Learn the history of some of your fave yuletide tipples
It isn’t truly Christmas until you’ve indulged in your first steaming cup of mulled wine or cider. But have you ever thought about the history behind some of your favourite yuletide drinks?
*First published in Crumbs Magazine Devon Christmas 2017*
Mulling over tradition
For decades, mulled wine has been brightening our Decembers and facilitating conversation with our in-laws. But it may surprise you to learn that this decidedly festive drink predates Christmas altogether.
The Ancient Greeks adored their wine. So much so, they sought to rescue failed harvests by heating up their subpar wine and adding ample spices. It was thought that by doing so, they could mask spoiled flavours and improve weak vintages. The resulting drink was named ‘hippocras,’ after the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates.
Given their penchant for appropriation, the Romans later created their own variation of spiced wine, named Conditum Paradoxum. The practice of ‘mulling’ wine proved to be highly popular during winter months and the tradition spread throughout Rome’s extensive empire.
In England, mulled wine really took off during the Middle Ages, when it was believed that adding spices to our dreadful wines would improve the taste, as well as one’s health. The first documented usage of the term ‘mull’ was in 1618, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that the drink gained its festive associations. In his classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens included a passage in which he referred to Smoking Bishop – a popular mulled wine – and from henceforth the drink became an essential element in Yuletide celebrations.
Today you needn’t mull your own wine in order to get merry at Christmas. Devon winery’s like Lyme Bay do all the hard work for you by selling premade bottles of the stuff straight off the shelf. All you need to do is heat it up and add your own fruit slices should you wish!
Lyme Bay Winery Mulled Wine, £8.49/75cl bottle; available from independent retailers across Devon;lymebaywinery.co.uk
Wassail’s the word
There’s a chance you’ve already heard of the traditional wassail. But for those unfamiliar with this unusual sounding drink, imagine a sort of strong mulled cider. The word ‘wassail’ originates from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which roughly translates ‘good health’. The beverage itself was traditionally drunk as part of Apple Wassailing – a drinking ritual that was popular throughout the West Country during the Middle Ages, intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.
Much like modern day carollers, on Twelfth Night wassailers would grab their communal ‘wassail bowl’ and do one of two things: either go from door to door, offering a cup of wassail in exchange for gifts; or visit the orchard, where they would sing to the trees and pour wassail onto their roots. Many of the most famous wassailing ceremonies took place throughout Devon, particularly in the East Devon town of Whimple and paved the way for many of the seasonal activities we enjoy today.
Wassail itself has undergone many transformations over the years, having slowly become more and more affiliated with Christmas. Early versions of the drink included warmed mead, into which roasted crab apples were dropped. It was also recorded as a hard cider, containing eggs, sugar-roasted apples, brandy, and sweet spices. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find many differences between wassail and a strong mulled cider. However, one consistent feature is the presence of a large communal ‘wassailing bowl’, from which the apple punch is shared. So, don’t be shy when it comes to passing around the cider this Christmas – sharing is caring after all!
Ashridge Mulled Cider, £4/75cl bottle; available at Mole Valley Farmers, Ben’s Farm Shop, Chandos Delis, Darts Farm and The Happy Apple in Totnes, and more; ashridgecider.co.uk
Don’t nog it till you’ve tried it!
Eggnog is the festive equivalent of Marmite: you either love it or you hate it. This potent combo of cream and spiked egg yolks has been dividing opinion for almost a millennia and most culinary historians believe that it is derived from an early medieval drink called ‘posset’.
Posset was a hot, milky ale that was all the rage with 13th century monks. It was frequently consumed with figs and eggs, until the wealthy upper-classes caught on and started spiking it with sherry. The drink we know today hasn’t changed too much and as far as we know, the etymology of Eggnog coming from the use of eggs (obviously) and the word ‘noggin’ in reference to a small wooden mug.
We can thank our friends across the pond for the drink’s festive connotations. During the 18th century, the drink was gaining widespread popularity among American colonists; whose easy access to cows and chickens meant they had all the necessary ingredients at their fingertips. Since sherry was hard to come by, they began to whip up their eggnog with inexpensive whiskies and eventually rum, which was traded from the nearby Caribbean. By the turn of the 19th century, the drink had developed from a warming wintertime tipple to a full-on Christmastime treat in most households.
The Americans loved the drink so much that it even caused The Eggnog Riot in 1826. The riot took place on Christmas Eve in a New York Military Academy, where the consumption of alcohol was prohibited. By the time the Christmas party rolled around, a particularly potent strain of eggnog was served up and let’s just say that the results were precisely what you’d expect… The pursing chaos didn’t’ conclude until Christmas morning and led to the expulsion of 19 cadets!