Monday, 17 December 2012

Candles and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice

Some Mistletoe, a Candle and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice
As the winter solstice approaches, I'm celebrating this time of year in the house by lighting some candles and preparing some mulled cider.  I've often made mulled cider in the past, but this year, with my recent visit to the Saxon chapel still on my mind, I've decided to create a wassail recipe.  I've an image of this warm, spicy drink being passed around in a mead hall under flaring torches - but I admit this is a romantic view; an impression I've gained from poetry such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also from Tolkien's Golden Hall in The Lord of the Rings.  The truth is, the wassail bowl has a different history than that.

The Origins of Wassailing

In Beowulf, the warriors gather in the "beorsele", which has been translated as a beer hall or feast hall.  In the translation of the poem I possess it's called a "wassailing place" - so this is obviously where I got the image from!  "Wassail" apparently originates from words in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, but it wasn't seemingly used in literature until the Middle Ages. Today, we understand "wassail" as a traditional greeting meaning "Good Health!" and which is followed by the reply; "drinkhail".

The Wassailing Tradition

Most of the wassailing tradition hasn't taken place in a hall at all; it has taken place out in orchards where people have gathered to wish for a good apple harvest for the following year.  The wassailers gather around the most important apple tree in the orchard (known as the guardian of the orchard) and pour cider or ale on its roots.  They then drink a toast to the tree and drive away any evil spirits by making as much noise as possible with horns and bells. Bonfires have also been lit in the orchard; firelight and candlelight, at this darkest time of year, has always been seen as a way to banish evil.

In other traditions, wassailing parties of agricultural labourers used to go to the houses of the rich to sing traditional wassail songs for money; or in some areas women would dress up and visit different houses with a decorated wassail bowl to offer good wishes to the householders.

The Time of Year

The time of year this all takes place varies; but it's usually in midwinter, around Christmas and on Twelfth Night.

Wassail Recipe

There are different recipes for a wassail bowl; some are based on cider, and others on ale. But all recipes generally include roasted apples (in some areas called Lamb's Wool) and/or pieces of bread.

For my recipe, I've used cider, brandy, spices and apples, but I've left out the bread, because even if this is booze-infused, I don't fancy soggy bread in my drink.

I've used:

1 1/2 litres cider
2 cinnamon sticks
2 pinches of nutmeg
2 pinches ground cloves
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
A dash of brandy
6 roasted apples.


Remove the core from the apples and then roast the apples for about 40 minutes at 350 F/180 C/Gas 4 or until the apples have begun to soften and the skins are beginning to split.

Pour the cider into a large pan on a low heat.  After a few minutes, when the cider is warm, add the spices and brandy, let it boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer.

When the apples are roasted, add to the cider and serve warm. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Saxon Chapel in the Marshes: A Midwinter Visit to St Peter-on-the-Wall

This weekend, as the Christmas shopping crowds flocked to the local towns, I disappeared off in the opposite direction to the remote salt marshes of the Essex coast.  There, I visited St Peter-on-the-Wall; a small, Saxon chapel standing at the very end of long path (or pilgrimage route).  It's a simple, unadorned place; there's little inside except for a stone altar, wooden benches set on the flagstones and several, burning candles.  On this winter's afternoon, there is a silence inside the chapel, and little noise outside, except for a light whisper of wind and the distant cries of birds.  A visit here is the perfect antidote to the madness of Christmas shopping.

St Peter-on-the-Wall is St Cedd's chapel.  St Cedd arrived here in 653 from Lindisfarne, and the following year built his cathedral on the site of the (abandoned) Roman fort of Othona.  St Cedd also founded a Celtic style Christian community and there is still a Christian community (the Othona Community) nearby today.

The history of St Peter-on-the-wall after the early years is largely unknown, but by the early modern era it was no longer used as a chapel.  Instead, it was used as a farmer's grain store and cattle shed and it wasn't to be restored until the twentieth century.

Each year, in the summer, there is a pilgrimage to the chapel.  As I walked along the long path to the chapel I had the sense of reaching the edge of somewhere.  Beyond the chapel, there is the salt marsh; a nature reserve for birds and plants that stretches out to the River Blackwater, and the sea.

I can't put off Christmas shopping any longer, so I have to return back.  But I now feel more able to cope with the crowds after being in such a spiritual, peaceful place.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Cheese and Spicy Apple Loaf with D'Arcy Spice Apples

Cheese and Spicy Apple Loaf with D'Arcy Spice Apples
I adore old English apples and I'm saddened that so many old apple trees have been carelessly (or deliberately) pulled up.  Because of this, I love to hear about people committed to planting and preserving the old varieties - and if I have the chance to try an old variety of apple I always do.  I enjoy undertaking a not-very-scientific study to compare the tastes of different apples.  I also like to find out where the variety of apple originates from - in Essex I know of four varieties: Discovery, Queen, Chelmsford Wonder and D'Arcy Spice.  Discovery is an early variety and Queen and Chelmsford Wonder are cooking apples, but perhaps the most unusual of the four is the dessert apple; D'Arcy Spice.

D'Arcy Spice is so called because it originates from Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a village close to the Essex coast and it's said to date from 1785 (although it could be older than that).  It's an apple known for its aromatic flavour; it has a subtle taste of nutmeg.  And it's a late variety; traditionally it's not picked until Guy Fawkes Day and then it needs to be stored for several weeks before it's ready to eat.  In storage, the apples sweeten and develop their distinct, spicy taste.  I also love the appearence of D'Arcy Spice; it has a humble, "traditional variety of apple" look about it.

D'Arcy Spice Apple
D'Arcy Spice apples have just become available in my local farm shop, so I bought some to make a cheese and spicy apple loaf.  I love this loaf - it's a real lunchtime treat; moist with lovely flavours and a crunchy crust.  I wish I could have included local cheese, but as I mentioned last month I've hunted for local cheese and found that Essex no longer produces any.  So I've had to use non-local  cheddar (from the north of England) for my recipe.  Still, the apples themselves were grown just a couple of miles away.

I'm now wondering whether to source a D'Arcy Spice apple tree and plant it in the new orchard.  It would be good to have a local variety growing there.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Homemade Irish Whiskey Cream Recipe

I recently came across a recipe (from many years back) for homemade Irish whiskey cream.  I've never made it, but for a Christmas treat I thought I'd give it a go.  I was interested to see whether it was actually worth doing - and to do some comparison with (let's call it) the "leading brand" on taste and cost.


Condensed milk - 400g (14oz)
Whiskey - 240 ml (8fl oz)
3 large eggs
Camp coffee - 2 teaspoons
Double cream - 275 ml (1/2 pint)

NB Add other ingredients, such as chocolate syrup, if you want to experiment with different tastes.


Simply blend ingredients in a blender.  Then store in the fridge in a sterilised, air tight container.

Is it worth making homemade Irish Whiskey Cream? 

The taste is definitely all there - I loved it.  I made a litre of it and it does work out cheaper to make than to buy.  I could save up to £8 if I'd bought the cheapest bottle of whiskey (or whisky) in the shop - but this wasn't Irish whiskey.  With the Irish whiskey I found available I still make a saving, but just not as much.  (I also had to buy the eggs, as I'm not getting eggs on the smallholding at the moment).

Final verdict: I'll definitely make some more for drinking by the fire at Christmas!

Comparing the two: the homemade drink is on the left