Smoking Bishop

Image from Eliza Acton’s Cookery Book 1845 – smoking bishop

This is not a post about the demise of Thomas Cranmer during the reign of Mary Tudor – rather it’s another festive drink. This particular beverage retained its popularity into the Victorian period and gets a mention in The Christmas Carol.

It is effectively a mulled port. You will require a bottle of ruby port, an orange stuck with six cloves, sugar to taste and about 1/2 pint of water but that’s optional. Cut the orange in half and place it in the pan with the port and a little sugar. Bring it to simmering point and then set it alight. Allow it to burn for a few seconds. Pour into a punch bowl and dilute with water if you wish.

Apparently in earlier times the fruit might have been roasted to caramelise it and there might also have been red wine as well as the port. A smoking cardinal was made with champagne which seems like a waste of good champagne but that’s only my opinion. The recipe comes from the National Trust Book of Christmas and Festive Recipes.

And why the name? It has been suggested that it was served in Oxford and Cambridge Universities and medieval guilds in a bowl that resembled an upended mitre.

Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit sharing a bowl of smoking bishop.

Christmas – Anglo-Saxon style

The Stroud wassail bowl – National Trust.

Day two of the History Jar advent calendar of festive food and drink. Cristesmæsse is first recorded as a word in 1038. The Venerable Bede was not impressed with the Anglo-Saxon winter festivities:

They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. 

Least said soonest mended I think! I don’t think we need linger on Bede’s disdain for the primitive behaviour of the locals. And rather unfortunately he did not think so far ahead as to ask for some recipes so we’ll just have to move on to the booze.

Wassail is a traditional Christmas and New Year toast. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for “to your health” – “waes hael”.

A wassail cup often involves quite a lot of cider but not always. It would be offered to guests throughout the festive period. In some cases a large wassail cup was taken from door to door (not appropriate in these socially distanced times.) The other kind of wassailing involves gathering in orchards to pour the wassail over the roots of the trees to encourage a good return on the next year’s harvest. This kind of wassail can involve singing to bees as well. It often takes place on twelfth night.

This recipe dates from 1722 from a book entitled Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I’m not sure what “suspicious yeast” looks like but I think after that lot no one would particularly care. The National Trust has a rather more palatable looking recipe which could be served as an alternative to mulled wine. The are lots of modern versions available.

And the non- alcoholic version courtesy of Saga magazine:

Serves: 6-8


  • 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)
  • ½ grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp freshly grated or ground ginger
  • Cinnamon sticks, to serve


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.

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. 

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

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.

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.

The wassail bowl and the Yule goat leading us in a Scandinavian direction.

Cards at Christmas


elizabeth of yorkIn 1461 Edward IV’s parliament  passed a law that permitted the playing of card and dice games at Christmas…they were banned the rest of the time.  It was an old problem.  One of Edward II’s parliaments banned dice games because they interfered with archery practise.

Henry VII passed a similar law but his law banned servants from playing cards and dice throughout the year except for the twelve days of Christmas.  Henry’s accounts reflect the fact that he liked the odd flutter at a game of cards and that he lost more often than he won.  Henry’s spouse, Elizabeth of York is the model for the queen on English cards.