January – dismal? Never. Every Wednesday this year so far has been enlivened by a good snowfall but when surrounded by the white sparkly stuff it is hard to think of preparing for a good harvest later in the year. On the plot we like a party and an opportunity to make a bit of noise and so we thought we might do a bit of wassailing this year to help the fruit trees make it through the cold snap unscathed.
The traditional folk custom of wassailing fruit trees is still popular in nearby Somerset but if you live in a city centre it might raise a few eyebrows. Don’t let that put you off! The idea is to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and to ensure a good crop. I am never slow to take an opportunity to baffle the apprentices with my degree specialism in Anglo Saxon and Middle English (yes, really!) and so I was able to tell them that the word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’.
Wassailing involves processing to your fruit trees carrying burning torches and banging pots and pans. Someone carries a special wassail pot filled with a steaming brew of ale, wine or cider. You form a circle around the largest or in our case, only apple tree and hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree. A shotgun can be fired overhead to scare away evil spirits (on reflection, probably not) and the group sings….
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.
The ritual should be carried out on one of the two traditional dates Twelfth Night according to either the old or new calendars – in other words either 5th/6th or 16th/17th January and it’s good to find a special wassail bowl –either ceramic or wooden. (It’s amazing what turns up in the local charity shop).
I use this recipe 1 quart apple juice,1 quart apple cider, 8 oranges,4 lemons, 6 cinnamon sticks, 8 whole cloves, 6 whole allspice berries and 1/4 teaspoon mace. In a large pot, combine apple juice and cider. Wash and slice oranges and lemons. Throw them in. Create a spice bouquet by wrapping cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, and mace in a piece of muslin. Add to juice. Simmer for at least 30 minutes. You can also float baked apples or toast in it but we didn’t fancy that.
If you don’t have any fruit trees I still like the idea of carrying of a burning brand or torch around the boundaries of your garden or urban patio plot while calling up on the spirits of the land but if you live in a flat carrying a candle round the kitchen somehow lacks the spirit of the original!