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Mead: a taste of honey

Mead: a taste of honey

by Victoria Glass 15 December 2017

Victoria Glass delves deep into the sweet world of mead, an ancient honey-based drink enjoying a new lease of life thanks to a few dedicated artisans.

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Think of mead and the mind is cast back in time, to an era when people wore tunics and breeches, raised tankards and horns (or occasionally the skulls of their enemies) and wassailed along to the dulcet tones of minstrels playing lutes. But the time has come to press fast forward to a sweeter future. Mead might be the world’s oldest fermented drink, but this ancient libation is making a thoroughly modern comeback.

Mead has a long and rich history. Traces have been found in pottery vessels from as early as 7000 BC in northern China and mead was even found in the tomb of King Midas. Literature is teeming with mentions of mead and honey wine, from Beowulf and Chaucer, to Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter, and it even has roots in the etymology of the word ‘honeymoon’. Forget Champagne – it was mead that was sunk as the ceremonial toast at weddings in times of yore, and afterwards tradition dictated that newlyweds be given enough mead to last them a whole lunar phase to encourage fertility.

The history of mead-making is linked with the monasteries of Europe. Because ceremonial candles required beeswax, beekeeping was an essential practice and resulted in plenty of surplus honey to turn into booze. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century caused a decline in the custom of mead-making and drinking in Britain. But modern tastes crave excitement. With our new openness to exploring different flavours, there is romance to be found in rediscovering the past. No longer just the preserve of Anglo Saxon lords or medieval re-enactment societies, this heritage drink is gradually making a name for itself as the hot and trendy new (old) kid on the block.

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Gosnells, a South London producer based in Peckham, has brought mead bang up to date with its signature style of light, sparkling meads that can rival any craft beer. Founder Tom Gosnell had his interest in mead spiked when he went to Main Mead Works in Portland. It was the first time he drank mead that wasn’t ‘weird, castle gift shop stuff’. Aiming for something more ‘urban and real’, Gosnells Mead is about as far away from castle gift shop as you can get.

‘Honey’s a really amazing product and once you strip away the sweetness, you gain access to all the tertiary flavours and other notes, which you might otherwise miss,’ explains Tom. ‘We’ve worked hard not to make it too sweet like traditional meads. Ours is more like a medium dry cider.’

Head brewer Tom Wilson told me that Gosnells has created a new type of mead that’s ‘fresh, fruity and clean’. The way they attend to their yeast cultivates notes of green apple, which tastes fantastic in mead, but would be considered a brewing defect in beer. Gosnells stops the ferment more quickly than traditional meads, which results in a refreshing drink that’s easy to quaff at only 5.5% ABV. The quicker ferment prevents the mead becoming the sweet, syrupy higher proof drink that most people are more familiar with.

‘We’re unusual in that we use 100% honey,’ says Tom. ‘We want our product to be as unbastardised as possible. It’s a biologically driven product, so we don’t use any sulphites or clarifying solutions – there are no artificial stabilisers. Our mead is just honey, water and yeast.’

It’s great to cook with too and plenty of chefs, including Ollie Dabbous, are big fans. The team at Gosnells like to use their mead in recipes ranging from pea and ham risotto to honey panna cotta, and also recommend it as a great cocktail base or mixer. Their spiced mead, which has been fermented with star anise, cinnamon and cardamom, is made to drink warm, which hits the festive spot a treat.

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The Cornish Mead Company do things a little differently. A family business which started in their great grandfather’s kitchen in the 1960s, Cornish Mead is a Melomel, which is a style of mead which uses fruit as well as honey. They use a red grape base which is flavoured with honey and some of their range includes other fruits, such as blackberries. At 17% ABV, their product is more like a fortified or dessert wine, so makes a well-matched companion to a Christmas cheeseboard. Their blackberry mead is great with blue cheese, while their liqueur mead works fantastically with a strong cheddar or camembert. ‘It’s also wonderful to use to deglaze a pan or finish off a jus and makes a natural pairing with duck or game, or you can set it in jelly to serve with foie gras,’ says managing director Sophia Fenton.

Sophia believes it is the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter (Ron Weasley accidentally consumes poisoned mead which Draco Malfoy intended for Dumbledore) that has brought awareness to a new market. ‘Mead’s no longer stuck with the Maid Marion, jousting, Round Table tag,’ says Sophia. ‘These shows are bringing in a new audience.’

Mead is still a fairly boutique purchase, but it’s gaining popularity with the craft beer market, which continues to rise exponentially. ‘Craft beer used to be seen as beer’s woolly jumper not so long ago,’ says Sophia, who hopes that mead’s popularity will continue to rise in the same way. ‘Younger people are intrigued. Mead doesn’t have the stigma of being old-fashioned anymore; it’s moved on. Our mead is a modern, fresh attitude to an original product.’

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Lindisfarne Mead, on the other hand, is as traditional as traditional gets. Made exclusively on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a tidal island one mile off the coast of Northumberland, Lindisfarne Mead has adopted the Ancient Roman method of using grape juice in their fermentation process, in honour of the island’s rich history.

The Romans under Julius Caesar invaded Lindisfarne in 55 BC, bringing with them their food and culture. A centenarian named Pollio Romulus wrote to Caesar to say he attributed his longevity and virility to his regular consumption of ‘Methegli’, or spiced mead. Mead was the drink of choice for kings and queens for hundreds of years – Elizabeth I even had her very own recipe – but it was King Oswald of Northumbria who brought St Aidan from the Island of Iona in 634 AD to establish a monastery on Lindisfarne, leading to the island being known as The Cradle of Christianity.

The Lindisfarne recipe was formulated from research in the 1950s that aimed to replicate the approach to mead production in the 600s. Their mead is rich and sticky and, according to Chris Walwyn-James, Lindisfarne’s director of operations, it ‘is to be enjoyed like a dessert wine’ rather than knocked back like a beer. ‘Our mead is popular with many chefs and works well with chicken or fowl and in ice creams or various desserts.’ The sweetness is most pronounced when the mead is room temperature and can be enjoyed chilled for those who prefer the sweetness of the honey to be more tempered.

Their dark mead is ‘a richer and slightly different mead to try at Christmas’ and their new spiced mead, which also happens to be their first new mead in nearly half a century, is made to drink warm to release the aroma of the spices and makes the perfect seasonal tipple.

Chris believes the nation’s rekindled interest in mead might well owe a lot of thanks to popular culture, but it’s also honey’s multiple health benefits that are causing a spike in interest. ‘Mead is a very ‘clean’ drink, which makes it popular with the wellness crowd,’ he says. ‘It’s becoming much trendier with the youth market, which is fantastic news. We want mead to be more widely enjoyed.’

Mead has certainly stood the test of time. And whether your taste is for traditional and sticky, or light, sparkling modern styles, one thing’s for sure: it’s here to stay. Britain’s love affair with mead may have gone off-course in the past, but what’s a few hundred years between friends? Let’s cement our rediscovered taste for honey this Christmas by filling a tankard (or perhaps the skull of your mortal enemy) with mulled mead to toast the season in style.

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