HERE'S TO THEE: WASSAILING THE MICROBIAL ECOLOGY OF CIDER-MAKING

INTRODUCTION

"Here's to thee Old Apple Tree," you declaim to the apple tree, every year on Old Twelfth Night, as part of a traditional wassail celebration.

But who or what else takes part in bringing us our cider each year? What of all those things that go unnoticed but whose effects are felt nonetheless? What of the yeasts, living "wild" on the apple skins, that we co-opt into the fermentation process? And what, indeed, of the other microbes that make their home on the cider-press and on the walls of the barn? And the rules and regulations of food production that also shape the cider that we drink? What of the microbiomes of the people that pick and prune, press and drink the "scrumpy" each year? How do all these participants relate to each other? What kinds of dependencies do they form? What kind of cooperations or antagonisms? What kinds of collective action? And what kinds of politics do they negotiate among themselves?

In this project, a multi-disciplinary group of participants took part in making a batch of traditionally-fermented cider at Halstow in Devon, England. They tended to the orchards, picked and pressed the apples. Their conversations led to the writing of The Halstow Wassail, a new wassail song which was sung, not only to the apple trees, but to all those things that constitute the microbial ecology of cider-making. This song was presented to a wider public at a wassail at Halstow in January 2020, who joined in a genuine, heart-felt celebration of microbial life – "the Great Good Unseen" that Jim Causley sings of.

Orchards at North Halstow. Photo: Alex Murdin
Halstow, view from Front Orchard

This project brings together renowned singer-songwriter Jim Causley, and Dartmoor folksinger Bill Murray – a reprise of the collaboration that produced the song Pride of the Moor in 2014 – part of my project A Song, A Dance, and a New Stannary Parliament.

A new wassail bowl – a vessel for communal drinking – has been made in collaboration with ceramic artist Abigail North, and with the support of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Devon.

A new body of photographic work, documenting the project, in the context of the life of the farm, is being produced by Rob Darch.

Cider Barn at Grays Farm Cider. Photo: Alex Murdin

This project is a partnership with Ben and Ruth Gray of Grays Farm Cider at Halstow, Dr. Sue Ruddick at the University of Toronto, and funding support of Social Science & Humanities Research Council in Canada, Arts Council England, and Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter.

Meeting of participants at Halstow, April 2018. Photo: Alex Murdin

THE HALSTOW WASSAIL

Poster announcing the first wassail at Halstow, 2020

Guests gathered for our first wassail for the microbial ecology of cider-making at Gray's Farm Cider on 18th January 2020. The new song was presented by Jim Causley, accompanied by Bill Murray and the shanty singers Mariners Away.

Guests gather around the apple tree
Singing to the yeasts in the Poundhouse
Singers in the Front Orchard
The procession heads to the Poundhouse
Ending the evening with more songs – and bread & cheese & cider.
Photos courtesy of John Hammersley, 2020

AUDIO RECORDINGS

Listen to audio-recordings of the Halstow Wassail here:

A pause in the proceedings: listening to the Mariners sing Old Ci-der from the orchards. Photo courtesy Ellie@HalstowFarm

MORE PHOTOS OF THE HALSTOW WASSAIL

Photographer Rob Darch is producing a larger body of work at the farm (to be published at a later date) and also took these incidental photos at the wassail to help us record the proceedings.

Reading the Incantation
Abigail's bowl hanging in the apple tree
"Here's to thee all on the ground..."
Procession to the apple tree
The Guns
Mariners Away in full voice
Guests at the six fires encircling the apple tree
Jim & Bill await guests at the tree
Gathering at the apple tree
Guests in the orchard
Jim & Bill lead the crowd in a rendition of The Halstow Wassail
Mariners Away call Old Ci-der between the orchards
Smoke drifts down the valley

SONG LYRICS & INCANTATION

These are the lyrics of the new song, written by Jim Causley; Incantation written by Simon Pope.

THE WORKSHOPS

Thanks to all who took part in the workshops – apples, microbes, and all.

Photos courtesy of : Ellie @ Halstow

The Wassail Bowl

Cermamic artist Abigail North made a large wassail bowl for communal drinking, using clay from Halstow's oldest orchard (c. 1795). These images show the results of experiments with differing levels of porosity and texture, with the aim to encourage microbial life to inhabit the bowl's surface.

We drank from a shallow unglazed bisque-fired bowl during our song-writing session at Greenaways.

Image courtesy of Lara Goodband 2019
Bowl fired to high-temperature, unglazed
Unfired bowl
Low-fired bowl, unglazed
The bowl used at The Halstow Wassail, January 2020.

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