Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Honey of a Wine

Honey.  The original sweet thing.

Before brown sugar, beet sugar, molasses, agave syrup and treacle, if something in your life needed sweetening, honey was the answer.

Got sour fruit?  Honey it.

Got a finicky baby?  Drizzle in that honey.

Had a rough day?  Sit back and chill with a nice glass of honey.


Maybe that's a little too thick for your tastes, and if it is, well it was for our long lost ancestors too, so that's why they found a way to not only have their honey, but discovered a way to drink it too. 

And their answer was – Mead. 

Most likely the greatest granddaddy of alcoholic drinks worldwide, Mead, also known as honeywine, is made by fermenting honey with water.  And to find the earliest Meads, you'll have to go pretty far back to around 7000 B.C.E., to some pottery vessels found in northern China containing a mixture of honey, rice and other fruits along with organic compounds of fermentation.

But, if you're one of those people who absolutely has to have it in writing, then you'll have to take a look at the Hindu scriptures’ Hymns of Rigveda, with its description of Mead, dating from around 1700 B.C.E.

So, as you can imagine, by the time the Golden Age of Ancient Greece rolled around, Mead as a beverage was pretty well-established and had such widespread popularity that the classical Greek word for "drunk" translated to "intoxicated with honey."

And it wasn't just the humans all caught up in the merrymaking.  Even the gods weren’t immune to its charms, with Bacchus, the Greek wine god teaching beekeeping by day, so as to leave his nights free to enjoy the products of his merry Mead making.

From Aristotle to the Roman Empire’s historian, Pliny the Elder, all wrote about Mead although I'm not sure they were all reviews.  Drunk by King Arthur in Britain and written about in the Anglo-Saxon classic "Beowulf,” Mead was enjoyed by kings at banquets or in Mead halls, and downed ceremoniously from decorated horns and fanciful cups.

Even Chaucer got into the act in his Canterbury tales, with the merry priest in The Miller's Tale, wooing his lady love with the very best Mead his money could buy.

But why Mead, you may ask?  What's all this excitement about honey?  Well, in the world before the New World, it was mostly bees and their honey that made life sweet.  And in places too far north for grape growing, fermenting honey was the answer to creating warming beverages that I'd call the wines of the North.

And although no one knows exactly how Mead came about, myths circle around the story of a forest traveler who had come upon old, flooded tree stumps which had been homes to bees. 

The torrential downpour that had taken place much earlier, had not only filled the tree stumps, blending honey with water, but had begun a process of natural fermentation, since the stumps were left sitting in the forest, undisturbed.

Now, I don't know if I'd be adventurous enough to take a sip out of an old, flooded tree stump, but thanks to our forest traveler's daring, Mead came into this world, or so the story goes, in this unexpected way.

But enough about history, let's talk types of Mead, for I think you'd be surprised at how many there are:

Acerglyn is a Mead made with honey and maple syrup, while Bochet (called “Dark Mead” in my recent Mead Me at Vendome posting) is made by caramelizing the honey before adding the water, which results in toasty flavors of caramel and toffee. 

Then, there’s a Mead called Cyser (also sipped at Vendome’s Mead Tasting), that’s fermented apple juice and honey and is most likely an early forerunner of cider.

And if it's rose hips or rose petals you'll be adding to your honey, then the Mead that results is called Rhodomel.  And as far as extra exotics, there’s the Mayan Mead called Pitarrilla made of wild honey,
balché tree bark and fresh water, while Tej in Ethiopia adds the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, which gives its honeyed Mead a hop-like bitterness.

The list goes on and on, but I promise I won't, however there’s one more Mead I absolutely must list – and it’s Metheglin, which is a Mead made with herbs and/or spices, and happens to be the style of our featured Danish Mead, which I found with Mike’s help at Vendome Wine & Spirits in Toluca Lake.

GI. Dansk Mjød is a Mead made of honey, hops and ginger and produced by Scandinavia's largest meadery, Dansk Mjød, based in Copenhagen.  According to brewmaster Michael Broggaard, after boiling together the ingredients, the Mead is left to ferment for 5 weeks, before adding neutral spirits and being transferred to wooden barrels for six months of aging, prior to its release.

Based on a recipe from about the year 1700, however, with improved methods and storage, as well as a longer fermentation, he insists that the Mead will never become old and will only improve with the passage of time.

But that's not a problem that I'll be worrying about from the way it tastes.  Golden honey in color with a nose rich in ginger and honey, that also hints at a light floral character, reminiscent of honeysuckle.  This delicious sipping wine is beautifully balanced between the sweetness of the honey and the heat of the ginger and ends in a lingeringly warm ginger and hops finish that’s minutes long.

Sophisticated and elegant are words that come to mind, and although the makers recommend serving it either chilled over ice with fruits as an aperitif or at room temperature as a dessert wine or even heated a bit for a winter warmer, I also recommend letting it share the table as an ingredient, where its smooth and silky finesse can transform a dish.

So, welcome to my Cooking with GI. Dansk Mjød Series, for here’s a peek at what's coming up next –

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