Lamb’s Wool

Traditional, English.

3 Pint (16.9 oz) Bottles of real Ale (see below)
6 small Cooking Apples (Bramley or Pippin recommended)
1 Fresh Whole Nutmeg, Grated
1 tsp Ground Ginger
5.5 oz (weight) Brown Sugar (Demerara) plus extra

Preheat oven to 275°
Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and place washed, cored apples on sheet about 2 inches apart
Bake for 1 Hour

When apples are close to finishing, add the 5.5 oz of sugar to a sauce pan
Cover sugar with a small amount of ale
Heat over medium-low and stir until all the sugar has dissolved
Slowly add in remaining ale, stir, and keep pot on low simmer

When apples are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for 10 minutes
Remove all the peel from the apples and discard the peel
Mash apples into a fine puree
Add nutmeg, ginger, and a small amount of sugar (to taste) to the apples, mix

Whisk apple puree into warm ale until combined
Loosely cover drink and let simmer for approx. 30 mins
Serve hot in preheated mugs

To make traditional “Wassail”, substitute apple cider for the ale

* * *

Women, wine, and wassail, all to be had for little but the asking.
–  Sir Walter Scott

We just don’t celebrate Christmas like they used to.  Take, for instance, the practice of wassailing.  The young maidens of a village dressed up in their finest and went from house to house with a bowl of spiced ale, singing “Wassail, wassail all over the town, Our toast is white, our ale is brown”.  Sounds fabulous, so can someone tell me why we lost this tradition?  Really, I’d like to know, because I, for one, am up for a little wassailing this year.  Now, what exactly is this magical time of frolic and frivolity?  Funny you should ask, because that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you.

In order to understand the concept of wassailing , we first have to put aside Christian Christmas for a moment and embrace the pagan. Pagan because the holiday season has its roots in the celebration of the solar cycle – the end of one year and the beginning of the next – as well as the cycles of agriculture.  December 21st or 22nd marks winter solstice, and since just after the dawn of man, it’s been a time of year marked by heavy celebration.  The Romans had their festival of Saturnalia, a celebration of fertility, feasting, drinking, and all around good times.  When Christmas came into the picture (roughly in the 4th century), it joined the older traditions, and we got the 12 days of Christmastide – not the days leading up to the big Noël, but rather the 12 days starting with Christmas and ending with Twelfth Night (January 5th or 6th), which marks the coming of Epiphany.   And although Twelfth Night is a Christian holiday, its roots actually go back to Saturnalia and paganism – and, of course, wassailing.

Unraveling how and when wassailing began proves to be a bit of an onion – for each reference found, there is still an earlier reference.  The Oxford English Dictionary postulates that the terms “wassail” (meaning “be in good health”) and its companion response “drinkhail” (“drink in good health”) most likely originated with early Dutch-speaking inhabitants of England.  By the 12th century, wassailing was common enough to be considered emblematic of Englishmen, although not always in a good way.  In his 1190 poem Speculum Stultorm , Nigellus Wireler tells us that (translation here) “English students at the University of Paris are praised for generosity and other virtues, but are said to be too much addicted to wessail and dringail .”

Literary references to wassail abound – from early medieval poetry to Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, anyone?) and, of course, Sir Walter Scott, whose writing set the stage for much of the modern wassailing traditions.   But we still need to answer the question:  what the heck is wassailing?  The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore tells us that wassailing consists of two distinct traditions:  house-visiting and field-visiting.  In house-visiting, we have the pretty maidens skipping around the village with the big bowls of spiced ale.  As for field-visiting, we’ll let the Oxford speak for itself:

“The second form of wassailing was much more of a man’s custom … [it] involved visiting the local orchards and wassailing the trees to encourage a good crop in the coming year. Songs would be sung, the trunks beaten with sticks or splashed with cider, cider soaked toast might be laid at the roots or placed in the branches …. [the men would sing] “Here stands a good apple tree, stand fast root, Every little twig bear an apple big, Hats full, caps full, and three score sacks full, Hip! Hip! Hurrah!”

As time progressed, however, America forgot about Twelfth Night (our forefathers celebrated it) and “wassail” became an all-encompassing term for the various activities once associated with it:  the greeting of “Wassail!”, the physical practice of wassailing, and of course the drink Wassail, which is how we have come to think of the term in modern times.  Chiefly, when we make Wassail today, it is with apple cider (as Oxford notes above), which is quite a fine idea.  But here, we’re going to explore that lass-delivered, spiced ale version of yore – which was Lamb’s Wool.

Let’s visit the year 1657 for a moment — specifically a passage from Laurence Price’s “Christmas Book”, in which we are given a window into the festivities of the season, as they were:  “After dinner we rose from the boord and sate by the fire, where the harth was embroidered all over with roasted apples, piping hot, expecting a bole of ale for a cooler, which immediately was transformed in to Lamb-wool.” And that, my friends, is Lamb’s Wool — warmed ale, roasted apples, and a few spices.  Over the centuries the recipe really hasn’t changed.  Richard Cook’s “Oxford Night Caps” of 1835 contains a Lamb’s Wool which mirrors Price’s (not being an Oxford drink, Lamb’s Wool is overlooked in Cook’s 1827 edition, although he does include a Wassail Bowl – all the rage at Oxford at the time, it seems).  Cook’s 1835 recipe appeared as follows:

“Mix the pulp of half a dozen roasted apples with some raw sugar, a grated nutmeg, and a small quantity of ginger. Add one quart of strong ale made moderately warm. Stir the whole well together, and, if sweet enough, it is fit for use.”

Fortunately, the good folks at Historical Foods (a brilliant site) have brought the recipe to modern measurements, and it’s these that we used as the basis for constructing our Lamb’s Wool, although I did go back to Cook on some points.

Now, the name.  Why Lamb’s Wool?  Prevailing wisdom tells us that the term comes from the appearance of the drink.  The apple pulp floats to the top and forms a fluffy-looking cushion, not unlike the wool of a lamb.  I can attest that this is correct – it does indeed look like that.  Cook, however, begs to differ:

“Formerly the first day of November was dedicated to the Angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was therefore named La mas ubal, that is, The day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool, our country people have corrupted it to Lambs Wool.”

Which makes perfect sense – what with all this wassail business of field-visiting and pouring cider/ale on apple trees.

If you have a taste for the ancient – especially if you’re a beer or cider lover – you really must give Lamb’s Wool a spin.  Despite all the detailed steps above, it’s simple to throw together, and as Cook tells us, as long as it’s sweet enough, “it is fit for use.”  For the apples, most modern recipes (being UK originated) suggest Bramleys, an English cooking apple.  I had the most success with Pippins.  One step I took, which both improved the final product and made it a good deal easier to make, was to rice the baked apples, skins and all, in a potato ricer (the skins will separate and remain behind) just as they came out of the oven.  Taking Cook’s advice over Historical Foods’ recipe, I added the spices to the apple rather than to the ale, and I let the whole mixture simmer for about half an hour.  Because the rules for a successful Lamb’s Wool are pretty open to interpretation, feel free to experiment.  Personally, I like the recipe as we’ve provided it here – the ale and the apples are both forward with the sugar and spices providing accents, especially the ginger.

As for the ale, you want “real ale”, as noted above.  If you’re not familiar, real ale is the term coined by England’s Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer action group formed in 1971 for the sole purpose of returning England to producing proper ales and ciders.  Rather than go off on the subject of real ale, I’ll simply refer you here and say that we used Fuller’s London Pride with great results.  The Historical Foods site has other suggestions as well, but just avoid lagers and the like.

So what say ye?  Frolicking maidens with free-flowing bowls of ale?  Celebrations that encourage feasting and drinking?  Communing with our apple brethren and wishing them well?  Now, that sounds like a Christmas I can get behind.  I say it’s high time we bring back Twelfth Night, wassailing, and a proper bowl of Lamb’s Wool.  In fact, I think I’ll start right now.


Esotericae: The term “yuletide” refers to the period of time (“tide”) covering the Old Norse festival of “jol”, roughly December  and January.  When Christianity incorporated the old holidays into its own, “jol” (pronounced “yool”) came to be associated with Christmas.  And, to be full of the Christmas spirits was to be “jol-ly”.

George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night in 1759.


4 responses to “Lamb’s Wool

  1. Yum! This one sounds worth the work 🙂

  2. This recipe is perfect for my holiday contest to win a Foodista cookbook! It’s not too late to enter. Share your delicious holiday cheer with more cocktail-lovers! Would love for you to win 🙂

  3. This is an awesome post! I have been somewhat obsessed with wassailing this year, namely the song and traditions behind it. I have been searching for the song for my iPod and have discovered that it is somewhat neglected in the realm of Christmas tunes. I’ve found some instrumentals and have come across “Here we come a-carolling” but not much in the way of wassailing. Thanks for the great, informative post and I now have drink number 2 to try from your site. My teetotaling days may be numbered.

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