Advent 19: Mummers, Wassailers and Yulesingers

Blessing the orchard at Manor Farm Country Park, Southampton
Blessing the orchard at Manor Farm Country Park, Southampton

Wassailing, an ancient custom from Saxon times to give blessings of good health over the twelve days of Christmas, is making something of a come-back.

Traditionally, livestock, crops and farm machinery were blessed as well as people. Blessings were taken from door to door. In Scotland and the North of England this is known as First Footing in the New Year.  The Lord of the Manor would give food (figgy pudding) and drink to peasants who worked on his estate in exchange for their blessing and goodwill.

Toasting the apple tree in the literal sense
Toasting the apple tree in the literal sense

P1130610This was the forerunner of carolling – considered too rowdy to be done in church and also the forerunner of trick-or-treating in America, as Halloween was the original New Year’s Eve in the Celtic calendar.

“Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too;

And God bless you and send you

a Happy New Year”

Another example of a carol originating from wassail is “We wish you a Merry Christmas” (see Advent 15)

In the Southern shires of England – apple wassail blessings were to ensure a good crop for cider, especially in Kent which produces the best apples for commercial cider, and in the south-west for Scrumpy.   English writer Thomas Hardy wrote about wassailing in his books and short stories set in Dorset ensuring that the custom has never died out there. The proceedings for apple wassailing are led by a Wassail King through the orchard, toasting trees and pouring cider on the roots:

p1100943 Hampshire Wassail Rhyme:

Stand fast root, bear well top.

Pray God send us a good howling crop

Every twig, apples big. Every bough, apples enow.

Hats full, caps full, Tall quarter, sacks full.

Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

Cider is drunk, songs are sung and drums, sticks, rattles and bells are beaten to drive away bad spirits and encourage the trees to give a good harvest.

Mummers play with St George and Olde Father Christmas
Mummers play with St George and Olde Father Christmas

Mummers plays, about the Good fighting off Evil, are often performed at apple wassails too. These were known throughout the UK and Ireland and were even taken to Newfoundland with The Pilgrim Fathers. Though kept in much of Wales, the festivals elsewhere gave way to Morris dancing in England, sword dancing in Scotland and pantomime (see Advent 8) just about everywhere. Raggedy characters (literally in costumes made from rags) introduce themselves in rhyming couplets:

Policeman Plod: ‘Ello, ‘ello, ello. In comes I, Policeman Plod.

Jack the Sniffer: You’ll never catch me you silly old sod. (He exits)

Betty Bertha: He’s gone off and scarpered all hurt and affronted 

You’ve poked your nose in where it’s not wanted.

Mummer-characters have been Christian crusaders versus Moors, St George (Prince George or King George) and the Dragon, Beelzebub, Dracula, Robin Hood and the Sherif. But secondary characters kept in these plays included Olde Father Christmas and The Fool. These were obviously continued in our pantomimes.

Dipping toast in the wassail bowl to put on apple tree branches at Manor Farm

Wassail also refers to the spiced-cider punch in the wassail-bowl. There are many recipes, which you can find online, but I use beer (left-over and flat) along with fizzy cider and a small cup of brandy in a slow-cooker. Throw in some brown sugar, the juice and rind of a clementine or two, a squirt of lemon, some apples quartered (pips & stalk removed) and Christmas spices such as ginger, cloves, cardamom and a few sticks of cinnamon. It makes the house smell lovely and is a warm welcome for guests coming in from the cold.

All photos © Southampton Old Lady

English Bramley Apples



This time of year, my friend invites us to visit her garden and collect the excess of Bramley Apples (they tend remain green in the North) from her grand tree. Bees adore its blooms. When I lived abroad this was the ingredient from home that I missed the most. An exceptionally large, tart cooking apple that has a wonderful texture when hot.

The original Bramley Apple Tree was planted in Southwell, Nottinghamshire by a girl called Mary Ann Brailsford in 1809. It was a fluke of nature. The Bramley Apple cannot be cultivated from its pips. All strains of the tree throughout the United Kingdom, come from the mother tree.

That very tree today, over two centuries later, with its own blue plaque and visitors’ book of dedications from all over the globe, is dying from a fungal infection. It is very sad.

Fortunately the University of Nottingham has enough of its offspring to continue the culture. Attempts have been made to grow them in other continents, but unfortunately they do not last long and fruit tends to be more sparse and small.

There are many websites dedicated to the English Bramley Apple, complete with recipes: puddings, pies, crumbles, dumplings, tarts, sauces and stews. It is often mixed with another English apple – the Cox’s Orange Pippin – in equal parts to make the perfect accompaniment to roast pork.

apple dumplingRecipe

One dish that has been handed down to me (which our family referred to as Dorset Dumplings) was to core, but not peel, an apple for each person. Dry and butter the skins. Sit each apple on its own disc of pastry (puff or short-crust). Cram as many chopped or small mixed dried fruits into the cored centre. Then pour honey or golden-syrup into any spaces of the dried fruits. Wrap the apple in the pastry by either folding it over the top and sticking it down with a brush of water,  or rolled quickly with the hands so that it resembles a ball.

Place the apple balls onto a greased and floured metal tray, then sprinkle with plenty of sugar before baking them in a hot oven for 15-25 minutes or until brown.

Serve with thick cream, vanilla ice cream or English custard.

They look like they are going to be too big to eat, but are surprisingly light (it is mainly apple after all) and are popular with children, who love the shape and the sweet-and-sour taste, without them realising they are getting essential vitamins.


English Place Names

Anglophenia is a funny series of YouTube shorts for Americans who visit England.
Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce complete with the Royal Seal of Approval.

One of the ways we can tell if someone was brought up in a local area of England is the way that they pronounce place names. They often sound nothing like they are spelled. I follow a blog called Travel Much by Olive Ole who often gives some wonderful recipes from Norway. The latest being her home-made burgers (to die for) using Worcestershire Sauce (click HERE for Wiki origins). I have always been led to believe that Worcestershire Sauce originated in Bengal, India and it was brought back to Worcestershire in England and enhanced by two chemists Lea & Perrins. I make my own version and call mine Elephant Sauce (a family joke).

After informing Olive Ole of how impressed I was after making her recipe, this funny conversation took place:

Olive Ole: Oh maybe you can help resolve the argument I have with Sir Nerdalot at the moment. He claims that Worchestershire sauce is pronounced Woster sauce! How dum is that! If they want it pronounced as Woster, then they should spell it that way! I say it like Wor-Chester-Shire-Sauce, and the Nerd giggles!

My own version Elephant Sauce

SOL: He is right I am afraid. UK English has a number of names like that. Magdalene College in Oxford is pronounced «Maudlin College» It was a popular way to catch out spies during WW2.

Olive Ole: Noooooooooo! Ah! The teasing will be endless! Or I could just not admit to him that he was right! Yup, that is my best option!

(after this I accidentally posted this reply to Poet Rummager – another interesting blogger I follow, instead of to Olive Ole)

SOL: Further to the Woster confusion – this you tube lesson may be of interest: (this is a hilarious YouTube post about pronouncing British Place names by Anglophenia – if you click this it will help understand how different place names can sound from how they are spelled)

Poet Rummager: That was hilarious! I got, maybe, 2 right!! Wow, go me. Thanks for the link — I feel so stupid now. Haha! How do you pronounce Southampton? I bet I’ve been saying it wrong all this time. Wanna bet??

SOL: I am going to have to do a blog about this – it has made me laugh so much. Southampton is as it looks. For nearly every town or village older than 1776 in England, there is a town or village of that name (some with the additional New in front) in North America and many of those names also in Australia, as it referred to where those people (colonists) settled from. Many WordPress visitors first think I am from Southampton, Suffolk County, New York. (There’s 3 places from England) There are also Southamptons or South Hamptons in Pennsylvania, California and Ontario. They all sound the same with a soft ‘p’.

Olive Ole replied to your comment  ‘I am going to have to do a post about this – it’s so funny’. Haha! Looking forward to read it (but wont show it to hubby)

(Then after I sent the original reply to Olive Ole):

Olive Ole: hahahaha love the link! And although I am not American, I would say most of those names fairly similar to the american…


Let us not even begin to get into long Welsh names or those from the rest of the UK.

But my question today is: Are there any English place names that you discovered you have been pronouncing differently?

English Christmas Cake – Adaptable 6-stage Recipe

Southampton Old Lady’s Spicy Christmas Cake Recipe using chilli-powder 

Stage 6 - Icing
Stage 6 – Icing

– My Tradition and My Recipe

I always start preparations for the Christmas cake at the end of Summer.  I bake it on the first cold evening of Autumn so that it gives out wonderful smells and warms up the whole house while it bakes in a long slow oven.

I learned at school how to make Christmas cake at the age of 13. I have made one nearly every year since. I always kept the same basic recipe but often replaced some of the basics with the local ingredients according to the Country I was in. I have raised various types of poultry in my time and have used a variety of eggs.

In the past I have used Malaga raisins and almonds from the vineyard I once owned. (Those were the days). I get the whole family involved; cracking and chopping nuts and taking turns to stir the cake mixture. This helps makes it special. Other constituents that I have replaced traditional ingedients with at times were: dried pineapple, mango and ginger instead of candied peel and glace cherries, semolina in place of flour; pepper, Chinese 5-spice, Arab coffee spices or Indian Masala tea spices – all in place of mixed spice – and for the last 10 years I have gradually increased the amount of chilli powder (so warming). I also replace a spoonful or two of flour with sieved cocoa powder, which makes it very dark. I always use brandy. I have tried other liquors but have found none as good. If you do not want to use alcohol you can use undiluted orange squash or a syrup. My advice for fruit cake bakers is not to include anything that you or your household cannot abide, nor anything green (my daughter tried mint leaves once – it was like tough spinach) but whatever you use, always keep the weights and measures balanced perfectly.

British friends living abroad have asked me to email my Christmas cake recipe, so as I thought I would post it on my blog. It can be for any celebration, not just Christmas, but it takes a few months at least to mature. If you are an absolute beginner, I thoroughly recommend Delia Smith’s version (find her online). She is a queen of English food for beginners – explaining all the details so well that her recipes just always work!  I have stopped icing my cakes and just make decorations with marzipan, sprinkle it with icing sugar, then pop it under a hot grill for a few minutes. But if you love icing – you go ahead…

My gals
My gals

We begin eating our cake on the 1st of December. There are so many festivities in England throughout that month, that a thick slice makes good all-round sustinance for all that rushing around and ensures vital vitimins to ward off winter colds before the big day. Besides there is too much to eat over Christmas itself and who doesn’t get tired of Christmas cake in January? I buy reduced-priced dried fruits after Christmas, as those that have been left around for ages often turn out better! The cake itself, without marzipan and icing, will mature and last at least a year if kept well-wrapped and in an air-tight tin.

THE RECIPE in 6 Stages

Stage 1  Ingredients  For a deep 8” wide (20 cm) cake

1 lb 12oz (800g) mixed dried fruits (currants, sultanas and raisins are traditional but whatever you use, chop them all up to the size of a sultana.
2 oz (50g) homemade candied peel
(or use shop-bought or marmalade)                                   

2 oz (50g) candied ginger, chopped (traditionally glace cherries are used or you can use whole dried cranberries)

Grated rind of 1 x small orange and 1 x lemon
4 tbsp brandy
+ any extra for testing the quality!

Method: Mix all the ingredients above in a bowl, cover and leave for at least 12 hours – it is safe to leave them for about a week. Give them another stir if you happen to pass by and then again before the next stage.

Stage 2 Ingredients

Stage 2 - Mixing
Stage 2 – Mixing

8 oz (225g) butter
8 oz (225g) soft brown sugar 

8 oz (225g) plain flour (add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the flour if butter is unsalted)

1 heaped teaspoonful of cocoa powder (optional).

1 level teaspoonful of ground mixed spices (traditionally grated nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger are used – here I include crushed cardomom and chilli powder in addition.
5 x medium sized hens’ eggs (or 3 duck eggs, 6 bantom eggs, or 12 quails eggs – yes I’ve used them all before).
2 oz (50g) chopped hazelnuts (or leave a handful whole for a lovely shape when cake is sliced – or other mixed unsalted nuts – traditionally ground and chopped almonds are used)

1 tablespoonful of Treacle or Molasses

Method: Pass the flour, spices, (+ cocoa powder and salt if using) into through a sieve into a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together using a the back of a large wooden spoon. This is the most important part of the cake making as it gets air into the cake and will stop any fruit sinking to the bottom. I do this while watching television and find it therapeutic (use an electric mixer if you find this bit boring). The final mixture should resemble coffee ice cream.

In a separate small bowl or jug, break in the eggs discarding the shells. Mix them together thoroughly, adding them, a drizzle at a time, to the sweet butter-cream mixture. If the mix curdles slightly, mix in a teaspoon or two of the flour.

With a palette knife or large metal spoon, fold in (cutting and folding, not mixing) the dried fruit mix, nuts and treacle or molasses to the flour mix.

Cover and leave for up to one week or continue immediately to the next stage, for which you will need around 5 hours.

Stage 3 Materials

Stage 3 - Preparing the cake tin
Stage 3 – Preparing the cake tin

8” (20 cms) deep springform/loose bottomed round cake tin

Roll of grease proof/baking paper

Scissors, cake scraper, egg cup

2 sheets of clean newspaper

A piece of string to tie around the tin (cotton gardeners-type, not of man-made fabric).

Preheat the oven to gas mark 1, 275ºF or 140ºC with the baking shelf in the lower half of oven.

Stage 3 - Preparing the cake for the oven
Stage 3 – Preparing the cake for the oven

Method: Take time to line the cake tin with a double layer of the baking paper as follows: Cut 4 rounds from the baking paper the size of the bottom of the tin when loose. In 2 of these four of discs, cut holes in the centre the size of an egg cup, these will go on top of the mixture to prevent a crust. Cut a few strips more of the baking paper to fit 1” below and 1-2” above the height of the cake tin and enough to go around twice. Place the strips inside the tin with overlaps. Place the bottom of the tin in place and cover with two complete rounds.

Then cover the bottom and sides outside of the tin with a double layer of newspaper and tie it with the string (make double sure the string has no natural fibres or it they will melt). The newspaper should stand up to 2” above the line of the cake tin, snip off any corners. The baked newspaper smells good and stops the cake from burning or leaking out. There is no need to grease and flour the lining.

Stage 3
Stage 3 Make an even dip in the mixture before placing the last 2 baking discs on top.

This is where you could get your household to give the cake mixture a stir for good luck, then spoon the mixture carefully and evenly into the tin, using a cake scraper to get the last out of the bowl. Make an even dip in the mixture (this should level out once it has risen). Place the two discs of baking paper with holes on the top and place it on the baking shelf

Stage 4 - Wrap it in an air tight tin
Stage 4 – Wrap it in an air tight tin
Write the times down
Write the times down

Bake the cake for 4 1/2 hours, give or take 30 minutes. Do not open the over door for at least 4 hours! Write the time down and after 4 hours have gone, you can take the top discs off and test the cake with a skewer. If it comes away clean, it is ready, if not test again at 4 1/2 hours, then after 5 hours. Remove the cake from the heat and let it cool in its tin with all the papers on it until the morning.

Stage 4 - Feeding with brandy each week
Stage 4 – Feeding with brandy each week

Stage 4 – Feeding

Remove the cake from the tin, but still leave it in still in its baking paper, in foil or cling-film and leave in a cool place.  Pierce the underside of the cake with a metal skewer several times, then spoon over a little brandy. It will soon disappear into the cake. Wrap it up and set it aside. Turn and feed it each week until you are ready to put marzipan on it. Go to the next stage nearer to the time it will be displayed or eaten.

marzipan on cakeStage 5 – Marzipan

400g packet of Marzipan (2x if covering the sides)

1 x small jar of apricot jam (use any sharp clear jam – apricot is traditional)

Method: Scrape off the top of the cake to level it with a bread knife. Using a pallete knife or a pastry brush, spread the top (and sides if you are icing these too) with a thin layer of warm jam.  Roll out the marzipan, scoop it up with the rolling pin to lay it over the cake. (I use a Christmas or a star-shaped cutter and remove 3 shapes from the rolled marzipan before hand). Press the marzipan down on the sides of the cake until you are satisfied that it is all covered. I place the cut shapes on other parts of the cake, sprinkle with icing sugar then place this under a hot grill for a few minutes. But go to the next stage and make the icing if you prefer.

Stage 6 – Icing (Double the quantity if you also wish to cover the sides).

2 egg whites
500g unrefined icing sugar
a little lemon juice, rosewater or orange blossom water

Whisk or fork the egg whites lightly, just enough to break them up and give a faint head of bubbles. Sift in the icing sugar and mix to a smooth paste thick enough to spread. It will seem too thick at first, but keep going. Add a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice or flower water. Scoop the icing out over the almond paste, smooth it out and decorate as you wish.

Greetings from Southampton
Greetings from Southampton