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Bon Appetit - Just Plain Good Food

Good Cheer with Wine

Published May 18th, 2011 in Bon Appetit - Just Plain Good Food

By Tammera J. Karr, PhD, BCIH, CNC, CNW, CNH

During the holiday season it is common for beer, wine and spirits to be given as gifts. I wondered about the history of these beverages and what their place has been in culture and holiday cuisine.

Wine is the second or some may argue the oldest of the fermented beverages developed. This may have been an accident but not for long; water in community housing areas was far from clean or safe for consumption. The early fermented beverages were of mixed fair and alcohol content. According to an ancient Persian fable, wine was the accidental discovery of a princess seeking to end her life with what she thought was poison. Instead, she experienced the elixir’s intoxicating effects as it released her from the anxieties of royal court life.

Proof women have been self medicating with wine for a long time.

Experts agree wine probably dates to 6000 B.C. Mesopotamia where wild grape vines grew. The drink was savored by royalty and priests, while commoners drank beer, mead, and ale. The ancient Egyptians are the first culture known to document the process of wine making.

Wine making made its way to Greece, where it permeated all aspects of society: literature, mythology, medicine, leisure, and religion. The Romans took vine clippings from Greece back to Italy, and centers of viticulture soon developed in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the rest of Europe. 1

From the Bible to ancient legends, tales of intoxication by ingesting fermented grapes abound. In addition, fossilized vines add proof to the fact that the earliest humans recognized the pleasures of this tantalizing liquid.

“Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“Wine is a living liquid containing no preservatives. Its life cycle comprises youth, maturity, old age, and death. When not treated with reasonable respect it will sicken and die.”
– Julia Child

From honey to happy

The history of mead dates back 20,000 to 40,000 years and has its origins on the African continent.  In Africa during the dry season, wild bees would nest in tree hollows, and during the wet season the hollows would fill with water. Water, honey, osmotolerant yeast, time and viola – mead is born. As successive waves of people left Africa they took with them some knowledge of mead and mead making.  Not until the time of Louis Pasteur, in the mid 1800’s, did man become aware of yeast as the life form responsible for fermentation.

Eventually mead making became well known in Europe, India and China. But mead making died out as people became urbanized. Honey was prized throughout history; it was often available only to royalty and with time the tradition of mead was sustained in the monasteries of Europe only. 2

In medieval times Christmas was quite a pagan celebration, foods were heavily spiced if the lord of the manner was wealthy enough to purchase clove, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger from travelers and tradesmen. The “good –housewife” of the manor would combine these herbs with meats that where beginning to turn as a preservative and with wine to improve digestion and prevent food poisoning.

A Wassailing we go

The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of “wassail,” a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The phrase found first use as a simple greeting, but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by the population of England— the Norman conquerors who arrived in the eleventh century regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.

“Wassail” appears in English literature as a salute as early as the eighth-century poem Beowulf, in references such as “warriors’ wassail and words of power” 3

Wassail Recipe: 4

Makes 4 quarts. (approx.)


4 cups good Apple Cider -freshly pressed

* 2 pints Sherry or Madeira wine and 1-cup rum are often substituted for ale and port – resulting in a sweeter flavor and lighter body.

1 C Orange Juice

1 C Cranberry Juice

2 pints heavy winter ale*

3 cups Port*

4 small tart/sweet apples -peeled and cored

1 lemon

1 lime

1 orange

1 tsp. ground cardamom

3 small or 1.5 large cinnamon sticks

15 whole cloves

6 whole allspice

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

4 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tbsp, cold butter

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Pack 1 tbsp. of brown sugar and ¼ tbsp. of butter into the core of each apple. Place apples in a small baking dish and fill dish with ½-inch of water (to keep apples from burning or sticking to bottom).
  3. When oven is pre-heated bake apples uncovered for 45min. to 1-hour or until tender and soft, but not mushy. Drain water. Quarter each baked apple (or divide into eights depending on number of guests).
  4. Combine cardamom, cloves, allspice and ginger in a small piece of cheesecloth, and tie closed with twine to form a spice packet.
  5. In a large stockpot or slow cooker combine apple cider, cranberry juice, orange juice, (plus Ale, Port/Rum, Wine as desired), and the juice of one lemon and one lime.
  6. Place cinnamon directly into liquids and stir to infuse.
  7. Submerge spice packet in stockpot.
  8. Stir apples into stockpot (they’ll ultimately float on top and begin to soften, fall apart and add a creamy quality to the liquid.
  9. Simmer on medium/high (never boiling) for two hours until hot spices are thoroughly infused and apples have begun to dissolve.
  10. Remove spice packet and pour into “Wassail Bowl” if not using stockpot or slow cooker as your Wassail Bowl. Be prepared to reheat until the Wassail Bowl is empty.
  11. Garnish the Wassail Bowl by floating thin slices of the remaining lemon, limes and oranges on top.
  12. Serve in small mugs with a sizable piece of apple in each mug.

To your good health and Holidays filled with friends, laughter and good cheer.