Here we come a-wassailing...
I'm sure there's many a person out there who's heard the by now famous Christmas carol "Here We Come A-wassailing" (or caroling, if you're into the more modern version of this mid 1850's song) who isn't even sure what wassail is, or where the term comes from. As a kid, I know I definitely wondered a bit, because it's sort of a funny word, and if it means caroling... why not just say caroling?
But like many random bits of pop culture we still enjoy today, wassailing actually has very long history, with roots going back well before the song, or even Caroline's Christmas in 1812! The drink we're making today might be a little similar to something she and her family might have enjoyed, though, whether or not they went singing door to door all over Sackets Harbor.
Wassailing began as an old English tradition to help ensure a good harvest in apple orchards. The word has Anglo-Saxon origins, which means it's probably a very, very old tradition. Like, pre Norman the Conquerer old. Families, friends and entire communities would get together, sing and drink to encourage the apple trees to wake up and produce a good harvest the next year, while keeping evil spirits away from them. This would traditionally happen on Twelfth Night. A Wassail King and Queen would go through the orchard blessing the trees, putting offerings of bread soaked in wassail in their branches for the tree spirits. The original wassail drink was warmed beer or mead with honey that crab apples were then cooked in. I've never had it, but there seems to be a general consensus among modern pieces of pop culture that the original tastes pretty awful.
At some point, these traditions morphed into something more closely associated with Christmas and Christian traditions. By Felicity and Caroline's time, wassailing meant more what we think of it as today: singing Christmas songs and sharing food and drink with friends and neighbors. In Williamsburg, some wealthy members of the community would open their homes, providing food and drink to anyone who came by. This is part of why the song mentions begging! This tradition dates back to the middle ages, where lords would invite their tenants into their home for free food and drink.
Sometimes, people weren't always so thrilled about this tradition. Much like trick or treating, people complained that refusing wassailers might get your house vandalized.
The recipe we're testing out today comes from The Williamsburg Cookbook, and can be found republished on the Williamsburg website for anyone looking to make it themselves. You might be asking why I'm using a Williamsburg recipe in a Caroline post. Couldn't I have found a Regency recipe to share?
While it's likely that Caroline didn't have the same wassail gatherings Felicity and Elizabeth would have attended, it was still a traditional part of the holiday season in England during the Regency period. Beyond that, it's very likely that families in America would have kept the tradition going if they liked it enough to continue, much like we keep the traditions of our grandparents and parents when we start hosting our own holiday parties. At some point, wassail became more of a fruit or wine punch, and drinks like this can be purchased and enjoyed in Williamsburg, especially during the holiday season.
Williamsburg's recipe starts off by making a simple syrup of one cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water, flavored with four cinnamon sticks and three lemon slices. I used four lemon slices because my first two slices were kind of tiny. This was boiled on the stove for five minutes and then put through a strainer, during which I burned myself because I wasn't thinking when I was moving to put the strainer in the sink.
Next, you heat two cups of pineapple juice, two cups of orange juice, six cups of dry red wine, 1/2 cup of lemon juice and one cup of sherry over the stove. This shouldn't boil, but it should definitely be warm.
Mix in the syrup, garnish with lemon slices, and you have wassail!
So, a few things:
1. You might want to add a packet of mulling spices for wine in the pot if you like a more flavorful drink. We really didn't think that it actually had much spicy flavor at first, but adding in a packet of spices helped a lot.
2. If you empty a wine bottle cooking this, keep it handy if you have leftovers, because it's the perfect way to store it.
3. Using orange juice with no pulp will make it have a smoother texture, but the pulp doesn't take away from the flavor or overall enjoyment of the drink if that's what you happen to have in the house.
4.. For someone who really doesn't like any alcoholic drinks, this actually was very tasty!
Honestly, I was a little surprised by how much I like this. As I've said before, I really don't like the taste of alcohol. I don't think it's refreshing or worth the calories the same way a soda might be, and so I almost always avoid it.
This, though, was pretty excellent. I even had another taste a couple days later! It's like a fruity, spicy wine, with just enough spice in it to make it feel more like a holiday treat rather than a punch you might have at a wedding. I'm not really sure how truly authentic this recipe would be to either 1774 Williamsburg or 1812 Sackets Harbor, but it's a tasty version of a historic drink that you can definitely enjoy today.
... So long as you're over the age of 21. Even though some of the alcohol burns off while you're cooking and Caroline, Felicity and Elizabeth would have been able to drink it without an adult batting an eyelash, it's still probably not something you want to give to a modern ten year old. To make a more kid friendly wassail, you could replace the wine with grape juice, or make a non alcoholic mulled apple cider, which is also delicious and very historically accurate.
Overall, this was very easy to prepare, tasted great, and seemed to be a real crowd pleaser, while having some leftovers to enjoy over the course of the season. I'm not sure if it'll last until Twelfth Night, but I'd be happy to make some more when the time comes!
Now if only I had some of those delicious baked goods to enjoy. Feel like sharing, Caroline?