A Miscellany of Marvellous Mead

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.

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Let the festivities begin…

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:

Metheglin
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…

Pyment
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.

Braggot
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”.

Melomel
Another delicious variant, made from honey and any fruit. Lots of scope for future Sticky Rogers flavours here then!

Bochet
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).

Innocent III

Pope Innocent III – he should have got the drinks in…

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…

honeymoon

Medieval newlyweds off on their honeymoon – looks as though they’ve had a few meads already!

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:

All four meads.jpg

A variety of meads to try

Lindisfarne Mead
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.

Lindisfarne  mead.jpg

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.

Mountain Ash.jpg

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.

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Pirate Mead from the front…

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…and from the back

Blueberry Mead
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.

Blueberry mead.jpg

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!

26 thoughts on “A Miscellany of Marvellous Mead

    • Thanks Robyn! Glad you found it interesting. I love learning the origins of sayings and words. It gives them new meaning. I’m looking forward to unleashing Sticky Rogers on the world too! Fingers crossed for a positive outcome… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a teriffic blog to end your Mead-ieval Quest. It had as many ingredients as the drink itself – historically interesting, full of character (and characters) and left me wanting more. All in all a quest that I’ve found totally absorbing. Well done Alli.

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    • Thanks Malc, that’s a lovely thing to say. Love the analogy with the mead itself! Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it all, and that you found it interesting. It’s comments like this that make my blog worth doing. Thanks again, and I’ll raise a glass of Sticky Rogers to you while I’m writing my last mead post at the weekend. Skol! And Happy Yule… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As long as you keep writing ’em Alli I’ll keep reading ’em.
    I’m also with you on letting alcohol be the right medecine. Skol 🙂 I hope the the Templeton household has a great Christmas and New Year. It was lovely to meet you all in 2019 – even if it was only in the virtual world x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Malc, it’s very good to know you enjoy the posts so much. We may only have met in the virtual world, but I’m sure one day we’ll raise a glass for real. All Seasons Greetings to you and yours too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • It all makes sense when you know the origins of terms, doesn’t it? A moon-cycle’s worth of honey wine – I wish they still did that! I can recommend mead as an alternative – especially the drinks I’m making with it at the weekend. Perfect for a festive seasonal tipple with a difference. Cheers Clare! 🙂

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  3. Glad to hear mead has such medicinal qualities and cured you almost immediately! Also had no idea that’s where the word ‘honeymoon’ came from.

    The mountain ash one probably was a very clean, dry taste – if you’ve tasted rowan berries (of which I’m assuming it has at least some) – they’re a really clean and dry taste. A bit like redcurrants. I used to like the taste of redcurrant wine.

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    • Yes, it was really quite amazing. 😀 I was feeling really rough on Sunday night and thinking ‘oh hell, I’m going to go down with Maddie’s rotten lurgy’, so I had two glasses of the Mountain Ash mead and used a throat spray from Boots and hey presto! I was right as rain the next day. So much so I took Maddie down to Portsmouth to see her beloved tall ships. We had a great day. So I reckon there must be something in that old belief after all!

      Talking of Mountain Ash, I’d always thought that rowan berries were poisonous – clearly I was dreaming it. So I’ve never tasted them, but the mead is good! I’ve never had redcurrant wine either, so maybe I should find some.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Carol, and finding out the meaning of ‘honeymoon’. It makes sense when you know the origins, doesn’t it? 🙂

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      • You can definitely eat rowan berries but, due to the strong taste, I doubt you’d ever eat more than a small handful. I think my Mum used to make rowan berry jelly though and it was quite like redcurrant jelly.

        Redcurrant wine is very hard to find unfortunately. I used to get it in a pub in the Midlands who made their own fruit wines. I suppose a Google search should locate some though…

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  4. A fascinating piece here, Alli.

    I remember buying a bottle of mead from Lindisfarne many, many years ago but it was a bit sweet for my taste. I do like all things medieval so I am just off now to have a look at your other offerings!

    Fergy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Fergy! Glad you enjoyed it, and hope you enjoy the others you read. One thing I hope to have proved from my mead ‘quest’ is that there’s a mead for everyone out there, whatever their taste, so never give up! Thanks for reading, and it’s nice to ‘meet’ you! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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