With winter upon us and Christmas just passed, New Year’s Eve approaches… and my thoughts always turn to Wassail. A batch of this simmering on the stove has filled my home with a wonderful aroma, and nothing quite tops sipping this hot, ladled into my favourite mug straight from the pot on the stove.
There are two drinks associated with wassailing; the most famous is the Wassail itself, while the second is a variation called “Lamb’s Wool.”
Wassail has been around longer than written history: It came into English via the Vikings, the word itself being a corruption of the Old Norse salutation, “Ves Heill”, or “be healthy”. As a phrase associated with drinking, it arose among the Danes (i.e. Vikings) that settled in England. Around 1300 the sense was expanded to refer to the drink itself, and from there to the carousal associated with it (it was, after all, made from spiced, warmed ale), to the custom of going carolling from house to house around the Christmas season.
This first recipe for Wassail is the one simmering on my stove, tried and tweaked to personal taste over the years. This recipe is a modern version of the ancient one; if you want to go traditional, feel free to grow the apples yourself, juice them, and fight the bees off for your own honey…
1–3 bottles apple cider
1–3 L. orange juice
Mix these two proportions to taste (It should be decidedly more cidery than citrusy).
3-4 cinnamon sticks
1 whole nutmeg
~½ C. honey (a dark “forest” honey adds to the traditional taste)
a splash of lemon juice if you want (I use pineapple juice)
One orange, studded with whole cloves and sliced in half, to float in the mixture. (To easily stud it, pre-pierce the orange skin with a toothpick, and then insert the clove.)
tea bags, e.g.”Apple & cinnamon”, Winter Spice tea, etc. (If I add these, I put them in a spice infuser ball to avoid them being scooped up into a drink – along with the nutmeg, and if you wish, the cinnamon sticks as well, though it’s nice to see floaty bits in the pot as you serve!)
apple slices, to float in the drink as it simmers
Bung everything into a large pot at least half an hour before serving, & let it simmer on low heat. The longer it simmers, the better it gets!
This Lamb’s Wool recipe is from the Renaissance period of England’s history, though chances are it goes much further back. Apple, ginger and ale gently dominate the taste of the drink. Its name is probably due to the frothy appearance of its whipped mixture, though it has also been speculated that the name originates in the ancient Celtic festival of “La mas ubal” (“the Day of the Apple”), pronounced “lamasool”. Either way, it’s a tasty variation to Wassail.
6 apples, cored (Bramley apples for a tart taste, or any sweet apple to taste)
Preheat the oven 120°C (250°F). Prepare the apples in advance so that they’re ready when you want to put them into the Lamb’s Wool: Core the 6 apples, removing the pips. Lightly grease a baking tray and place them about 6 cm (2 inches) apart as they tend to swell up a little. Bake the apples for about an hour or so, until they become pulpy and the skins peel away easily.
1½ L. of traditional (real) ale, cider (alcoholic or non-alcoholic, to choice)
1 nutmeg, freshly grated (or ground nutmeg, ~ ¼ tsp.)
1 tsp. ground ginger
150 gr. brown sugar
In a thick bottomed saucepan (large enough to avoid splashes while whisking): Pour in the sugar and cover with a small amount of the ale / cider; heat gently. Stir continuously until the sugar is completely dissolved, then add the ground ginger and grate in the whole nutmeg (or add in the powdered spice). Stir, keeping the pan on a gentle simmer; slowly add in the rest of the ale / cider. Simmer for 10 minutes on a gentle heat as you prepare the apples.
Remove the apples from the oven and cool slightly (~ 10 minutes). Scoop out the baked apple flesh into a bowl and discard the skin. Mash this apple pulp with a fork while it is still warm into a smooth purée. Add this purée to the Lamb’s Wool, mixing it in with a whisk.
Simmer the Lamb’s Wool for at least thirty minutes before serving to allow the flavours to marry. Before serving, whisk the mixture either by hand or with a blender to froth up the drink well (creating the “lamb’s wool”). [Before these tools came along, the drinks were traditionally poured back and forth between two large serving jugs to force air bubbles into the froth.]
Ladle the hot Lamb’s Wool into mugs or heat-proof glasses and sprinkle a bit of nutmeg on top. If wassailing, pour it into a large bowl with several pieces of toast in the bottom, as the “sop”.