I’m making two traditional drinks for the holidays this year: wassail for a gathering and shrub for gifts. Both drinks go way back, how far no one really knows. Wassail was both a drink and an activity, first referenced in the cider-producing parts of England where harvest revelers would dance about sprinkling the trees with a particularly potent vintage so that the next year’s harvest would be abundant: Robert Herrick wrote Wassaile the trees that they may beare / You many a plum and many a peare/For more or lesse fruits they will bring / As you do give them Wassailing in the seventeenth century. At some point, Wassail and Wassailing also came to refer to a more general custom of a drink/drinking to one’s health (the Middle English waes hael roughly translates to “be hale” or “be well”), and more specifically to Christmas cheer and well-wishing: wassailing seems to merge with caroling to create a custom of extending celebratory hospitality to one’s friends and neighbors during the holiday season. The great revival (or creation?) of Christmas traditions in the Victorian era brought forth not only trees but also wassailing; the “traditional” Here We Come a-Wassailing carol that we are all so familiar with actually dates from the mid-nineteenth century.
An English wassail bowl from the later seventeenth century, Victoria & Albert Museum, and a “Merry Christmas” image from the major illustrator of Dickens’ works, Hablot Knight Brown (also know as “Phiz”). Father Christmas holds the wassail cup among other Christmas traditions of “merrie olde England”: plum pudding, roast beef, mistletoe. I’m not sure why so many spirits (“bogies” and the snapdragon) are in the picture, nor do I know what “twelfth cake” is–yet!) British Museum, c. 1860.
It was a bit difficult to narrow down the variant recipes for the wassail drink; they seem to fall into spiced ale, spiced cider, and spiced wine categories with rum even appearing in a few. The most traditional recipes feature stewed and mottled apples and/or eggs to create a thick frothiness that makes the drink resemble “lambswool”, its early designation. I’m not going that route, as I find that texture (and eggs in general) rather repellant. I think I’m going to go for a simple wine and fruit juice recipe from the Williamsburg Cookbook. And sadly, I do not have one of those multi-handled wassail bowls like the one from the V & A above; a simple punchbowl will have to do.
Shrub is probably even more ancient than wassail drinks; it derives from the necessity of preserving fruit long after the harvest over. Fruit is combined first with sugar and then with vinegar to create a syrup that can last indefinitely and mix with anything. My hunch is that shrub was one of those things discovered (or rediscovered) by Europeans as a result of their encounters during and after the Crusades, as its name derives from the Arabic sharab (syrup; drink) and sugar was introduced into the European diet (and consciousness!) at that time too. Refrigeration did away with shrub, but I think it is currently experiencing a revival: there are several commercial manufacturers, including Tait Farm, from which I bought my first bottle. But it’s easy enough to make, and there are 2 major processes: hot and cold. Using heat, you macerate whatever fruit you prefer (berries are best), add sugar and a bit of water, and boil up a syrup. Once it has cooled, you add vinegar–whatever kind you like (I generally use apple cider or some type of flavored vinegar rather than white). Leave it for a while, then strain, and then you have a fermented concoction which you can add to seltzer, lemonade, or alcohol (gin,vodka, and rum all work well with shrub). Without heat, the fruit and sugar combine to create a syrup-like mixture anyway, which you then add to the cider. Shrub is both tart and sweet, and you can keep it in the refrigerator for quite a while. A very pleasant way to drink your vinegar!
Tait Farm shrubs, and two shrub bottle tickets from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London: the silver ticket was made by Elizabeth Morley in London around 1794-95, and the enameled copper ticket dates from 1770.