Saturday, December 22, 2012
Exhibit #127: Wæs Hæl!
A traditional 18th century holiday punch, Oxford style. Red and port wines mulled with roasted cloven lemons & their juice, spices, water and sugar. Served hot.
"I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!” So says Ebeneezer Scrooge after his transformation, and in his offer of a bowl of punch, the change is revealed as a fundamental one. In the 19th century British mind, generosity was often measured in bowls of punch, the drink itself being communal by nature. As to the "Bishop" - it was custom to associate different varieties of wine with clerical names, often corresponding to colors worn by the clergy in the Anglican church: Pope for burgundy, Cardinal for champagne, Archbishop for claret, and Bishop for port.
Two parts hot ale to one part warmed sherry poured over baked apples, a bit of sweetened lemon juice, allspice, hard toast garnish. This particular recipe, published in 1895, comes to us from George Kappeler. The drink is of course several centuries older than that, and is tied to several pre-Christian traditions in the cider-producing counties of southern England. The name itself is a transliteration of the Old English “waes hael,” meaning be well, be healthy. It was customary for townsfolk to bring the Wassail Bowl, itself a venerated object, to an apple orchard at winter solstice and sing songs and incantations to the largest tree to awaken its spirit, as well as to frighten away evil spirits. Bits of Wassail-soaked toast were either fastened to a large branch, or buried at the tree’s roots as offerings. Incidentally, this is also where we get our expressions “raise a toast” or “have a toast” – it was customary for many punches to be garnished with bits of hard-tack bread or toast. Wassail recipes themselves are highly irregular, but the earliest would have all included spiced hot ale or mead and some bits of apple or cider. The addition of sherry in this recipe is certainly a bit of 19th century fanciness, but was a common method for a substantial amount of time, and as such represents what was once considered a traditional Wassail for many years.
Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We've come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs