Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival, A Documentary: S1E6

Wassailing with Willie Smith's Cider at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival

This time on the Drinks Adventures podcast, we visit the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival to explore the ancient traditions associated with the annual apple harvest.

Willie Smith’s Cider has introduced to Australia the ancient ceremony known as ‘wassailing’ at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival, held annually in July. I went down in 2018 to find out what it’s all about.

William Smith & Sons is one of the oldest family businesses in Tasmania’s Huon Valley.

Founder Willie Smith planted the first tree in their apple orchard in 1888 and fourth generation family member Andrew Smith is the current orchardist, responsible for taking the farm organic in the late 90s.

And in 2012, drinks marketer Sam Reid partnered with Smithy to launch Willie Smith’s Cider, putting apples that are not good enough to sell to very good use.

Glamping packages are available for the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival 2019. Contact Glamping Tasmania for details. Picture courtesy Natalie Mendham
Glamping packages are available for the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival 2019. Contact Glamping Tasmania for details. Picture courtesy Natalie Mendham

They’ve continued to evolve Willie Smith’s over the last few years with the introduction of heritage apple varieties to their orchard.

Most of the ciders made in Australia that are actually made from real apples are made using the same varieties of apple you would find in your local supermarket, which is the equivalent of making wine from table grapes.

There’s been a few cider makers that have pioneered the use of proper cider apples in Australia but arguably it’s been Willie Smith’s that’s brought this evolution of cider to the fore, with its multiple wins of Best In Show at the Australian Cider Awards, most recently in the last few weeks with the single variety Kingston Black Cider.

Thank you to all the bands who performed at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival and gave me permission to use their music in this episode: 8Foot Felix, The Dead Maggies and Vulgargrad.

Congratulations to Jeni Port who I spoke with last week and was subsequently awarded the Wine Communicators of Australia 2018 Legend of the Vine Award for Victoria, recognising her contribution to the wine industry as a journalist and a critic over many years.

Look out for some bonus content in the podcast feed over the next few days featuring Sam Reid of Willie Smith’s.

Music tracklisting for this episode:
8Foot Felix – Mad Isle
Vulgargrad – Oy Yo Oy
8Foot Felix – Q Town
8Foot Felix – Whales Prelude
The Dead Maggies – Black Mary
The Dead Maggies – Tommy Pieman
VulgarGrad – Super Good

Follow James Atkinson on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Real cider and pagan rituals at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival: Full Transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: I’m at a wassailing ceremony at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival in Tasmania.

GRAEME HAMILTON: We know that the middle of winter has gone, and we know that the sun’s coming back. We light the bonfire to show that the sun is coming back. That’s the purpose of the bonfire. The sun is returning, the warmth will return and with it, life will return.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now if you’re sitting there wondering what on earth wassailing is, you’re probably not alone. Bill Bradshaw is one of the UK’s leading cider experts.

BILL BRADSHAW: No one really knows the origins, but essentially, it’s a mid-winter celebration that started sometime in the middle ages in northern Europe, but it’s quite specific to Britain. No other countries wassail that we know about, not traditionally. It’s a very West Country thing, you’ll find some up in Herefordshire, some down in Devon and Dorset, and a load of them here in Somerset where I’m from. It’s got quite a strong wassailing tradition because it’s quite a strong cider area. Basically, the old established traditions are you give thanks in the orchard, so you do that by mulling some cider and that’s sort of a wassail drink that will get passed around. Everyone will take a sip from a cup and then people like to make a lot of noise. So sometimes people bang pots and pans if there’s lots of kids there. Some of the guys here in Somerset use shotguns, you know, fire a couple of volleys into the air and you basically sing a song that gives thanks, you know, for a great season.

SAM REID: I’m Sam Reid, co-founder of Willie Smith’s Cider Makers. Came across this concept of wassailing while I was driving around France in the UK doing a bit of cider research and just seemed to be a really nice parallel with what we were trying to do in the valley – not only wake up the apple trees for a good harvest, but you know, wake up the valley and say, “hey come on guys, let’s get together as a community, let’s have some fun and lets everybody know that we’re still here, you know?”

JAMES ATKINSON: What else happens at a wassail in the northern hemisphere that you were trying to recreate in Australia?

SAM REID: Yeah, well the wassail is led by a green man who is generally a member of a Morris side, they’re called. The Morris are the Morris dancers. They’re certainly a lovely, energetic bunch of people who have a nice little bit of an anti-establishment message about them. Obviously it’s based in the pagan religion so they tend to worship the seasons. They love to have a bit of a good time, they love to drink a bit of cider.

GRAEME HAMILTON: “Can I just get you to put your hands together for the Morris dancers here?”

JAMES ATKINSON: That’s Graeme Hamilton leading the wassail for Willie Smith’s, dressed as a green man, a mythical creature of the woods.

GRAEME HAMILTON: Yeah, I’ve been with a number of different teams. At the moment I’m with Red Raven Morris, here in Melbourne. We dance out throughout the year, traditional English folk dancing. We do a mixture of the styles of Morris that are from the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire and also a style that’s called border, which is from the counties of England that border Wales, so Herefordshire, Shropshire, Gloucester. If you look at where the apple growing traditionally is in England, it’s in those counties that border Wales, so it is Herefordshire, Somerset, Shropshire. Those sort of counties, and that’s where the border tradition of Morris dancing is. So you’ve basically got an overlapping of the Morris tradition and where the cider apple trees are grown.

JAMES ATKINSON: First held in 2014, the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival was a much needed boost to the Huon Valley economy, according to Willie Smith’s Sam Reid.

SAM REID: Pretty much the Huon Valley was closed for business for at least August and maybe even longer. Some of the wineries etc, just shut their doors and so in terms of visitor economy, it was just dead. I think that kinda led to the whole place just emotionally being kind of a little bit quiet and not a whole lot going on, so we’re really like trying to say the Huon Valley’s open for business in winter.

JAMES ATKINSON: Matthew Evans, host of TV show Gourmet Farmer, has been a Huon Valley resident for 10 years. He’s a store holder at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival with his local business, Fat Pig Farm.

MATTHEW EVANS: What’s so amazing about the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival was, we all hibernate a little bit you know, we sort of stop work a little bit earlier in the day if you work the land and you go inside a little earlier, you get the fire going. You drink a little bit more scotch or a little bit more mulled cider or whatever. And this festival came along and it was like mid-winter, muddy, is anybody gonna come? And people love it! I mean, it’s like we were always waiting for this festival to happen. It’s the only festival in probably Australia where Morris dancers aren’t just tolerated, they’re actually welcomed. It’s this beautiful thing, you know, you get into fancy dress, put so much effort in and it’s like we always wanted it. It’s appeared and it’s like it’s always been here.

JAMES ATKINSON: William Smith and Sons, is one of very few apple growers that has survived in the Huon since the apple industry collapsed due to exposure to the world economy in the 1970s.

SAM REID: Everyone in the valley’s grandfather, father worked in the apple industry. Whether it was like you know, driving trucks up to Hobart to put the apples on the ships or whether it was actually working in the orchards or whether it was grading apples, every family in the Huon has a story, deep story, deep connection with the apple industry, and yeah, the apple industry’s declined dramatically since the 60s. I know there were a thousand of apple farms in Tasmania in 1960, I think there’s about 20 left now, 20 or 30 commercial apple farms left, so that’s obviously a massive, massive change. People didn’t choose to leave the apple industry, they were forced out of the apple industry, you know. They went bankrupt or, mostly went bankrupt and then they couldn’t trade anymore. What you do see from the survivors I guess is that, they have all innovated and changed. They’re not doing what they did a generation ago. Smithy went organic in 1999, that was a massive risk at the time. It’s paid off well now but, you know, certainly if he was doing what his dad did, he probably wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. You had to innovate.

Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival, Tasmania
The Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival is held at Willie Smith’s Cider every July

MATTHEW EVANS: This is the region that gave Tasmania the name “The Apple Isle.” This is where all the apples were pretty much exported straight from across the river here straight to the UK. The bottom fell out of the marketing in the late 70s, and the area fell on tough times. I think part of the reason why I like it here is because the people are accustomed to having to make due with what they’ve got and to not waste things and to use what nature’s gifted us, and actually in this part of the world gifts us a lot.

SAM REID: The other elements though, we thought, folk music has always been integral to Morris dancing. Obviously, drinking plenty of cider is a pretty important part of it as well. Feasting, you know, there’s gonna be lots of great food and we really like to highlight all the local Huon valley and southern Tasmanian produce that you can get your hands on. And the other thing I suppose that has always been core for us and a real important part, has been storytelling. To hear real stories from real people, I mean, just some of the photos I’ve seen of people just absolutely enraptured by someone talking on stage, the presence that they have, and just the engagement that they can get from people, it just makes a difference from TV or all that plugged in entertainment you can get these days. It just brings people together more closely.

SAM REID: A few years back, I started trying to reach out and connect with the local aboriginal community. We programmed an indigenous night a couple years ago. We had indigenous storytelling last year at the festival and then this year finally, we had an amazing and spiritual welcome ceremony.

SAM REID: Because we thought, you know, this is Australian pagan religion. This is about worshipping the ground we’re on and we really need to pay homage I suppose to that tradition, which is, Australia’s original tradition.

GRAEME HAMILTON: Who knows what the biggest one in the world is and who’s gonna prove me wrong? It’s the biggest one I know of.

SAM REID: This year at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival we had 18,000 people there over the course of the weekend so, we were blown away. It was the best festival we’ve ever had. When you think back to five years ago when we started, bit of like a, you know, let’s have a bonfire in the paddock and invite some of our best mates. We ended up getting 4500 for that one, and so the growth’s been incredible, I mean, 18,000 was 20 per cent up on last year.

JAMES ATKINSON: According to cider expert Bill Bradshaw, Willie Smith’s claim to have created the largest wassail in the world is on pretty solid ground.

BILL BRADSHAW: 18,000, no way. I’ve never heard of anything that big. I’m pretty sure they’re probably right. The numbers we’re talking about would normally be, 50-60 people. They’re normally pretty small. Possibly up to 200, something like that if people really go for it. There’s a village in northern Somerset called Carhampton, and I know they’ve had one consecutively for 100 years. I mean cider has kind of a 20-30 year up, and then a 20-30 year down. That’s just kind of the way it seems to go in the UK. It nearly died out actually (wassailing) , and I think given the sort of revival we’ve had over the last 20 years, people have become much more aware of it and actually started to invent new traditions and make sure they celebrate it.

JAMES ATKINSON: Graeme Hamilton says the mid winter rituals are spreading all across Australia.

GRAEME HAMILTON: I guess what’s happened in the past 30-40 years, is that there’s been a rediscovery of apple wassailing as a ceremony, as part of the English folk tradition, and the Morris dances have been an integral part of that rediscovery and that revitalisation. We’ve come back to Melbourne saying how wonderful it is and other Morris dancers have heard how great it is, and all of a sudden, we’ve got these little mid winter festivals and apple wassailing ceremonies sprouting up all over the country and its really quite lovely to see and to think that perhaps the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival has actually been instrumental in quite a rediscovery and resurgence of this tradition here.

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