We’ve come to know in modern times that wassailing is the practice of people going door to door and singing Christmas carols… “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green…” However, a centuries old practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing areas of England, such as the West Country, to promote a good harvest for the coming year is known as wassailing. This ancient English tradition thrives today and some of the most important wassails are held annually in Somerset and Devon on the old Twelfth Night, the 17th of January. The ceremonies vary from village to village but have the same core elements:
- A wassail King or Queen leads a song or processional tune to be played or sung from one orchard to the next.
- The Wassail Queen is lifted up into the boughs of a tree where she places toast soaked in wassail from the waissel cup as a gift to the tree spirits and to show the fruits of the previous year’s harvest.
- An incantation is then recited something along these lines:
“Here’s to thee, old apple tree!
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!”
This toast is repeated three times, the assembled crowd singing and shouting wildly, banging on pots and pans, the gunsmen firing off a great final volley to make sure that the evil spirits are scared away and the cider trees are awakened. It is of note that the pitchers of cider so requisite in this traditional ceremony were said to sometimes contain roasted apples and that the apples were thrown at the trees with the liquid. Trees that were considered to be bad bearers of fruit were not honored in the wassail ritual; however, it was widely believed that if productive trees were not included in the yearly ritual they would cease to bear. And so the tradition continues!
I appreciate the significance of this wonderful tradition… and can’t help but wonder why I am reminded of the summer nights of my youth when I and my younger siblings and any visting friends would whoop and holler it up under the boughs of the apple trees in our farm orchard during those warm summer evenings when the lightning bugs would be blinking amidst the frivolity of youngsters so carefree in the gentle light of the moon. It seems, however, that those evening rituals of play must have had a very positive effect on the yield of those many apple trees… they were always laden, each year, with bushels of beautiful fruit. I believe, therefore, in wassail… whatever the magical elements of that ancient ritual might be!
Some of the trees in our orchard were laden each year with Northwest Greenings. I loved them… so crisp, so juicy, so tart, so delicious… and possessing such vibrant and shiny green skins! We also had several Whitney Crab apple trees. How I loved it when Mom would can them as apple pickles… my favorite! Now that I am in California I’ve fallen in love with apple varieties not available to me as a Midwestern farm boy… and I unashamedly admit I am unable to narrow the selection of a favorite down to just one. I’ll sink my teeth into any apple that is, first of all, crisp! For baking I am partial to two varieties in particular, Granny Smith and Fuji. They are flavor-filled, firm enough to retain their shape… and inherently delicious!
This Caramelized Fuji Apple Butter celebrates the glory of that magnificently singular fruit. We use it as an accompaniment to roast pork and chops done on the grill… and love a small bowl of it as a satisfying dessert or daytime snack. It is also wonderful to creatively incorporate into many recipes calling for apples!
Caramelized Fuji Apple Butter
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel, quarter and core:
6 – 6 1/2 lb Fuji apples
Place the apple quarters on a sheet pan lined with foil:
Cover the pan with foil and roast for 1 hour. Remove the foil. The apples will have shrunk in size and released their juices:
Return to the oven and continue to roast for an additonal 1 hour. The quartered apples will have taken on color and the pan juices will be syrupy and golden:
Transfer the caramelized apples to the bowl of a food processor:
Puree the warm apples, adding:
3/4 C golden brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground cloves
2 T unsalted butter
Process until silky smooth. The yield is approximately five cups of velvety apple butter. Transfer to a covered container, refrigerate, enjoy and use with creative culinary abandon… Bon Appetit!
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