Carol-singing is one of the most delightful of English Christmas traditions, partly because of the country’s amazing number of organised choirs and choral groups who sing in churches and choral societies. Carol-singing wouldn’t be so lovely if it were performed by women and men who weren’t good singers.
This ancient tradition of going carol-singing was sometimes called ‘go a-wassailing’ — and for a most particular reason. Wassail is the spiced ale or mulled wine that used to be a feature of Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night celebrations in England.
There are several meanings of the word wassail, which comes from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’, meaning ‘be in good health’. The reply is ‘drinkheil’ (drink good health).
So one of the meanings was a toast that was once used when giving a glass of wine or other alcoholic drink to a guest.
Wassail eventually came to mean mulled wine or any hot drink taken during the Christmas festivities.
As carol singers going from house to house were invited indoors to have mulled wine or some other hot drink, this most lovely of English Christmas customs became known as wassailing.
“A jolly wassail/ A wassail of good ale…” as the song has it. But the hot ale could also be mulled wine, hot buttered toddy or, in more recent times, liqueur-laced coffee. The tradition of hot drinks to start off a Christmas meal has almost died out, but press reports indicate it is slowly finding its way back into many family festivities.
That’s not surprising, because on cold winter days and nights, it’s most comforting to sit by a log fire and sip hot mulled wine.
Mugs of hot wine, spicy toddy or a steaming punch, not only kindle an interior warmth, they also create good vibes all round. The hot toddy was invented by British sailors who were trying to keep warm on long chilly watches at sea.
The word toddy comes from ‘tadi’ in Marathi, the Indo-Aryan language of the Marthas, now the official language of the Indian state of Maharashtra.
The sailors had no option but to make their toddy from ingredients that were aboard the ship: their daily rum ration, sugar, and limes or lemons that were in the store cupboard to help prevent scurvy.
They didn’t have spices at hand, but as toddies became popular with the general public, they were made with other drinks such as whisky and brandy, and more flavour was added with cloves and cinnamon as well as other warm spices.
Today we know that those sailors were wrong in thinking their toddies helped to keep the cold at bay. It has long been known that any kind of alcohol speeds up hypothermia by forcing blood to the surface of the skin, thus anaesthetising the drinker from the effects of the cold.
But on a cold winter night, when we are indoors and seated by a glowing fire (or some other source of heat) three of the great cold weather drinks are hot mulled wine, spicy toddy and steaming punch.
These hot drinks, and others like them, have a long pedigree and are popular all over the world, which means there are plenty of recipes to choose from.
Although mulled wine is easy enough to make, you must get everything to your liking: temperature, flavour, strength and quantity — especially quantity. It’s all too easy to find the bowl is empty when most of the guests would like another glass…and you can also end up with more mulled wine than you know what to do with.
Temperature is of the utmost importance. Mulled wine must never boil: an almost invisible simmer is what is wanted. And it has to be kept hot — like hot chocolate, mulled wine must never be served lukewarm.
Mulled wines are not meant to carry an alcoholic KO punch, so never make them too strong. If you think it needs a bit more zing, then add a little extra brandy or liqueur. But if you’ve gone over the top, decrease the strength by adding more boiling water.
There are two important guidelines on flavours: go easy on quantities and don’t throw in a few shakes of every spice jar in the pantry. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and others can all help to make a fine mulled wine, but never be heavy-handed.
Basic mulled wine recipes
For a basic mulled wine, heat one bottle of red, a small sliced orange, eight heaped teaspoons of sugar, and two or three cloves. When very hot, but not boiling, add one glass per person of rum, brandy or liqueur and one pint of hot water.
Taste to check that all flavours are to your liking, and adjust, if necessary. Stir well, ladle into suitable glasses or mugs and grate a little nutmeg on top.
The wine should be a reasonably good one (a Ribera del Duero priced at €7-€10). If you buy it at La Vinoteca (Calle Bartolomé Pou 27) or El Corte Inglés, ask for a soft one (suave) because the heat will bring out any latent acidity.
All of the above measurements are purely personal. You may want to add more sugar, or you may prefer cinnamon to cloves. The choice is yours. When trying a new recipe, go easy on the flavourings to begin with. You can always add a little extra spice at a later stage.
A more elaborate mulled wine can be made with a bottle of red, one and a half cups of ruby port, half cup of plum brandy, one thinly sliced lemon and orange, four pieces of cinnamon stick (3 cms long) and six whole cloves.
Bring the mixture to a simmer over a low heat and continue to simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Transfer the hot wine to a heatproof punch bowl, previously well-heated with boiling water. Serve immediately.
Hot toddies are extremely comforting in cold weather and have two advantages over mulled wines: they can be made in a moment and in individual portions.
Basic hot toddy
For a basic individual hot toddy, put two teaspoons of sugar in a mug, Add one teaspoon of lemon juice and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add one shot of whisky, rum or brandy. Top up with boiling hot water and stir. How big is a shot of whisky? As big as you want it to be.
You can make the classic hot buttered rum toddy by using the above recipe, but omitting the lemon juice. Add a pinch of ground cinnamon or other warm spice. Pour in boiling water and stir, then float a pat of saltless butter on top — a little more than a teaspoon. Drink as soon as the butter melts.
Americans love cranberries and use the juice in a toddy. For each person add a shot of vodka to a mug. Put in a splash of Rose’s lime cordial and a glug (as Jamie Oliver would say) of orange liqueur, such as Cointreau or Gran Marnier. Heat about 175 mls of cranberry juice until steaming hot, but not simmering. Pour into the mug and garnish with a short piece of cinnamon stick.
How big is a glug of orange liqueur? How big do you want it to be?