9 November 1666. Samuel Pepys had had an anxious day, what with the Horse Guards building being on fire, and this after all the other fires which 1666 had wrought on the City of London, Westminster, and Southwark. By the evening, news came that the fire was out. Delighted and relieved, Pepys and friends celebrated: “We got well home … Being come home, we to cards, till two in the morning, and drinking lamb’s-wool.”
Lamb’s wool is a drink made of ale, apple purée, nutmeg, ginger, and sugar. It was popular in the seventeenth century, when Pepys mentioned it in his diary and Robert Herrick composed a verse in a wassail song, describing its ingredients. Herrick was a poet more earnest than good, but his verses include some of the best records of early seventeenth-century twelfth night practices.
In “Twelfe night, or King and Queene”, published in his poetry collection, Hesperides, he writes of the choosing of the King and Queen of Twelfth night through beans, baked into a plum cake.
Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Beane’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The Pea also
Must revell, as Queene, in the Court here.
In its fourth verse, it describes lamb’s wool:
Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle lambs-wooll;
Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must doe
To make the wassaile a swinger.
The origin of the name “lamb’s wool” is contested, although my favorite version is that it is named for its froth. The Old Foodie discusses alternate name origins in a post on the subject.
Because this historic drink is so well-documented, modern recipes for it are moderately common. Today would be an appropriate day to mix one up, in fact. Pepys drank it in November since lamb’s wool was common during apple harvest season, but it is also – as Herrick attests – a drink with which to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas. Rather than the noisiness of twelve drummers drumming, consider a mug of lamb’s wool.
© S. Worthen 2009