Whilst English and French cuisine are often separated by more than just a body of water, there is one festive tradition that unites that most British of beverages – ale – with a generous serving of French brandy to achieve a true entente cordiale!
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘be healthy’ or ‘good health to you’, and the wassailing tradition can be traced as far back as the 11th century in the South and West of England.
Groups of villagers (usually women or children, but occasionally rowdy young men) would go door to door visiting the homes of the local gentry and offering them a song and a drink from the wassail bowl in return for a gift or payment. This is the origin of the old carol ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ with its beautiful chorus:
“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.”
The custom was also adopted by some agricultural communities who would pour wassail over the roots of fruit trees to bless them and ensure a healthy harvest for the following year:
“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a plum, and many a peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring
As you doe give them wassailing.”
The exact timing of wassailing parties seems to have varied from Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night, depending on local practice, so it’s a flexible as well as a jolly tradition that will see you right through to 2014.
- Three apples
- One orange
- The rind of one lemon
- 1oz (60g) butter
- 3oz (90g) brown sugar
- Two Cinnamon sticks
- A pinch of Ginger
- Two whole Nutmegs
- A pinch of Cloves
- Two pints of English beer
- Half a pint of dry white wine (you could use French although I used Italian)
- One cup of French brandy
- Cut the apples into slices, removing the seeds. Slice the orange and grate the rind from the lemon.
- Gently melt the butter over a low heat then add the sliced fruit, lemon rind, sugar and spices and stir for a few minutes while the flavours combine.
- Add all of the liquid and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
- Ladle into serving cups, taking care to remove the nutmeg and cinnamon sticks first.
Your wassail will taste even better if made in advance and then gently reheated just before serving. You can vary the spices to suit your taste, try mulling cider or apple juice instead of beer or substitute sherry for wine if you prefer a sweeter drink. The main thing is that you enjoy your wassail in good company, offering a toast of ‘waes hael’ and receiving the traditional reply of “drinc hael’, meaning drink well!
Claire Maycock is a writer, reiki practitioner and local history enthusiast who moved to Wiltshire at the beginning of 2013. Her blog, ‘Raking the Moon’, is about life in this fascinating county both past and present and looks at country customs, places of interest and current events. To find out more, please visit www.clairemaycock.com