I recently picked up a bottle of mead at the farmers market. I was very excited about it. I tried it before buying, so I know it’s delicious. I’m keen to have a glass with some stewed apples in fact, or perhaps an apple pie or something similar. It’s called Keely Magic and is simply made with honey, water and yeast. The honey comes from selected from apiaries in Win’s Creek, south eastern New South Wales and it makes a semi-sweet drop that tastes naturally refreshing and slightly earthy.
The word mead is actually derived from old English. It is rumoured that the word honeymoon is derived from a pagan practise of bride’s father paying a dowry of enough mead for a month-long celebration of the marriage. During the middle ages, the Roman Catholic church required huge quantities of beeswax for candles to light the alters. Every church and monastery kept bees and peasants holding land under a monastery paid their yearly dues in wax. Monasteries made mead from the honey as a safe beverage to drink. Under the austerity of the reformation candles were frowned on, so demand for the wax was greatly diminished. When the monasteries were closed, peasants continued to make mead from the honey they produced and flavoured it with herbs or other additives, but large scale mead production began to decline.
By the end of the 14th century, the value of honey in the economy reduced with imports of cheap sugar from the West Indies. Honey production continued to decrease as settlement and agriculture spread throughout the British Isles. Compared to beer and imported wine, mead became so expensive that only rich nobles could buy it. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I was apparently fond of a very sweet mead flavoured with rosemary, bay leaves, sweet briar and thyme. It would have been drunk from meadhorns (highly decorated horns) or mazers (wooden bowls made from maple and inlaid with gold and silver for the wealthy), but never from the long stemmed wine glasses that are familiar to us today.
Urbanisation and large scale commercial agriculture continue to reduce honey production to this day. That’s why projects like Canberra Urban Honey are so exciting. The Canberra Urban Honey Project plans to bring the bees from the country back to the city, where they can pollinate backyard vegetable gardens and fruit trees and produce honey with the lowest possible food miles. The hives will be place on the roofs of multistory buildings, so they’ll be well out the way of people. There is a similar project supporting bees in New York City at The High Line park.
Of course, honey liquor goes by other names in other parts of the world. Archaeological evidence of honey wine production in northern China dates back as far as 7000 BC, where pottery vessels used for fermentation of honey and rice have been found. Before the Greeks grew grapes, they drank mead; the nectar and ambrosia of the Greek gods are often thought of as draughts of fermented honey. In Viking mythology, a mythical version of the drink is used as a metaphor for poetic inspiration. Mead was the favourite drink of the Norse gods and heroes, the wife of the god Thor gives some aged mead to the god Loki.
I thoroughly enjoyed the tej I drank in Ethiopia. Tej is made with water, honey and sticks of gesho (a thornbush native to Ethiopia). Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest honey exporters, but most small scale honey production is used domestically in the household production of tej. The honey is sold in gourds, the top of which have been cut off and flipped over to act as a stopper for the vessel. I visited the markets in Lalibela during the Christmas celebrations, and dozens of men were lined up selling their honey. Lalibella, home to Ethiopa’s monolithic rock-hewn cathedrals, is considered home to the country’s best tej. Indeed, there are some lovely tej bar’s, where the drink is produced in large quantities and comes served in a beautiful flask called a berele that has a large bulbous base and tall thin neck. Customarily the tej in the top of the neck is flicked out of the berele to discard any particles (gesho or other) that float on the surface. The best tej I tasted was not in Lalibella, but was a home-made brew in Gondar, a city further south. The boys went and bought it for me, bringing it back in reused plastic water bottle. They were always going to get the local price, but we enjoyed it together. It tasted a bit like a cross between whiskey and a honey flavoured wine. It was really incredible, I wish they’d export the stuff. In the mean time, I’m very happy with my Keely Magic.