Sunday, November 27, 2011

Great Lakes Wassail

Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th'old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.

18th Century British farmers toasted the good health of apple trees to promote an abundant crop the next year. Cider-soaked bread was placed in the branches to ward off evil spirits. Villagers splashed the trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans. 

Wassail, a tradition that dates back over a thousand years, is a potent libation of spiced wine or ale served from a wassail bowl that is typically served with rings of lemons and oranges. As a salute, "Wassail" appears in English literature as early as the eighth-century poem, Beowulf.  The anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, makes mention of this early concoction, and Shakespeare alludes to a form of wassail, Lamb's Wool, which was an ale or dark beer whipped to form a surface froth in which floated roasted crab apples, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:

The story of toasting 'wassail' begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute 'Was hail.'

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said "Lavert King, was hail!" When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. "She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'" Vortigern immediately said the words "drinc hail" and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says "was hail" and he who drinks next says "drinc hail." 

The necessity of importing the wine and such spices as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg from outside England made wassail rare and was reserved for the wealthy. When fine ales replaced the wine, more people could afford it, and recipes varied according to the means of each family.  The practice of floating crisps of bread in the wassail bowl gave rise to our use of "toast" as a drinking salutation.

We toast to our Michigan crops by creating the Great Lakes Wassail, using a sweet red Michigan wine and Journeyman Distillery's Road's End Rum and brandy.

Great Lakes Wassail 
1 bottle of sweet red Michigan wine
1/2 bottle of Journeyman Distillery's Road's End Rum
1/2 bottle of brandy
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cloves
6 allspice berries
3 inch stick cinnamon
1 cup superfine sugar
1/2 cup water

Combine the Wine, brandy, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, sugar and water in a large, heavy saucepan (without letting the mixture come to a boil). 

Strain the wine mixture, add the rum, and pour into a metal punch bowl. 

Serve in 8-ounce mugs or punch cups.

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