Wassail, Wassail All Over The Town!


We’re in the throes of Storm Brendan. As I write there are things blowing all over the garden; a chair has just clattered across the ‘lawn’, which is an historic name as it is now just bald and soggy earth, we have had so much rain this year. The hens, however, forage gleefully for fat worms, the frills of their tail feathers dancing flirtily in the wind. In the old oak tree that I look out onto I can see dozens of crows crouching forlornly against the wind. There is no birdsong, just the sound of wind and rain.

A couple of nights ago the weather was mild and the sky was starry and brightly lit by a waning gibbous moon, still fulsome after the Wolf Moon of January 10th, which was just as well for we had decided to have a Wassail ceremony to bless the old apple trees in our little orchard. The trees are so old that a couple of them died last year and so we are left with just three, and last autumn they bore very little fruit. Whether that was to do with climate change or just a year of dormancy, I’m not sure, but blessings seemed in order!

A Wassail is a pagan ceremony that has been popular in the southern counties of England for centuries. In the darkest days of the winter and at the end of the Christmas festivities, the community would gather together to welcome in the Spring and bless the apple trees for fertility and a good harvest the following autumn. Gathering outside on a dark winter’s night to sing to the bare fruit trees enhances our direct connection with nature and reminds us how much we are reliant upon the health of the natural world around us for our survival.

There is a little apple tree that stands alone in the orchard and her branches are low and easy to adorn so I draped the Christmas fairy lights over her and festooned her with tinsel and ribbons until she was dressed for the occasion. I laid a fire in the orchard and around the firepit I hung twelve candles in a circle to represent the twelve days of Christmas. The Wassail Ceremony is traditionally held on Twelfth Night but it can be held throughout January.

Our ancestors loved a warm, boozy drink in the depths of winter, and frankly once you’ve had a glug or two of hot mulled cider on a cold January night, you’ll be right there with them in spirit. In past years we have made our own cider but the lack of apples this year put paid to that, so we bought local cider and apple juice from Middle Farm in the village of Firle, nearby. Middle Farm holds the National Collection of Cider and Perry, stocking over three hundred different ciders, it is the largest collection of cider and perry anywhere in the UK.

The Wassail was to begin after the sun had set but first there was food and drink to prepare. We Wassailers were asked to bring apple-based food to share and cider to add to the pot of mulling liquor. I wanted to make something to eat that had been grown here at Starnash so I made Pumpkin, Feta and Burning Bishop Chutney Pasties. The pumpkin was a Crown Prince variety that I have been growing for some years from the seeds of the first Crown Prince pumpkin that I grew and its offspring have grown here ever since. I’d made the Burning Bishop chutney in late September with the few apples that we harvested from the orchard and various other ingredients including some chillies that we’d grown. The Burning Bishop refers to a mysterious figurine of a bishop which is part of the inglenook fireplace in our kitchen.

Once the sun had set and the moon was bright the Wassailers arrived with their gifts of food and drink and we set aside some of the mulled cider in which we soaked white toast. The rest of the cider was transferred into a bowl – preferably a bowl made of maple wood.

The fire had been lit and was burning well, the tree was twinkling with fairy lights and the circle of candles in glass votives lit up our ceremonial space in the orchard.

Tradition has it that a village virgin sits in the boughs of the apple tree; she is the Wassail Queen, but we didn’t have any willing virgins at this Wassail so we had to forgo that particular fertility rite and move on to the Blessing ceremony. Each of the Wassailers took some toast soaked in cider (the wassail liquor is often made with the first tasting of last autumn’s cider) and placed it in the nooks and knobbles of the old apple trees, making their own quiet blessings to the trees to pray for fertility and a good harvest to come. After this quiet and rather reverential start to the ceremony we gathered around the crackling fire and took up pans and other homemade instruments to beat to a rhythm as we sang the Wassail song.

The Wassail Song and how to sing it:

The Wassail song is best sung loud, and heartily; bawdily rather than tunefully. Pans and drums are beaten to ward off evil spirits. The wassail cup is passed around (we passed from right to left, in a clockwise fashion) and as the song is sung each wassailer is blessed in turn. It goes like this: two choruses of the wassail song are sung to get everyone in the swing of it and as the wassail bowl is passed, the person who has just passed the bowl makes up a verse about the person next to them who is supping from the bowl (see below)…the verse can be as daft and rhymeless as you like. The chorus is then sung again as the bowl is passed on.

The Wassail Song (for the tune go to YouTube or Spotify: Blur does a good version, and so do The Grizzly Folk)

Chorus:

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.

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.

(Here's an example of a made up verse to the person on the left who is drinking from the wassail bowl):

And here is to Dan, my right hand man,

Who stands on my left with his hands so deft.

With you I’ll make merry

With cider not perry

With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!

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.

(Pass the bowl to the next person).

And so it goes until each wassailer has been serenaded and has sipped from the wassail bowl.

Once the wassail song had been sung we returned to the warmth of the kitchen to feast and fill up our glasses with more mulled cider and apple juice and then we gathered round the fire again and the talk was of the year to come and what strange times we live in.

At daybreak the next day I heard the crows flying over the roofs of the farmhouse, carrying away the toast and bearing the wassailers’ wishes and blessings heavenwards.

Mulled cider recipe:

(For 4 people)

1 litre still cider

1 glass good apple juice

200ml brandy or calvados

6 cloves

1 tspn ground allspice

2 cinnamon sticks (broken)

Honey or brown sugar to taste

1 sliced orange

Heat all the ingredients in a large pan but don’t boil, stirring occasionally. When you’re ready, strain the mulled cider into the Wassail Bowl and transfer the sliced orange to the bowl.

Pumpkin, Feta and Burning Bishop Chutney Pasties recipe:

(10 pasties)

Shortcrust pastry:

400g plain flour

200g cold butter

2 eggs beaten with 2 tbsp of cold water

Salt

Beaten egg for glazing

Work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the salt, beaten egg & water to form a dough (adding a little more water, if necessary). Roll into a log shape about the thickness of your forearm and chill whilst you make the filling.

Filling:

Half a pumpkin, cubed

3 onions, roughly chopped

Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Roast these ingredients in an oven-proof dish for about half an hour at 180C

Feta cheese

Apple chutney

Assemble the pasties:

Slice the pastry log into about 10 x 1 inch thick rounds and roll each out to the size of a side plate.

Place a heaped tablespoon of roasted veg into the centre of each pastry circle. Crumble some feta cheese over and top with a tspn of chutney. Apply some beaten egg to the edge of one half of the pastry circle and flip the other half of the pastry over to enclose the mixture and seal the edges. Press the edges down with your fingers or a fork. Pierce the top of the pastie once with your fork. Transfer to an oven tray and glaze with beaten egg.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until light golden brown. The pasties are best served warm.

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