Riddle Me This: Dark Ages Humour


One of the things I discovered when I was studying people from history is that they are just that – people. Like us, they had their own personalities and emotions. Given the shockingly sad statistics on infant mortality, I used to think that people in the past did not grieve and did not laugh. Life was far too hard and brutal to find fun.

But I was wrong.

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Wassail Recipes for Twelfth Night

I’m always in favour of maintaining fun traditions as long as no suffering is involved. In my house we celebrate a host of festivals from different countries and faiths, but my favourite seem to gravitate towards those from Bristish history. Well, I am a British historian after all.

December and January top the list for great things to eat and drink as there were so many celebrations and much feasting. One of the most festive drinks is wassail. (See what it’s all about here.)

We don’t do the slaughter anymore, just the drinking and sometimes scaring away the bad spirits. If you like the original gruesome stuff see my book The Dark Garden. The recipes varied from region to region, but I have chosen a couple of my favourites here. Enjoy.


This recipe crops up a lot, so I find it difficult to source. In Anglo-Saxon times, my guess is that honey or mead was used in place of sugar (which wasn’t brought to England for quite a few hundred years later). The orange is mostly for decorative purposes but does add an extra element. Often the toast was floated on the top.


  • 4 small apples

  • 1/4 cup unrefined cane sugar

  • 1 medium orange

  • 13 whole cloves

  • 2 quarts hard apple cider

  • 1/2 cup brandy

  • 1 tbsp powdered ginger

  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg

  • 6 allspice berries

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • 6 large eggs, (separated)

  • toast, (optional, to serve with)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C.

  2. Scoop out the core of the apples without fully penetrating the apple – a melon baller works well. Fill each apple with about a tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar. Place the apples in the baking sheet. Stud an orange with thirteen cloves and place it in the baking sheet. Bake the apples and orange together for forty minutes.

  3. While the apples and orange bake, pour apple cider and brandy into a heavy-bottomed stock pot and warm over moderately low heat. Whisk in powdered ginger and grated nutmeg. Do not bring the wassail to a boil.

  4. Cut a small square of the butter muslin and place allspice and cinnamon into the square; tie with 100% cotton cooking twine and float this sachet of spices in the wassail as it warms.

  5. Beat egg yolks until light in color and set aside. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg yolks into whites, then temper the eggs by slowly pouring one-half cup wassail into the eggs. Remove the spice sachet from the wassail and pour in the tempered eggs. Transfer to a punch bowl. Float baked apples and orange in the wassail and serve by the mug, topping each much with a small slice of toast if desired.

This recipe is simpler. It is by Jonathan Goodall, columnist for Saga Magazine.

  • 6 small cooking apples, cored

  • 125g (4½oz) demerara sugar

  • 1.5 litres (3 x 500ml bottles) of rich, fruity ale (I used a mix of Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen) or cider

  • ½ grated nutmeg

  • 1 tsp freshly grated or ground ginger

  • Cinnamon sticks, to serve


1.  Preheat the oven to 120C/250F/gas mark ½. Bake the cored apples on a      lightly greased baking tray for about 1 hour, until soft and easy to              peel.

2.  Meanwhile, put the sugar into a large heavy-based saucepan and cover         with a small amount of  ale. Heat this gently, stirring until the sugar            dissolves.

3.  Add the grated nutmeg, ginger and the rest of the ale. Stir and keep at a       gentle simmer.

4.  Cool the baked apples for about 10 minutes, then peel, reserving a few         strips, and blend to a soft purée. Add this to the simmering ale                       and whisk thoroughly.

5.  Leave to gently simmer for about 30 minutes. The frothy apples should         rise to the surface. Ladle into sturdy glasses and serve with                               cinnamon-stick stirrers and a strip of peel.

I wonder if there are any more future-favourites out there? Waes hail!

(c) 2016 A.J. Sefton