a sterilised bucket.
  2. Stir in the sugar until dissolved and leave to cool. Add the lemon juice and the activated yeast. Cover and leave for three to four days.
  3. Making sure you leave the sludgy sediment at the bottom of the bucket, siphon the beer into a fermenting jar with an airlock stopper or sterilised swing-top bottles but beware of exploding bottles! You can brew this in sterilised plastic bottles to be on the safe side. Ready to drink in a week but you could wait longer for better beer. The flavour can vary from something similar to ginger beer to pale ale depending on your brew.

Another favourite way to eat nettles is Nettle Gnocci, made with light ricotta rather than potato flour, the recipe can be found on one of my earlier posts here: https://devonium.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/nettle-gnocchi-with-cherry-tomato-sauce/

Nettles Growing with Goosegrass

It makes green soup and cordial

Or steep the leaves for tea

Or use it

as a tonic

As it’s absolutely free.

 

 

 

Wild Garlic Season – Ramsons Relish

Ramsons form fragrant spring carpets in shady woodland areas at this time of year. The origins of many place names such as Ramsey Common, Ramsdale and Ramsbottom are derived from this ancient word. The plant is related to chives, and their botanic name, Allium Ursinum, contains the latin word for bear (ursus) as bears are extremely keen on them and dig up the bulbs with enthusiasm. Wild Garlic is easy to find in woods, just follow the aroma of garlic in the air and look for their shiny ovate leaves and white balls of little star-shaped flowers.The leaves taste much milder than bulb garlic and can be eaten raw. The flowers are also edible, have a peppery flavour and are very tasty when fried in batter as tempura.

Seasonal and delicious, Ramsons Relish has many uses –

Sandwiches – An excellent addition to cucumber, chicken or cheese sandwiches

Pasta – use the condiment like pesto

Smoked salmon or pan-fried fish – an excellent side sauce

Mayo – Mix it into fresh mayonnaise and use as a dip

Rice – Wild garlic risotto

Mash –  Mix the relish into mashed potato.

Soup – Use the relish as a drizzle

Salad – Ramsons Relish makes an excellent addition to vinaigrette

Scrambled eggs – stirred into creamy scrambled eggs, divine.

Potato Frittata – one the side, one of the best

A pathway of wild garlic at Buckland Abbey

 

 

The Dartmoor Easter Hare

Jugged Hare by Mrs Beeton (use two or three rabbits as our beautiful hares are in decline).

Ingredients

Two or three rabbits

680g (11⁄2lb) Gravy Beef

285ml (1⁄2 pint) Port Wine

225g (8oz) Butter

Forcemeat Balls – fried or baked

1 Onion

1 Lemon

6 Cloves (I use only 3)

Pepper, Cayenne and Salt, to taste

Directions

Skin, paunch and wash the rabbits.

Cut it into pieces, dredge them with flour and fry in boiling butter.

Have ready 900ml (11⁄2 pints) of gravy, made from beef and thickened with a little flour.

Put this into a jar.

Add the pieces of fried rabbit, an onion stuck with six cloves, a lemon peeled and cut in half and a good seasoning of salt, pepper and cayenne.

Cover the jar tightly, put it up to the neck into a saucepan of boiling (simmering) water.

Let it stew until the rabbit is quite tender, taking care to keep the water boiling.

When nearly done, pour in the port wine and add a forcemeat balls (these must be fried or baked in the oven for a few minutes before they are put to the gravy).

Serve with redcurrant jelly.

Very Good.

Time: 31⁄2 to 4 hours. Sufficient for 7 or 8 persons.