According to most people I know, January is the worst month of the year. The Christmas holidays are long gone, it’s dark, it’s cold and summer still seems like a long way off.
Fortunately my birthday at the end of January usually cheers me up, but even if you don’t have presents to look forward to there’s still a way to cure the winter blues (clue: it involves booze).
Ok so this might make things tricky if you’re attempting ‘dry January’, but luckily you can pass it off as helping to preserve our cultural heritage – because I’m talking about the centuries-old tradition of orchard wassailing.
The custom has come to dying out over the last few centuries, meaning that You might have heard the term in various Christmas carols, though this usually refers to a different form of wassailing where people visited each others’ houses to share goodwill – the precursor to modern-day carol singers. Fortunately there’s been resurgence in orchard wassailing over the last few years, and now it’s possible to find local events in most parts of the country.
The festival began as a Saxon drinking ritual intended to ensure a good apple harvest the following year, and quickly became popular in the cider-producing regions of England. The name comes from the salute Old English ‘Waes Hail’ meaning ‘good health’, but also refers to the beverage drunk at the gathering. Originally this was ale brewed with honey and spices, but in more recent years it’s become a form of mulled cider.
The event was traditionally celebrated on old Twelfth Night*, but it’s now possible to find events throughout January and into February. The ceremonies of each wassail often vary according to local customs, but certain core elements are usually observed. A piece of toast is soaked in the wassail (or mulled cider), and placed into the tree boughs as a gift to the tree spirits. The the assembled crowd will recite traditional rhymes, sing songs and generally make a lot of noise in order to wake the tree from its winter slumber and scare away any evil spirits that might affect the crop.
Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hats full, caps full, three-cornered-sacks full,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,
Holler biys, holler hurrah.
– 1800s wassail ceremony lyrics from Street, Somersetshire
Even if you can’t make it to an actual event, you can always brew up a batch of your own warming wassail using this recipe, and go sing at the trees in your back garden.
I’ve decided to use a local perry instead of apple cider, partially because I prefer the taste and partially because it makes me feel even more West Country than usual. This brew is actually from my local National Trust property Dyrham Park, which hosted a perry harvest weekend back in October that was the highlight of my autumn social calendar.
If you don’t have perry to hand then normal cider tastes just as good, or for a children/‘dry January’-friendly option apple juice also works a treat.
Mulled Cider/Perry (serves 4)
- 1 litre cider/perry/apple juice
- 1 glass of apple juice (if using alcohol)
- 1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
- 6 cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 Allspice
- Vanilla pod, cut in half
- 2 Star anise
- 1 inch grated ginger root or 1 pinch ground ginger
- Muslin cloth for straining, or making into sachets with twine
- Sterilised jar/bottle (if storing)
- Pour the cider or perry into the saucepan with the apple juice, and set on a low heat
- If you are going to use a muslin cloth to strain your brew, then you can add all of the other ingredients straight into the pan.
- Alternatively you can create muslin spice sachets containing cloves, nutmeg, allspice and star anise, and replace the fresh ginger. You can then add a sachet to the saucepan along with the cinnamon sticks, vanilla pod and sugar.
- Warm slowly on a low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is almost boiling, then lower the heat and keep warm until ready to serve
- Strain through muslin (or remove sachet and cinnamon sticks).
- Serve in heatproof glasses – you can add another cinnamon stick to each one if you want to look like you made an effort.
If it’s easier you can make the cider ahead of time through to step 4, decant it into a sterilised glass bottle and refrigerate it for up to 4 days. When you’re ready to serve, reheat it in a saucepan.
The mulling sachets also make a great gift – just tie them to a bottle of cider with twine and add a tag with the brewing instructions.
*Before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, Twelfth Night fell on the 17th rather than the 5th/6th January
Some National Trust properties host wassailing events, alternatively Google can be a good way of finding out what’s going on near you. Local community orchards might host wassail events as well – often publicised on Facebook.
Read more about the history of wassailing.