Here we come a-wassailing Among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wand'ring So fair to be seen.
REFRAIN: 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.
English Traditional Carol, circa 1850
A few years ago I became fascinated by Wassail. It's a word that gets bandied about at Christmas, but I bet you anything that most people haven't a clue as to what exactly it is or means. And neither did I until I did a bit of good old internet research. Wassail is a traditional mulled punch, drunk at Christmas-time in the Northern and Germanic countries. Wassailing can either mean the singing of carols (at Christmas, the serfs would wassail the Lord and Lady of the Manor), or, as in Gloucestershire, and the other western counties, the wassailing of an apple tree: to ensure a good harvest and drive away the evil spirits. This happens on Twelfth Night. The wassail is served in a wassail cup or bowl.
Every year, I make my own recipe for Mulled Cider, and it's exceedingly good, I tell you. I'm not really a fan of Mulled Wine: it's too heavy, there's too much tannin, it gives you a headache. And then many people get it wrong. Very wrong. They chuck in a bottle of plonk, boil it up, and then add all sorts of other dodgy ingredients, including vodka; and the result is an over-acidic, pungent brew which can leave you with a god-awful hangover.
Mulled Cider is "different", smoother- and in my opinion delicious. There are no rules; but to get the best results, I suggest that you keep it simple. In a large pan, I pour in a decent dryish West Country of Norman organic cider. The stuff that looks like still, dark, pond water. Try and avoid the cheaper, sweeter, fizzy stuff.
Next, I cut an orange in half, and add that. I do the same with a lemon. I add a few spices: a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, ground nutmeg, and a kernel of ginger. All of these would work well. I taste it.
If it's too dry, add a bit of brown sugar. Start warming it up. You do not want to boil it. Keep it simmering at just below boiling point. If you boil it, all the alcohol will vapourise away, defeating the whole point of the thing in the first place. If you're going to serve it in glass mugs, make sure that you put a silver spoon in the mug first. This will prevent the glass from shattering.
If you've got time, decorate the wassail with "Lamb's Wool". This is just bits of peeled apple, simmered in cider until woolly (it "explodes"). The pulp is floated on top of the mulled cider.
I'm quite curious about the food people ate in the Middle Ages. In The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal mentions his fascination with a bizarre 14th century French cookery book,Le Viander de Taillevent, in which a chicken is plucked alive, basted with soya, wheat-germ and dripping- to simulate roasting, coaxed asleep, and then 'brought back to life' at the table.
In case you're wondering, the rather beautiful illustration is from the Duc de Berry's Book of Hours and depicts the month of January. It probably shows the Twelfth Night banquet, as during the Middle Ages the focus of the Christmas festivities tended to be during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and after the Advent Fast.
I've adapted a 15th century English recipe for "Goose in a Garlic and Grape Sauce" which you could easily make at home. I haven't tried it yet, so I've no idea what it tastes like- it could be foul:
You make a stuffing out of garlic cloves, seedless grapes, chopped parsley and salt, and then stick it up a goose. Roast the bird in an oven set at 350༠C (twenty minutes per pound). When you're happy that the goose is cooked, take it out of the oven, and set aside to cool.
Spoon out the cooked stuffing and blend it in a food processor, adding three hard-boiled egg yolks, and half a cup of cider vinegar. Spoon the finished sauce over the goose.