After starting the year with drought warnings, 2012 turned out to be one of the wettest years since records began. The Southwest in particular took a battering, with many homes and businesses affected by flooding. Endless rainfall and water-logged fields lead to poor harvests and spoiled crops for many British farmers. Apple growers in particular were hard hit, with the worst yield in apples for fifteen years. So it was with much enthusiasm then that we went Wassailing at the orchard in Barleywood walled garden, Wrington.
A Wassail, a traditional ceremony, hopes to ensure a good apple harvest by awakening the cider apple trees and ridding the orchard of malevolent spirits so they bear good fruit in
the autumn. From village to village in the cider making counties, the format might vary, but the elements remain the same. A Wassail King and Queen, appointed by a dried pea or bean found in their slice of Twelfth cake, leads the ceremony and song. The Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the oldest or most bountiful tree and, places toast soaked in cider from the previous year's harvest as an offering to the tree spirits. An incantation is then recited along the lines of:
Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!
And the evil spirits are duly scared away.....
Organised by The Ethicurean cafe, the evening was filled with good food, good cider and good song. Although it wasn't quite as cold as we were expecting it to be, we decided that we needed to defrost anyway with some mulled cider. Fortified with brandy, it had a wonderful hit of aniseed and liquorice, followed by hints of coriander, juniper and clove.
Feeling warm and cosy we sat, tables of ten, to eat before the Wassail ceremony. To start, we ate Welsh Rabbit made with an intensely smokey West Country cider and Keens cheddar. This was balanced nicely with peppery salad leaves, slices of beetroot and pickled gherkin.
Epic stew followed, with a zinging dash of Worcestershire sauce. A hearty mix of chunky root vegetables and meltingly tender beef, it was accompanied by herb dumplings and a sweet pickled cabbage. For me, the dumplings were a little bit dense, but that is a minor gripe for what was a pretty epic stew.
With more mulled cider in hand, we all tucked into slices of sticky toffee apple Wassail cake, in line, outdoors, searching for a dried bean to see whether we were crowned Wassail King or Queen. Buttery and gooey with caramelised apples, if there was a bean in there, I probably would've eaten it.
By torch light we all filed into the orchard and in keeping with north Somerset tradition, circled the oldest apple tree. The Queen, when eventually found, was raised upon shoulders to hang pieces of cider soaked toast from its branches, whilst a 'Robin' (representing the good tree spirits) looked on and the Wassail King poured a cupful of cider onto its roots. We all chanted and cheered, once we got the words right and, two shots were fired across the orchard to scare aware any evil.
Following the Green Man, we then adjourned to a circle of fire to watch a Mummers play. A tongue in cheek production about a battle between the Walled Gardener and the corporate Super Marketeer but more importantly, the reviving and healing properties of cider. It was silly and fun and lovely to be out under the stars.
As the fire burned down to embers, we returned to the glasshouse to listen to a set by the delightful Lori Campbell, who even played her small guitar. A mix of her own songs and a handful of whimsical covers, I particularly liked her plastic, sushi-set, soy fish song. Alas, we had to head back all too soon, but as we left, the chilled out vibes of the Quintessential Sound System could be heard melting into the night.
I have a huge soft spot for The Ethicurean; their team are so friendly, welcoming and passionate about what they do. They also prove that you don't need to wear Birkenstocks and hemp to care about the provenance of your food or, be preachy about it. If you have a spare moment, go and eat a slice of their sticky toffee apple cake and enjoy the magical views across the Mendip hills. Then stay for lunch... Oh, and keep your fingers crossed for them apples too.
Labels: A Foodfest, Bristol