It’s a Saturday night, and I expect many people are going out to dinner, maybe taking in a club or attending a party where the clink of glasses, muted lighting and soft music creates a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Suckers! WE have driven 2 hours out of London to attend a Wassail ceremony in the village of Bretforton in Gloucestershire.
The ancient art of wassailing generally falls into two categories: house-visiting wassail, or going from house to house singing and demanding food and drink (“We all want some figgy pudding, so bring some out here!”) – which is now more usually practiced as carol singing and trick or treating. The ceremony tonight is of the second category, the orchard-visiting wassail.
The purpose of the ceremony is to sing to awaken the cider apple trees, honour them with offerings and scare away any evil spirits in the area, all to ensure a good crop in the year to come.
“Wassaile the trees, that they may bear
You many a Apple and many a Pear:
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.”
No mobile phone connection in these here parts, so Google Maps fails us as we try to discover the pub. Luckily we spot an eerie figure dressed in leaves, rags and a hat twinkling with lights and we just follow them. As we approach through the unlit streets of the village, we can hear the tinkling of bells and the clack of sticks, and arrive to find the Morris dancers in full swing.
It’s raining. It’s pitch black dark. It’s incredibly cold. There is mud, lots. But everybody is drinking cider, and spirits remain high. The real hip cats are huddling around braziers and rubbing their hands together to keep warm, and I get in on that action.
After the dancers have cut their last caper and shouted their last oi! a barefoot Druid leads us in procession into the orchard, where we form a ring around the oldest apple tree, which has been decked with lights and circled with fire for the occasion.
We sing to praise the trees, then step forward and pour an offering of cider onto the roots for the Apple Tree Man – the ancient tree spirit and guardian of the orchard – and hang toast which has been pierced and threaded with ribbon onto the branches.
Then we are encouraged to make an awful din, to scare away resident evils. Quite therapeutic too, to do a bit of shrieking in a crowd.
A last song, and we are all quite startled when a couple of cannon are fired unexpectedly to make sure any remaining devilish sprites are ousted. A heavy pall of cannon smoke hangs over the orchard now, and everyone troops back to the pub through this ghostly fog.
Now that the next harvest is assured, people get stuck into some of the produce of previous harvests. The thing I find with cider is to seek some middle ground between the original Lamasaghal – drink of the ancients, a dark spiced potion of fermented crab apples, and White Lightning – the traditional drink of the British college student in the 1990’s. White Lightning cider was discontinued by its manufacturers in 2009 due to its brand image problem, having become closely associated with the homeless, impoverished under-age drinkers and anti-social behaviour, like a throwback to the Gin Craze of the 18th Century.
You want to find a happy medium between those two extremes. I tried the local cloudy, orange brew and liked it, although I would have liked it more I think if somebody who shall remain nameless *insert side-eye here* had not accidentally dropped 3 salted peanuts into the glass somehow.
It’s recommended, if you want to try the real local cider (generally known as scrumpy in order to distinguish it from commercially produced ciders. Although now, confusingly, there are several commercially produced versions of “Scrumpy”) to stop off at roadside orchards and pick it up direct from the source. A good sign is if it’s not been professionally packaged, but is instead available in a variety of repurposed wine bottles or cheap plastic jugs. If they let you bring your own old bottles to be filled up, all the better. Make sure you request “sleepy” cider, otherwise shenanigans may ensue as the evening goes on and the levels go down.
If you have sophisticated tastes and consider drinking out of plastic jugs to not be your thing, you may prefer to try this apéritif, which I discovered on a recent trip to France.
This can be made with blackberry, blackcurrant or violet – I prefer the violet option.
L’Héritier-Guyot Crème de Violette is very good, or the Miclo version is excellent for a drier, less sweet option although as it comes in a beautiful bottle hand-painted with violets, you may be loathe to actually open it and drink it. If you happen by a French supermarket, they tend to have options available for about half the price of standard violet liqueurs, as it’s fairly common over there.
A very light, fizzy “champagne” cider should be used for this.
You simply place a shot of your chosen liqueur in a fluted glass, and top up with cider. It’s a refreshing version of classic Kir, which is blackcurrant liqueur topped with white wine, or Kir Royale which uses champagne. The option with apple liqueur Calvados from the same menu also sounds good, and may be a future option for those visiting elderly relatives, as they often have a dusty, sticky bottle of Calvados or similar squirrelled away in a cupboard somewhere which you might be able to convert into a delicious apéritif with the simple addition of cold cider.
But however you like to drink cider, in all its many varieties – at this time of year you may wish to raise a glass and toast:
“Hail thee, old apple tree
That blooms well, bears well
Brings fruit of gold, like those of old
The Garden of Hesperides
Could furnish apples gold as these
So when we drink of cider, hide her
So thieving Perseus, don’t see us”