A casual conversation with my son about English Christmas traditions got me started down a rabbit warren of research ending with new (to me) knowledge about wassail bowls. I’m not quite sure what got us started, but it ended with my desk covered in reference books and about 16 open tabs in my browser once I found these amazing bowls.
For those of you who might not know what wassail is, a quick explanation: It is best known as an alcoholic punch that is served warm, generally around the Yule or Christmas season. In addition to the drink, in Middle English, “wæs hæl,” was also a toast derived from Old Norse meaning more-or-less “to your health.” If someone toasted you with “wæs hæl,” the correct response was, “drinc hæl.” The earliest known reference dates from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae written in 1136.
It wasn’t for another two centuries before the verb wassailing came into use meaning a round of drunken revelry! Perhaps that’s because from the 12th to the 14th centuries drunken revelry was such normal behavior it didn’t need its own word?
Where do they Wassail?
In England, wassail is associated with apple-producing counties. This includes the South East counties of Sussex, Essex, Kent and Suffolk and the West Country counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. There, wassailing as an event means drinking, singing, and “apple-howling” to scare off evil spirits to safeguard the health of the apple trees and ensure a good harvest the next year.
The tradition still exists today, and is even gaining ground, as small orchard keepers are pressing their own micro-ciders, rather than selling off the harvest to large conglomerates. I imagine it makes for a fun visitor event during the otherwise quiet winter months.
Unsurprisingly, in the West Country the drink is cider-based. And when I say cider, I don’t mean the apple juice stuff they call cider in the US, or even hard cider. English cider is potent stuff. The most alcoholic version is called “scrumpy.”
Don’t let the name fool you! My family is from Devon, and I remember drinking scrumpy with one of my uncles. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I remember starting to drink scrumpy with my Uncle Alan, then waking up the next morning wondering why I felt like I had been run over by a bus.
Since the Middle Ages, when recipes were first recorded, there have been untold variations on the theme. It’s one of those recipes for which everyone has their own special family version. Some base the drink on ale or even wine. Ale makes sense to me given the Old Norse connection. Ale was the Viking drink of choice. The first Viking raid was in Northeastern England at Lindisfarne in 793, but less than 100 years later, by 830, the Vikings were raiding the West Country. Cider seems a natural West Country adaptation of the Viking ale tradition. Wine strikes me as a reinvention by the higher echelons of society. Cider and ale were a working man’s drinks…not fit for the Christmas ballrooms of the aristocracy!
Upward mobility leads to a special bowl
To my astonishment, as my inquiry progressed, I found that one of the consequences of this upward mobility was the appearance of a special bowl. By the 15th century, wassail bowls were relatively common among affluent households. Interestingly, they were made of a specific wood…not apple wood as one might think…but a rare and costly import originally from Jamaica, lignum vitae. Latin for the tree of life, lignum vitae is one of the densest woods in the world and will sink in water. Traditional wassail bowls were lignum vitae and topped or tipped with silver.
Interestingly, the closer in time we get to the modern day, the more references to wassail bowls as plain silver or pewter vessels there are. Did silver become less expensive or more easily obtainable than lignum vitae?
Nowadays, lignum vitae is considered potentially endangered but still sold. Modern uses for this wood include (and I kid you not) bearings for commercial water turbines and the world’s first nuclear submarine.
Wassail (click title for a printer-friendly version)
- 2 quarts apple cider (hard or soft, depending on how you want to feel the next day)
- 2 bottles of ale
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 2 cored and sliced apples
- 1 orange
- lots of cloves
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1/2 tsp. ginger
Stud the orange with cloves. If the cloves break when trying to push them into the orange peel, use a toothpick to poke a hole first, then insert the clove. Cloves are quite strong so you might want to start with fewer cloves in your orange, then if you need more clove flavor add some to the pot later.
Add the cider, ale, lemon juice, apple slices, clove studded orange, cinnamon sticks and ginger to a pot. Heat over a low flame until warm. Adjust the spices to your taste — remember you can always add more if you want.
Best if made and left covered for a couple of hours to let the flavors marry*. Serve in a fabulous bowl – extra points if you have a silver studded lignum vitae one.
Wæs hæl my friends.
* The thought occurs to me, I have not tried it, but I bet a slow-cooker/crock-pot would be perfect to do this in. Must give it a try.
As you have made it all the way down here, thanks for coming on this wild ride! I never quite know where my conversation-inspired rabbit warren research quests will take me.
Does this sort of thing happen in your household?