It wasn’t until the book was in print that I realized that my heroine is a bit of a lush. Alwen, the noble and determined sorceress at the center of THE WELL OF TEARS, has a tendency to turn to a particular medicinal concoction in times of great stress. And sorrow. And celebration. And worship. And when entertaining. And, well, pretty much every time anything at all happens in her world.
THE WELL OF TEARS is set in early 10th century Wales, and centers on the rise to power of a medieval king whose legacy has persisted to modern day. As was true of the ancient agrarian based religions of the time, food and drink are essential elements in both social tradition and spiritual practice in my novel.
Historically speaking, the ritual consumption of ales and wines at all sorts of occasions is well documented. This is especially true in observing important seasonal events. Mulled wines and spiced ales have been on the holiday menu for centuries. References to celebratory spirits such as pimen and hippocras date to the early days of the Roman Empire, often also attributed with medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties.
Although pagan traditions in Britain began to disappear or become absorbed into Christian practice after the 3rd century, recipes for ritual beverages continued to appear in descriptions of ancient rites through the Dark Ages and beyond. Spirits have also long been noted as recommended treatment for everyday ailments from the common cold to gout and depression. A nip now and then has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of recorded history.
Early mentions of aleberry (ale + bree [broth]) in my research, a domestic remedy for cold or flu, were so intriguing to me that I made the brew the favorite guilty pleasure of my heroine.
Including this drink in a story taking place in the early 10th century seemed appropriate, but a true and historically accurate recipe for the drink has never been discovered. Known to have been made by boiling ale with nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar and bread sops, strained and then drunk hot, aleberry is not unlike other beverages referred to in Medieval texts. So, to be as authentic as I could, I decided to ’borrow’ a recipe from a similar beverage that still is used today.
Lamb’s Wool is ale mulled with spices and sugar mixed with the pulp of roasted apples. The fruity pulp creates a lumpy froth that is said to resemble the wool of a lamb. A traditional beverage still today enjoyed on Halloween, Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, Lamb’s Wool was first a pagan ritual beverage used for ‘apple howling’ or wassailing.
In the ceremonial blessing of the orchard, which occurred during the winter solstice, the drink was poured on the ground and on the trunks of trees to awaken the first stirrings of life in the land and chase away evils spirits. Thus, the next season’s bountiful harvest was ensured. The ritual pouring took place amidst the chant of ‘waes hael’, (OE., ‘be well’ or ‘good health‘)–today recognized as wassail.
Below is a contemporary, Americanized version of a more traditional Old English recipe that is quick and easy to make. If you’d like to try your hand at the more authentic old-world brew, click here: http://recipewise.co.uk/lambswool
Lamb’s Wool (Wassail)
- 3 apples, peeled, cored & finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 (12 ounce) bottles dark beer
- 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a casserole dish, bake apples and butter for 30 minutes, or until the apples are soft. Then, in a large saucepan, combine the roasted apples, beer, brown sugar and spices. Heat until hot, and serve (unstrained) in large mugs.
An earlier version of this article appeared last year on the blog of celebrated historical author Stephanie Dray. Stephanie’s novels LILY OF THE NILE and SONG OF THE NILE are tales of Cleopatra’s daughter Selene. She has recently completed the third and final installment in the series. You can learn more about Stephanie, Selene and the Roman era at http://www.stephaniedray.com