The nec­tar of the gods

Mead, the tip­ple that quenched the thirst of monks, war­riors and kings, is en­joy­ing a be­lated hon­ey­moon pe­riod, says Flora Watkins

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Mead is en­joy­ing a be­lated hon­ey­moon re­ports Flora Watkins

At a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate, it’s about 9,000 years old, hav­ing been brewed by the An­cient Chi­nese and Egyp­tians, Norse war­riors and the monks of Lind­is­farne. Devotees have in­cluded Elizabeth I—who had her own recipe—and ref­er­ences in lit­er­a­ture abound, from Be­owulf to King Arthur, from Chaucer and Shake­speare to tolkien and J. K. Rowl­ing.

His­tor­i­cally, be­cause honey was an ex­pen­sive com­mod­ity, mead has had a spe­cial, quasi-mys­ti­cal sta­tus—some­thing served by the Valkyries in Val­halla, rather than comely wenches in the lo­cal tav­ern. It was even part of the mar­riage rit­ual, with young cou­ples be­ing given enough mead for one full moon, for good luck and fer­til­ity, hence the term hon­ey­moon.

How­ever, from the end of the tu­dor era un­til quite re­cently, mead-mak­ing was in the dol­drums—it’s thought that pro­duc­tion may have de­clined in the 17th cen­tury due to cheap im­ported su­gar from the West Indies and var­roa-mites de­stroy­ing bee colonies. Mead has since been some­thing of a his­tor­i­cal cu­rios­ity, lan­guish­ing dustily at the back of the shelf.

At his brew­ery in south-east Lon­don, tom Gos­nell jokes that the only type of mead he’d tried had been ‘cas­tle gift-shop type stuff’, un­til a trip to the USA, where he sam­pled some ‘re­ally well­crafted mead’ in Maine. Back in Lon­don, he be­gan ‘play­ing around’ in his base­ment, found­ing his epony­mous brew­ery in 2013. He’s dou­bled his turnover each year and now has seven staff on the pay­roll.

‘A lot of mead is quite sweet and strong, so it’s chal­leng­ing, but ours is only 5.5% [ABV]. It’s still made with just honey, water and yeast, but it’s a lot lighter and eas­ier to get on with,’ he ex­plains.

His sig­na­ture Lon­don Mead, served, ap­pro­pri­ately, at Shake­speare’s Globe theatre in Lon­don, is light, cit­rusy and gen­tly sparkling, the honey pro­vid­ing del­i­cate flo­ral notes. Served very cold on a hot day, ‘it re­ally slakes your thirst’.

Mr Gos­nell also pro­duces a ‘hopped’, slightly more full-bod­ied mead and lim­ited edi­tions, in­clud­ing a spiced va­ri­ety for win­ter and a Cit­rus Sea mead, blended with lemon peel, tar­ragon and salt­wa­ter.

Cru­cially, thanks to the lower ABV, these meads won’t leave you feel­ing as if you’ve been coshed over the head the next day. Much of Mr Gos­nell’s suc­cess has been fa­cil­i­tated by the craft-beer move­ment. He sug­gests drink­ing his brew on its own, in ‘place of a cider or a light lager’, or pair­ing it with richer, spicier dishes, hard cheeses or with pud­ding in place of, say, a Sauternes.

His ethos has been taken to heart at Miche­lin-starred restau­rants the Clove Club and Dab­bous. An­other devo­tee is the en­tre­pre­neur Ste­fan turn­bull, who sells Gos­nell’s mead in his Cu­bitt House group of fine-din­ing pubs. ‘It’s very light, crisp, clean and re­fresh­ing—noth­ing like my [prior] per­cep­tion,’ he says.

In Corn­wall, Sophia Fen­ton’s fam­ily has been brew­ing a stronger mead with a wine base (14%– 17%) to her great-grand­fa­ther’s recipe since 1960. Its New­lyn brew­ery has al­ways en­joyed a strong fol­low­ing lo­cally, but, in the past few years, Miss Fen­ton re­ports ‘a steady growth’ in sales and in­ter­est. ‘I think it started with Harry Pot­ter,’ she muses. ‘the resur­gence of bou­tique brew­eries has also helped, be­cause peo­ple aren’t con­stantly steered to­wards the av­er­age pint of Heineken or Stella [Ar­tois].’

Miss Fen­ton dis­closes that, in her fam­ily’s Mead­ery restau­rants, lo­cals ‘drink it by the litre’, but ad­vises that it’s best en­joyed as ‘an al­ter­na­tive to a pud­ding wine’, as an aper­i­tif or with Ries­ling to make a longer drink, like a Kir.

Light, mod­ern and re­fresh­ingly reimag­ined, mead looks set for a few more mil­len­nia. Cheers!

‘These meads won’t leave you feel­ing as if you’ve been coshed over the head

It’s 6pm some­where: mead has been around for thou­sands of years, but, af­ter fall­ing out of favour at the end of the Tu­dor era, it’s been en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance in re­cent years

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