Wassailing, which this year falls on Tuesday 17th January, is really the only time my apple trees get any proper attention from me. I have two. One is a James Grieve step-over, which my husband tends with a consideration second only to that which he lavishes on the dog. Which is lots. The other is a called Scrumptious and sits at the bottom of the garden in a cracked pot disregarded by us both. Still, they always provide a decent harvest and I am convinced this is thanks to our exemplary wassailing.
Wassailing is the tradition, probably Somerset-ian, of visiting your apple orchard on old Twelfth Night (17th January), raising a glass of mulled cider, called wassail, to toast your apple trees and singing a wassailing carol. This ensures a good harvest that year. Of course it does.
The toasting bit is critical. Apart from an excuse to drink copious amounts of mulled cider, it is also an opportunity to eat. The term 'to toast' - i.e.: with a drink - comes from the 16th century when people would put a piece of stale bread in their wine/cider/beer to soak up the acidity and improve the flavour of bad booze. Thus, central to the wassailing tradition is serving the cider with toast.
Needless to say, I have taken some liberties with this ritual and a) made the cider drinkable enough to forego the need for improvement and b) embellished the whole toast thing. The idea of rolling bread to make cigars belongs to Yotam Ottolenghi who does it to make goats cheese cigar croutons. I've combined this with pain perdu and come to a tasty, dunkable hybrid. The honey too is a nice remembrance of the honeybee's role in pollinating apple trees, plus it comes from a friend of G&G, Keith Horner at Moor Cottage, who kindly gave me some to play with. And play I have.
So, come Tuesday 17th January, find an apple tree, really any will do, raise a glass of warming cider and dunk a honey cigar all in celebration of our beautiful English apples.
Wassailing mulled cider and honey toast cigars
For the cider:
500ml dry cider
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
100ml fresh cloudy apple juice
2 satsumas or oranges
1 star anise
4 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
6 cardamom pods
100ml dark rum
For the honey cigars:
5 thin slices of sourdough bread, crusts off
3-4 tbsp honey
1tsp powdered cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp quick cook polenta
2-3 tbsp sunflower oil, for cooking
For the cider, put all the ingredients in a pan and very slowly bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 1-2 hours then reheat to tea temperature and serve. If you worry about too much of the booze burning off then omit the rum until the second heating.
For the 'cigars', spread each slice of bread liberally with honey then sprinkle with cinnamon. Tightly roll each slice into a cigar, squeezing with your hands to hold it all together. This will be a sticky business but a certain amount of roughness will ensure the cigars stay together.
Dip each cigar in the beaten egg then coat in polenta.
Heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan on a medium heat and fry the cigars for 4-5 minutes, turning regularly until evenly golden brown. Drain and serve immediately. They are heavenly when dunked into the mulled cider.