Wednesday, November 09, 2005

All Hail the apple trees.

Today, November 9th …

It was probably a bitterly cold night when Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary for this day in 1666: “Being come home, we to Cards till 2 in the morning; and drinking lamb’s-wool, to bed.”

“Lamb’s wool” is a drink made from hot, sweet, spiced ale mixed with the pulp of roasted apples. The ale would have been sweeter than we are used to today, as it was brewed without the hops which made it bitter but improved its keeping qualities – the brew that we now call “beer”. It was a traditional drink at Hallowe’en, which occurred during the harvest season, and at Twelfth night, when it was used to “wassail” or toast the orchard fruit trees to encourage a good new crop.

Why the name? You can take your pick of the two most popular explanations. The name may be derived from La Maes Abhal, a pagan celebration of the apple harvest, or it may simply be that the hot, fluffy roasted apple pulp floating on the top of the drink looked like lamb’s wool. Probably of course it is a happy symmetry of both ideas.

Mrs Beeton seems oddly confused over lamb’s wool. She refers to it as an old English beverage, but then goes on to give the recipe for a French version made from wine, which she likens to marmalade!

“ … is made by boiling any given quantity of new wine, skimming it as often as fresh scum rises, and, when it is boiled to half its bulk, straining it. To this apples, pared and cut into quarters, are added; the whole is then allowed to simmer gently, stirring it all the time with a long wooden spoon, till the apples are thoroughly mixed with the liquor, and the whole forms a species of marmalade, which is extremely agreeable to the taste, having a slight flavour of acidity, like lemon mixed with honey”

A far more authentic version is by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), from his “Twelfth Night”, with the added bonus is that it is poetic.

"Next crowne the bowle fullWith gentle lamb's wooll;Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger'With store of ale too;And thus ye must doeTo make a Wassaile a swinger."

Tomorrow … A taste of France, or is it Italy?…

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