Vienna, 18 August 2019
Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”
Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.
I have certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.
Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.
Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.
In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.
And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”
The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …
But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:
I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.
The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.
The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:
Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …
It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.
As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.
In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.
And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.
What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).
Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait.
Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).
In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.
Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting.
He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead.
He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.
It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.
The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts.
Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.
In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?