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Wassail!

Wassail

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

A Gloucestershire Wassail, dating to the Middle Ages.

Yesterday was the 6th of January, the final feast day of Christmas, the day of epiphany, Twelfth Night. Down in the counties of South-West and South-East England a very old and special ceremony takes place in the apple orchards; the Wassail was a way to celebrate the end of Christmas and to bless the trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for the cider. It was a time of celebration and merry-making. All of this happened at dusk, a magical time of day, where the world faeries and spirits overlapped with the world of Man. In different parts of England, the day upon which the Wassail occurs changes: some celebrate it on the 5th of January (the Eve of Epiphany), and others on the 17th of January (this is day Twelfth Night would occur before the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, “Old Twelfthy Night”, as it was called).

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A blurry, dusky Levenshulme Community Choir leading our Wassail

For the Wassail ceremony a Wassail King and Queen are nominated who lead the other revellers a merry dance around the trees. In the largest trees, the Queen is lifted into the boughs so she can spear pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail punch (I’ll get to that in a moment or two) as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard. As folk dance about the trees, other run around banging pots and pans to drive out the evil spirits.

Wassailing predates the Battle of Hastings and is thought to have its origins in Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word Wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health” and the word is used just as we would use Cheers! today. Below is one telling of its origins by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain:

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

I was lucky enough to go to a Wassail in Levenshulme in Manchester, which is not in the south of England, but the north. In Levenshulme there is a lovely community orchard, and it should be blessed just like any other. It was a great evening and really interesting to see just a glimpse of old England. If you have apple – or any fruit – trees, they why not have a Wassail. Indeed anything that needed blessing could wassailed like other crops like barley and livestock. Of course you’ll need to make some wassail to drink…

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Spiking the trees with toast offerings

The drink wassail is essentially a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with spices and made much boozier with sherry, brandy or sack (a sweet, fortified ale similar in taste to sherry) and sometimes thickened with eggs. An essential ingredient in the wassail drink is roasted apples, which would quickly burst and fall apart, giving wassail its alternative name ‘lamb’s wool’. Also floating on the surface would be plenty of toast.

The hot wassail is poured into a large carved wooden bowl and it is passed around the crowd so that everyone can take a good mouthful, raise it above their head and shout “Wassail!”. It is because of this celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks.

Two Wassail Recipes

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Here’s a recipe dating from 1722 that appears in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I liked that it is diluted with beer! What brew it must have been.

Below is my rather pared down recipe for wassail:

Ingredients:

4 to 6 apples

3 litres of good cider

6 cinnamon sticks

dark rum, to taste

soft dark brown sugar, to taste

around 500ml of water

toast (optional)

Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.

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Filed under Christmas, Festivals, food, Fruit, General, history, Recipes

Jane Grigson’s Orange Mincemeat

It’s just occurred to me that I haven’t put on a Christmas recipe and it is only just over two weeks until the special day. This month has flown by at a scarily quick pace.

Luckily two weeks is just enough time to make this delicious orange flavoured mincemeat. Last year I gave you Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but this one comes from the wonderful Jane Grigson. It is very moist and because of the brandy, orange juice and orange liqueur. It is also vegetarian if you want it to be; the suet can be the vegetable-based sort, or you can leave it out altogether. Give it a go.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

It is extremely easy to make: there is no cooking required so all you need to be able to do is chop, grate, mix and weigh. When you pot the mincemeat, it is very important you sterilise your jars. To do this first wash them in soapy water, then rinse and allow them to dry. Place the jars on a tray, with their lids sat beside them, facing upwards and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at around 130⁰C. Let them cool a little before potting. If this seems a lot to make in one go, you can easily reduce the amounts as you see fit.

Click here for the recipe I use for making mince pies.

 

Ingredients

250 g (8 oz) chopped candied peel

1 kg (2 lb) peeled, cored and grated apples

500 g (1 lb) suet (fresh or packed is fine, but fresh is best)

500 g (1 lb) currants

500 g (1 lb) raisins

500 g (1 lb) sultanas

500 g (1 lb) soft dark brown sugar

1 freshly grated nutmeg

125 g (4 oz) slivered almonds

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

4 tbs brandy

6-8 tbs orange liqueur

 

Mix all the ingredients together in a huge mixing bowl, then pot into sterilised jars. Store somewhere dark and cool, but not the fridge! Leave the mincemeat to mature for at least together before using it.

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Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was, as I reckon the supermarkets and bakeries bring them out just after Christmas; and why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

I have been on a bread-bake-a-thon recently, so I thought I’d make some and provide you with a recipe. Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper would be good, but I have never tried it.

This is based on Elizabeth David’s 1977 recipe, but all recipes seem essentially the same. There is no piped pastry cross on these buns as that would ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’. Quite so.

Ingredients

1 lb – 1 lb 2 oz strong bread flour, include a small proportion of wholemeal if you like

around 8 fluid ounces of warm milk

1 oz fresh yeast, or 1 tsp dried

1 tsp salt

2 ounces of sugar – any you like; white, light brown, dark brown or a blend

2 tsp  mixed spice

2 oz of softened butter

2 eggs

4 oz currants, or failing that, raisins

2 oz candied peel

For the glaze:

2 tbs sugar

2 tbs milk

Warm a pound of the flour in a cool oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile cream the yeast with a little of the milk, adding a pinch of sugar if you are using dried yeast. When the flour is warmed and the yeast is foaming, mix into the flour the salt and spices, then a make a well in the centre and add the yeast and the rest of the milk. Mix together with a spoon, then use the rest of the flour to dust your hands and the dough so you can work it together for a few minutes, otherwise you become a big sticky mess. You want a rather soft dough, but one not so soft that it would become shapeless as it rises. Incorporate the currants and peel, then cover and leave around 2 hours to double in size.

Knock back the dough and knead for a few minutes and form into 24 approximately even-sized buns, folding any creases underneath to make a nice, round shape. Place on non-stick pans, cover with plastic or a damp tea towel and leave to double in size again.

When ready to go in the oven, make cross cuts on their tops and bake at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes.

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and milk to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C (300⁰F).

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Lenten fodder

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.

“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble  and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!

Fair game: the beever

By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.

In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”

The late, great Brillat-Savarin

Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!

The Palace at Versailles

These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…

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Pancake Day

Happy Shrovetide!

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the 40 day long fast-a-thon that is Lent, so we best have a big-old festival, no?

No.

Where do you think this is? France? America? This is Britain, and whilst the rest of the Christian world is dancing, drinking, feasting and parading, we do not bow to such vulgarities, instead we have some pancakes and a nice cup of tea.

I jest of course; though between you and me, I would happily swap Mardi Gras for Pancake Day any day.

In Britain and Ireland, we make and eat pancakes before Lent because it is a very good way of using up main staple ingredients: flour, fat, eggs and sugar before the onset of Lent. By pancakes, we typically mean crepe-style pancakes, but the UK has a wide variety of different pancakes which are all delicious. I suppose you could add the griddle/girdle cakes to the list too as they typically use the same ingredients, but they are a little hit-and-miss, in my opinion.

These days, of course, we don’t really fast for the run up to Easter, but I do like to follow traditions, at least when it comes to eating food (I happily ignore the abstinence bits). I remember as a child, my family always had pancakes for tea on Shrove Tuesday and I don’t think we ate them any other day, I remember thinking you weren’t allowed to eat them unless it was Pancake Day. I have made up for this as an adult, especially now I am living in America.

It is traditional to take part in a pancake race on Pancake Day, which involves running a course whilst flipping pancakes. I have very hazy memories of doing this when I was little, but I don’t think that I have seen nor heard anything about pancake racing in the last 20 years, maybe more. It’s a shame that these things are dying out, I know many think it’s a little naff or twee, but I love stuff like that. It enriches life. Next year I shall hold a pancake race I think.

Pancake racing in the chemistry lab of

Westfield College, London, 1963

Shrove Tuesday is really the final day of a two-day period known as Shrovetide which was part of an unofficial festival called Carnival that ran from Epiphany. It was essentially a period of time for a lot of gluttony and frivolity in order to prepare for the nightmarish 40 days of misery beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Welsh Light Cakes

I love all types of pancakes, but the best ones come from Wales. This recipe from Jane Grigson for Welsh light cakes is excellent; they are made with soured cream, which gives them a wonderful tang. I have never found a pancake recipe to beat it, so I urge you to give it a go. If you make these with British soured cream, the resulting pancake batter is thin, giving them a frothy frilly texture. If you make them with American soured cream, the batter is much thicker, making them fluffy. Either way results in deliciousness.

Ingredients:

6 rounded tbsp. flour

2 rounded tbsp. sugar

3 tbsp. soured cream

a pinch of salt

3 eggs

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 rounded tbsp. cream of tartar

4 tbsp. water

¼ pint buttermilk or milk

fat or oil

butter

golden syrup

Beat together the flour, sugar, cream, salt and eggs. Next, mix together the bicarbonate and cream of tartar with the water and as it froths, tip it into the batter and stir it in. Add the milk or buttermilk to produce the desired consistency. Less for thick and fluffy, more for thin and lacy.

Heat the fat or oil on a suitable frying pan, swirl it around so the pan is coated and pour out any excess. Add a ladelful of batter and fry until golden brown, then carefully, quickly and confidently flip the pancake and cook the other side.

Stack the pancakes on top of one another and keep them warm in the oven, adding a pat or two of butter to each one.

Cut the stack into quarters and eat with golden syrup and more butter if you like.

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