As my Mead-ieval Quest draws to a close and the festive season begins, I wanted to share a taste of all kinds of things I’ve discovered during my journey through the realm of honey wine. This enduring drink cropped up all over the place, enjoyed by all levels of society from peasants in humble taverns to nobility and royalty in their sumptuous great halls. And its fame is immortalised in literature, featuring in great works from Beowulf to Chaucer and Shakespeare, the latter possibly because it was one of Elizabeth I’s favourite tipples. Mead is an age-old boozy beverage that crossed the divides of class, culture and land the world over, so come with me on a wander through the weird and wonderful world of this unique drink.
A mead by any other name
Mead has all kinds of aliases, appearing throughout history in a plethora of guises depending on how it’s made and where it comes from. Here’s just a few:
This special variant with added herbs or spices comes from the Welsh word ‘meddyglyn’. ‘Medd’ is the Welsh word for mead, and the name is a compound of ‘meddyg’ for healing, and ‘llyn’ for liquor, as it was widely believed (and still is) to have medicinal qualities. The Welsh were particularly fond of metheglin so they must have been very healthy, and its fame endured as Shakespeare mentions it in Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor. So next time you get a dose of the winter lurgy, have a glass of Metheglin and let it work it’s magic…
This version is a mix of honey and red or white grapes or grape juice, and was popular with the Romans. An original recipe survives from a Roman farming expert with the magnificent name of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, in which he instructs the reader to use the ‘best honey’, then put the must into a stone bottle and ‘immediately plaster it (?) and order it to be laid up in a loft’. I can’t help wondering if that’s where ‘getting plastered’ comes from… The resulting mead is then mixed with grapes, quince, pomegranates and apples to make a unique flavour. Maybe that’s one to try brewing next.
A type of mead made with honey and malted barley. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a carpenter’s wife in the Miller’s Tale is highly praised, and we are told “Her mouth was sweet as braggot or the mead”.
Another delicious variant, made from honey and any fruit. Lots of scope for future Sticky Rogers flavours here then!
Caremalised or burned honey making a rich, dark flavour. Yum.
Trójniak, Dwójniak and Czwórniak
No prizes for guessing these are all Polish meads. They love mead in Poland (see below).
Bring a bottle to the battle
We’ve seen how mead prepared ancient troops for battle, but what if there were supply problems? Poland’s love affair with mead was so great it even affected the country’s involvement in the Crusades. During the Fourth Crusade of 1202ꟷ1204, Pope Innocent III wanted to recapture Jerusalem but things didn’t go according to plan. So he called on the Poles to send troops to the Holy Land, but Prince Leszek the White of Poland refused, writing to inform his Holiness that he couldn’t send his army to help because there was no mead in Jerusalem. A lame excuse it’s true, but it may also have had something to do with the struggles they were already embroiled in with the pagans at home. Either way, the Prince clearly thought the lack of honey wine was reason enough to stay out of the conflicts in the Holy Land.
Drunk on Domesday
Mead even makes itself known on the pages of William the Conqueror’s in-depth inspection of his new English kingdom. Commissioned in 11th century, the resulting Domesday survey is copiously populated with honey and mead entries.
The best wedding present?
In medieval times, mead played a big part in the marriage ritual. After the couple had tied the knot, they were presented with a month’s worth of mead – enough to last a full cycle of the moon. The happy couple would duly drink it in order to ensure fertility, health and a happy marriage (and probably a good few hangovers too!), hence the term ‘honeymoon’. Shame they didn’t keep that tradition alive…
The slippery slope?
Sadly though, nothing stays the same forever, and as the middle ages wore on a range of factors conspired to see a decline in mead production and consumption in Europe. After the 12th century, wine imported from Gascony became fashionable for the wealthy, and a mini ‘Ice Age’ from around 1350 meant that many parts of the world, including Northern Europe suffered unusually cold winters which affected honey supplies. Added to this, a population increase meant more areas of forest and wild flower meadows providing essential nectar were cleared to make way for agriculture. The decline in honey production coincided with a rise in beer drinking, which became widespread across the continent. So it seems that the drink that had sustained societies since time immemorial lost out to the newer drinks and lack of raw materials. The fortunes of mead were to wax and wane over time, but it continued to be consumed until the 18th century in places where honey was more plentiful, and for a long time it was used to promote health and treat sickness. And I can personally vouch for this last claim. Only last week a nasty virus was trying to invade me, so I drank a couple of glasses of mead and the next day it was gone!
And now for a miscellany of marvellous meads that you can indulge in today:
Medieval monks were big brewers of mead as a by-product of beekeeping, and on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, home to one of the most famous monasteries, the St Aidan Winery have revived the tradition, claiming to have sold over two million bottles.
I’m a big fan, particularly of their small-batch Dark Mead since I discovered it last year on a visit to the Holy Island. It’s perfect for quaffing on a winter’s eve as the frost grows and the fire glows, with its rich darkness and deep flavours. It has a kind of treacle-like sweetness, but it’s not at all sickly. A firm favourite and one I hope to stock up on when I go back next year.
Rookery Mountain Ash Mead
If you like your drinks dry, this is the one for you. As the only remaining meadery in Scotland, The Rookery make their delicious range from only honey and selected botanicals from around their region in Perthshire. We tried the Mountain Ash, which is more like a dry sherry than mead. A dry sherry with knobs on. With a clean finish with just a hint of honey, this would make a great aperitif or a tasty mixer.
Pirate’s Black Mead
Okay, so pirates were more famous for drinking rum, but I just had to try this one with it’s dark secrets in its quirky skull bottle. Curiosity got the better of me when I was in Conwy this year and found myself in the Knight/Pirate Shop beside the great castle. Made with Yucatan honey, this has got to be the most whacky of the meads I’ve tried, but it’s great for a laugh or for a themed party. When you pour it into the glass, it’s actually very dark green, owing to the dye used to darken it. That was a surprise. But the flavour is very pleasant indeed and it slips down a treat as a fairly standard sweet mead, although I’m sure I could sense something of the sea in there. But the best part is when you realise it turns your tongue blue! This one is pure, great tasting fun.
As just one of the many fruit meads on the market today, this is a little bottle that’s big on flavour, and it also comes from the Knight/Pirate Shop. More of a medium sweetness, this is packed to the rafters with berry fruit character, and tastes more like a liquer than a standard mead. It would go beautifully with dessert or coffee, and would make a good gift with a difference. So next time I go castle-trekking in Wales, I’ll be stopping off for some mead stocks in Conwy.
You may, of course, have noticed that we’ve missed a crucial mead out of this tasting session. The only one left to taste on my Quest is our very own brew, who’s been happily maturing in a darkened room for a month. We should soon be able to get an idea of what he’ll end up like when he’s fully developed, so please be my guest and join me at the weekend for the great unveiling of Sticky Rogers, and to try out a couple of festive meady cocktails to celebrate the start of Christmas… See you soon!