Wassailing. The name appears often this time of year, spoken in songs, or referenced in stories. But what exactly is it and where did it come from? There are a lot of good articles online about its history, but in case you aren’t familiar, here is a brief overview:
According to the UK National Trust, the wassailing tradition has been around for centuries. It is particularly associated with the Twelfth Night, which is January 5th, and marks the eve of the Epiphany in Christianity.
The practice of wassailing was really context-specific, and very much down to where you lived; essentially though, people travelled to orchards, sang songs, made merry and drank some beverages involving apples.
Wassailing was not limited to England. In Wales, for example, Iorwerth Peate tells us that one of the songs performed by those who walked with the Mari Lwyd was ‘Sing Gwassaila’, which as you can guess is a wassailing song. So the wassailing custom was part and parcel of the tradition of the Mari Lwyd in South Wales.
Some versions of the tradition are known as apple howling, which is probably one of the most metal names I have ever heard. Excellent band name tbh. Regardless of exactly how people celebrated wassailing specifically, one thing does seem to often remain at the centre of these traditions- that is the alcoholic beverages. My favourite.
So what exactly do we drink? We drink Lambswool or Lamb’s Wool. No, not the actual fuzzy stuff from the adorable creature better known for making sweaters. Nay. It’s a beverage made from ale, spices, sugar, and roasted apples. Some recipes also call for cream, eggs, or both.
Robert Herrick was a poet in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He makes mention of wassailing a few times in his writings. In ‘The Country Life’ and ‘A New Year’s Gift Sent to Sir Simeon Steward’, he specifically names the wassail bowl. In another, he calls for his wassail bowls to be spiced to the brink. He even had an entire poem called ‘The Wassail’ which is a series of well wishes for people,
−−Alas! we bless, but see none here, That brings us either ale or beer; In a dry−house all things are near.
Among his many poems he makes mention of our drink of Lambs Wool for wassailing:
Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool :
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too ;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.
The famous Samuel Pepy’s wrote a diary entry on Friday, November 9th, 1666 that mentioned drinking lambs-wool and staying up all night playing cards. Sounds like a fun night out.
For the following recipes, I will say I was not always able to get my hands on the primary sources themselves, so we are using secondary works. That said, the base concept of the Lamb’s Wool drink seems pretty consistent. Thomas G. Crippen in his Christmas and Christmas Lore, apparently tracked down a 17th-century recipe from England’s Royal Kitchens:
Set ale on the fire to warm, boil a quart of cream with two or three whole cloves, add the beaten yolks of three or four eggs, stir all together, and pour into the ale: add sops or sippets of fine Manchet or French bread; put them in a basin, and pour on the warm mixture, with some sugar and thick cream on that; stick it well with blanched almonds, and cast on cinnamon, ginger, and sugar, or wafers and comfits
There are a metric ton of wassail and Lambswool recipes out there from many different centuries. A quick glance at this website shows some 12 or 13 recipes, but the key ingredients often remain the same, apples, ale, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, ginger. So. Here’s another lamb’s wool recipe from that website dating to 1633:
“Boil three pints of ale; – beat six eggs, the whites and yolks together; set both to the fire in a pewter pot; add roasted apples, sugar, beaten nutmegs, cloves and ginger; and, being well brewed, drink it while hot.”
-Royal Household of 1633
So how am I going to do this? I’m going to aim for some version of these 17th-century ones, and I might add a bit of cream/eggs/cream to one and leave the other one without the cream, for science. So, here’s what I came up with.
- Peel and core your apples and roast them. I recommend going less sweet on the apple spectrum because of the malt and sugar. Granny Smith apples might be perfect. You need at least two apples per pint of beer.
- Stick them on a pan and roast them until well cooked and slightly golden. Approximately 20 minutes at 180. You can add some sugar and spices to roast your apples, or not. Your call.
- Once apples are done, remove and set aside.
- In a pot, bring ale to just below boiling, don’t heat too high or you’ll get rid of that sweet, sweet alcohol.
- Mix in nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sugar. This is entirely to taste, so anywhere from 25-30 grams of sugar per pint, or more, if you like it sweeter but do remember the apples and malt are already there. I also opted for some light brown sugar as I thought it would play nicely with the apples.
- OPTIONAL: In a separate bowl mix 2 eggs with 78ml cream per pint of ale together. Whisk together and add to your ale mixture.
- Stir and heat together mixing well.
- Add the apples and smash them up into the drink, some people use a hand blender but you can just mash them.
Thoughts: I made three versions of this. One with cream and eggs, one with eggs, and one without either. My favourite was the version like Robert Herrick mentioned without the cream and eggs. Here the drink was full of lovely tart apples with lots of spice to balance, the beer add hints of malt, but the apples and spice dominated. I enjoyed this. The egg version added a little more body to the drink, but I found it didn’t really need that with the mashed-up apples. The cream version was also okay, but I thought it turned the whole thing into a dessert in a glass, instead of something a wee bit more sessionable. It was quite heavy, as you would expect. Beers recommended for this drink: British mild, or something in the German Dunkel range; you could even go for a barley wine actually, I think that would stand up with the apples and spices. Overall, it was a really fun recipe to try and I definitely favoured the non-cream version.
 Iorwerth C. Peate, ‘A Welsh Wassail-Bowl with a Note on the Mari Lwyd, in Man
Vol. 35 (Jun., 1935), pp. 81.
 Peate, ‘Welsh’, p. 83.
 https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Lamb%27s+Wool cf Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. P. 101.
2 thoughts on “‘Here We Come A Wassailing’: My versions of a 17th-century Lambs Wool”
Fascinating stuff – I’d seen a number of references to lamb’s wool, but could never work out what it was!
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