The Everyday Lore Project

16 September 2020 – Barnstaple Fair

16 September 2020 – Barnstaple Fair

There is something a tiny bit obscene about making spiced ale with the temperature in the 70s and the sun shining through your windows. Spiced ale is for mittens, freezing toes and the smell of woodsmoke, not the last throes of summer. But as it’s the Wednesday before 20 September, it means the start of the annual Barnstaple Fair in Devon, or would have been had life been different. And as spiced ale was traditionally served at the fair, traditional spiced ale is what I made.

Except I didn’t really. You see, the recipe is another one of those secret recipes, handed down through the generations, this time from Head Beadle to Head Beadle. So I found another recipe that sounded rather delicious and in the spirit, and made that instead. Another huge plus was it was very quick, less than half an hour from gathering the ingredients to the lips. 

There’s not much to it, pour the ale into a pan (surprisingly fizzy), add some grated nutmeg, a cinnamon stick, some orange rind without the pith, some cloves, some star anise (which will never not look like floating dead spiders) and some sugar. Stir, warm through until infused, bung in some brandy, and serve in mugs with slices of orange. Used to be it was the done thing to stick a red hot poker in your flagon to heat up your ale, but I forwent that in favour of my hob. You can also add beaten eggs to mulled ale, I forwent that hot take too.

At least this time I remembered to use the right chopping board so my orange didn’t suffer the tang of garlic. And I’m guessing that had my spices been a little fresher, it might have taken less time to infuse. But the smell while it was heating was lush, I could have stood with my head in the steam forever.

Of course, I felt obliged to keep tasting it to make sure the infusion process was taking place. But the spices just seemed to blend with the ale making it into one big uninspiring homogenous slurp. Until that is, the addition of a wallop of brandy, which unbeknownst to me until afterwards, turned my spiced ale into a flip. 

I would make a crap sommelier, I don’t have the language or the palate to properly describe how things taste. Actually that’s not quite true, I’ve just never managed not to sound like a wanker when I do it. But simply put, to me the flip tasted of toffee, like a thick, sweet, hot soup with hardly any trace of either the ale or the brandy. And as it cooled, the spices really went to work, and it became like a liquid hot cross bun. To be honest, I could have polished off the lot, but writing these posts drunk is always a bit of a chore as all I want to do is go to sleep. Or drink more. 

I reckon the good people of Barnstaple knew what they were doing drinking this. Although I’m not entirely sure they’d know what they were doing afterwards. 


Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Published by Liza Frank

Author of My Celebrity Boyfriend. Obsessed with hula hooping, sons of preachermen and fresh dates, sometimes all at the same time. Curator of Folklore Agony and The Everyday Lore Project.

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