How to go a-wassailing

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

The Wassailing Song

I am old enough to remember life before central heating, dears, when in December and January the Belling bed warmer, like a pink flying saucer, was our weapon against freezing sheets, and Jack Frost drew ice-portraits on the inside of the bedroom windows. But at least the trains and buses, when they ran, were heated: there’s a terrific (and too little known) Charles Dickens short story called The Holly Tree where he describes a traveller by horsedrawn coach setting out from the Peacock inn in late December London, early in the 19th century, when the weather was so bad there were blocks of ice in the Thames. Once the passenger was inside the coach, the ostlers piled straw around him up to his waist, as insulation, before sending him off north, a human haybox.

When Dickens’s traveller had arrived at the Peacock he “found everybody drinking hot purl, in self-preservation” – our predecessors being of the sensible opinion that no matter how blazing the fire you might be standing before, on a cold night there was still a requirement to warm the insides as well as the outsides. Purl was ale heated until almost boiling (never actually boil any hopped drink, the bitterness is likely to be  ramped up to an extremely unpleasant level) with a shot of gin, generally in the ration of 10 parts ale to one part spirits, and flavourings of the maker’s choice: usually something bitter, such as Roman wormwood (less powerful than “standard” wormwood), with perhaps orange peel, ginger and, by the middle of the 19th century at least, sugar.

Purl was just one of a family of flavoured, frequently hot ale drinks that kept Britons warm before central heating. Another was Wassail, taking its name from the medieval English drinkers’ salutation wæs hæil, “be healthy” or “be fortunate”. Wassail became particularly associated with the celebrations on Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night and New Year’s Eve, and better-off homes would have special wassail bowls from which the prepared drink was served. Jesus College, Oxford owns a huge silver-gilt Wassail bowl with a capacity of ten gallons, presented by Sir Watkyn Williams Wynn, the Welsh Jacobite politician, in 1732. This is the Jesus recipe for Wassail, in 1835 at least:

Put into a bowl half a pound of soft light-brown sugar
Pour on it one pint of warm beer;
Grate half a nutmeg and about a teaspoon of ginger into it
Add four glasses of sherry and five more pints of beer
Stir it well, add two or three slices of lemon and a couple of sugar cubes that have been rubbed over the peel of a lemon.
Put three or four slices of thin-sliced toasted bread spread very lightly with yeast into the mixture. Leave it to stand, covered, for two to three hours.
Bottle the mixture, tightly sealed, and in a few days it should be sparkling.
Pour into your wassail bowl and serve with hot roasted apples floating in it.

A wassail bowl

At Christmas, the ” poorer class of people”, according to the writer Robert Chambers in The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities in 1863, “carried a bowl adorned with ribbons round the neighbourhood begging for something wherewith to obtain the means of filling it, that they too might enjoy wassail as well as the rich.” In the Gloucester region the carol that kicks off this piece was sung by the wassailers as they went from door to door collecting donations: note the reference to the toast that formed part of the preparations for the wassail; the brown colour of the ale (before pale malts became widespread, darkness of colour was regarded as a sign of strength in ale); and the bowl being made of maple wood, a traditional wood for bowls and drinking vessels, being hard and tightly grained.

Wassail is similar to lamb’s wool in featuring apples. For lamb’s wool (named for the fluffy appearance of the cooked apple and ale mixture), make half a pint of apple sauce, then mix in a pint of sweetish, low-hopped ale and heat in a saucepan until just short of boiling point. Take the saucepan from the heat and add ginger and/or cinnamon, and sugar to taste. Serve immediately.

Many drinks in the “spiced heated ales” tradition feature eggs: here’s a typical mulled ale recipe:

1 pint of strong, lightly hopped ale
2 eggs
3 tablespoons of sugar
Quarter-teaspoon of nutmeg or ginger
1 tablespoon of rum or brandy

Beat the eggs, sugar, spices and spirits together in a two and a half pint jug. Heat the ale in a two and a half pint saucepan almost to boiling. Pour the hot ale into the egg mixture from a great height (to prevent the egg curdling). Rapidly pour the now creamy liquid from the jug to the pan and back in a long stream several times. Serve.

Another version of this drink is the Scottish “Hot Pint”, traditionally served on Hogmanay:

Grate half a nutmeg into a quart of lightly hopped ale and heat it in a saucepan. Mix a dessert-spoon of sugar with two well-beaten eggs and a little cold ale in a jug, whip this mixture well and pour slowly into the hot ale, to guard against the egg curdling. Add half a pint of whisky and pour the mixture back and forth between the saucepan and the jug until it is smooth. This, according to Dorothy Hartley in Food in England, “can be made in the time it takes to get a man’s boots off on a cold night”.

A third branch of the hot ale tree involves oatmeal in the mix, and contains the ale berries and caudels. Here is Dorothy Hartley’s recipe for Ale Berry, which she said she was given by a woman from Wharfedale in North Yorkshire, who declared it “wonderful if you’d been drowned”:

Boil a handful of crushed oats in two pints of water until thick, grate a lump of fresh ginger into it, and strain off, still boiling hot, into two pints of almost-at-the-boil ale. Add nutmeg or cinnamon, and two teaspoons of sugar. Drink as hot as possible and – according to Hartley – go to bed at once, since the drink will make you sweat and send you to sleep.

Merry Christmas!

10 thoughts on “How to go a-wassailing

  1. Hi Martyn;
    Have enjoyed following your blog as we are passionate micro-brewery patrons here in Nova Scotia, Canada! You postings are well researched and tasted …. er I meant tested…

    This posting was intriguing because my mother (British) used to mull ale on the holidays, although I can’t remember eggs being part of the brew.

    Am wondering if you could help with a question. Our blog is daily postings of our father’s 1940 diary while stationed as a Canadian soldier in Aldershot, England. He and his friends make frequent trips to town for beers / ale and I was wondering if you would have an idea of what brands, styles, etc., would have been popular in that area at that time. Any feedback would be welcome.
    slainte! Toni

  2. A very interesting read. I wonder if you might know more of the “Jough-Y-Nollick”; which translates as “Drink of Christmas”, which was a special Yuletide drink in the Isle of Man?” The drink would be made in a giant kettle, which would then be taken around the whole village.” “The traditional drink was hot ale with spice, ginger and pepper.”(as I copy and paste from manx sites)

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