We live in a somewhat charmless 1950s-1960s neighbourhood, but we have a decent-sized garden and are close to some beautiful countryside. That garden contains, among other things, two old apple trees. A neighbour who’s lived here since the estate was built says much of it was an orchard beforehand. So those veteran apple trees, gnarled and neglected, deserve some respect as survivors.
One way we in southern Britain, particularly the southwest and southeast of England, traditionally paid our respects to our apple trees was by wassailing. To wassail is to salute, to wish good health, with the ail part of this Old English/Old Norse word equivalent to the modern English hale, as in “hale and hearty”, whole and in good health.
The word also refers to a drink drunk when wassailing, from a wooden “wassail bowl”. I must admit I didn’t make the drink this time, as the recipes I found on this fascinating site are types of punch-like concoction involving mulled cider, mulled ale, mulled cider and ale mixed, mulled cider and ale and fortified wine mixed, all often also mixed with whipped egg and garnished with toast. For toasting your apple trees, your neighbours, your community, in the hope of winning over apple tree spirits and guaranteeing a good harvest – and plenty more cider the following year. As a teenager I drank far too much snakebite – half-half beer and cider – and it made me so sick it put me off alcohol for years. So although I love tradition, I’m wary of cider-ale combinations.
Wassailing is traditionally carried out on Twelfth Night – that is, 5 January, the night before Epiphany. However, there’s also a tradition that favours Old Twelvey Night – the night of 17 January, the eve of the Epiphany according to the Julian calendar, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar for most Westerners and Christians in 1582. This is – or was – favoured in the southwest of England, where Fran’s from, and my mother’s mother was from.
Anyway, after a few ciders – both local and from Normandy, another gift from some family friends – Fran and my mother, Helen, started singing a wassailing song, that goes (oddly, considering most the trees are bare of leaves):
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.”
The song is probably Victorian. Indeed, although these traditions may well be ancient, possibly with pre-Christian origins, as we so much British folk culture, the form we know today was likely largely shaped by the Victorians.
While they tried to remember the song, I made an apple cake. This recipe is from Sompting, a Sussex village about 16 miles (25km) away from where we live in Lewes. The original recipe makes for a fairly substantial foot-square cake, a little large for my family gathering.
The woman who provided the recipe, one Marjorie Clarke said of the cake tin, “We use a special one with a hole in the base, so that the cake can be carried on the end of a spear in the procession.” That’s probably not the sort of cooking kit you have. I certainly don’t, and don’t really fancy drilling a hole in one of my tins. So I think a standard square, or similarly proportioned rectangular one should do. I reduced the quantities and tweaked it slightly. Then burned the top a bit in my new oven. But no matter, that felt suitably rustic and the cake was lovely and moist, the raisins fattened with very natural Wobblegate Sussex Scrumpy I used.
225g eating apples
100g (4 tbsp) honey
4 medium eggs (approx 190g egg white & yolk)
200g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
1. Grease and line an 18cm square baking tin, or similar.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Put the raisins in a saucepan, cover with the cider, bring to the boil then remove from the heat.
4. Add the apple pieces to the cider and raisins, and allow to cool while you continue.
5. Cream the butter and honey then gradually add the beaten egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little of the flour.
6. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
7. Add half the flour to the batter, and combine.
8. Add half the cider mixture to the batter, and combine.
9. Add the other half of the flour and fold in.
10. Add the rest of the cider mix and carefully combine, until the mixture is uniformly mixed, but not over-mixed.
11. Pour the mix into the tin.
12. Bake for about an hour, or until risen and firm.
We didn’t visit neighbours and sing to them and their apple trees. Instead we stayed indoors and ate cake and raised our glasses of cider in the direction of our apple trees – the old ones augmented by a crabapple I planted last year and a dwarf apple I planted three years ago, which was a wedding present from my cousin and her husband. Here’s to a good fruit-bearing year! Wassail!*
* Yes, I know I should have posted this on Saturday, but there’s always next year.