Boiling up Bochet, medieval style

The obscure history of Bochet, a sweet French honey drink.

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Not all that long ago, the homebrewing community discovered Bochet, a medieval French beverage, and the resulting burnt-honey mead style has gathered quite a few enthusiast followers. This enthusiasm is in large part due to the unique and challenging way of process, as the modern interpretation of bochet is a mead made from caramelized honey, spices optional. Hearing the stories of smoking honey and tasting the delicious caramelly results I wanted to know more about this unusual mead. Surprisingly, I found that the modern mead variety is based off of just one historic recipe from 14th century Paris, France. When Le Ménagier de Paris (1393), a medieval household manual detailing a woman’s proper behavior in marriage and running a household, was newly translated and republished as The Good Wife’s Guide: a Medieval Household Book by the Cornell University Press in 2009, its collection of recipes – including one for bochet – became easily available to the general public. As the word bochet is not connected to a modern definition, the original French name of the recipe using caramelized honey was retained, and the word bochet became to signify the product of this one recipe: a mead made with caramelized honey.

Let’s take a closer look at historic bochet
There are not many historic sources that mention the product bochet, but while Le Ménagier might be the most elaborate source, it is not the only source. Interestingly, these other sources more or less collectively point at a different definition for what makes a beverage a bochet. The word itself is not currently in use in modern French, with the governmental Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales defining bochet as a drink made with water, sugar, honey and various spices (especially cinnamon). Cursory searches on-line find that Bochet as well as Boschet are in active use as surnames. Eighteenth century French sources use both words as a diminutive of Bois (forest): boschet (small bush; thicket) and bochet (Le bois / la garenne / le bochet; second decoction of sudorific woods). The connection between bochet and sudorificus, from Latin sudor ‘sweat,’ is intriguing, as the ‘sweat’ of forests could be interpreted as honeydew, a sticky sweet sap exuded by certain trees during specific weather conditions and likened to honey in medieval times. Along this same line of thinking falls the bouchet pear, plausibly likened to bochet due to its sweet juice.

The earliest variants of bochet as a beverage are: bochetus (1292); bocheto (1301); boschier (1330); bochet vero [true bochet], boischet, boschet & bouchet (1348); bochet (1385) and boschet (1404).

The earliest literary mention of bochet does not give much information about the beverage itself.

1301 CE: Item pro uno Bocheto, sito in loco ubi dicitur en Bruier. Boschet, ibid. (Carpentier 1766, 569) Also in place of a Bocheto, in this location called Bruier. As well as Boschet.

Another source, contemporary to Le Ménagier by nearly a decade, confirms bochet is a beverage, and indicates the beverage is (served) hot.

1385 CE: Ledit Alain comme tout esbahi, bout a arrière de li ledit Gieffroy, & en c’est boutement a çopa ledit Gieffroy, s’il qu’il che en une cuvée de Bochet, qui mise y estoit pour reffroidier. (Carpentier 1766, 569) Said Alain all appalled / amazed, at the back of said Gieffroy, & in this raising of his cup by said Gieffroy, in that he cheers with a vessel of Bochet, which is put there to cool down.

The most interesting source in regards to this article is the inspirational recipe from Le Ménagier de Paris, “the Parisian Household Book” from 1393. Le Ménagier includes two detailed recipes for bochet, as well as detailed instructions on how to caramelize honey for this bochet.

Bochet. To make 6 septiers of bochet, take 6 quarts of fine, mild honey and put it in a cauldron on the fire to boil.  Keep stirring until it stops swelling and it has bubbles like small blisters that burst, giving off a little blackish steam. Then add 7 septiers of water and boil until it all reduces to six septiers, stirring constantly. Put it in a tub to cool to lukewarm, and strain through a cloth. Decant into a keg and add one pint of brewer’s yeast, for that is what makes it piquant – although if you use bread leaven, the flavor is just as good, but the color will be paler. Cover well and warmly so that it ferments. And for an even better version, add an ounce of ginger, long pepper, grains of paradise, and cloves in equal amounts, except for the cloves of which there should be less; put them in a linen bag and toss into the keg. Two or three days later, when the bochet smells spicy and is tangy enough, remove the spice sachet, wring it out, and put it in another barrel you have underway. Thus you can reuse these spices up to 3 or 4 times. (Greco 2009, p. 325)

Surprisingly, the recipes from Le Ménagier du Paris are not the only historic recipes available detailing the making of bochet. Jean Longis included one in his 1556 book “The great owner of all things, very useful and profitable for keeping the human body healthy [as instructed by 13th century] Bartholomaeus Anglicus.” This recipe could, or could not, confirm bochet used caramelized honey – the description is not detailed enough, and the translation ambiguous. The word in question is cuyte (cuit) which derives from cuisine (cooking) and most likely translates as the verb cooking. But it could also translate to burnt (brûlé, incendié, cuit, carbonisé) which could indicate the caramelization process explained in the Le Ménagier recipe. This recipe does not indicate any fermentation, and also includes the use of herbs “to keep it longer & to give it a scent.”

Bochet is in Latin called Medo & is water and honey to drink, when the Bochet is undercooked & the honey is not well cooked [burnt?], it bites the belly hard & generates the diarrhea & makes great suffering: but when it is well cooked & scented it is delectable to the taste. And smoothens the voice & clears the throat & the pipes of the lungs & comforts the heart & gives it jubilation. And nourish the body: but it is not good for those who have badly burning spleen and who have the [kidney] stone and the gravel, because it restrains their conduits and to the humors. We put aromatic herbs in the Bochet to keep it longer & to give it a scent, & in Bretagne we put in absinthe which is a very bitter herb for that to trust. (Longis 1556, p. ccvij)

Another recipe detailing the herbs and spices needed as well as some cursory instruction on how to make bochet comes from Le Thresor de santé (1607) by Jean Huguetan. This recipe is interesting, as the process described again connects bochet with heating, but then connects this heating process with the making of hippocras, a type of mulled wine which is spiced and can be sweetened with honey or sugar.

We take, freshly boiled water, … a pot.
Crushed cinnamon,… half ounce.
Sugar,… half pound.
The whole thing happens by heat, in the fashion of hippocras. You can change the amounts, taking:
Fine sugar in powder,… four ounces.
Cinnamon, as much as above. – – – –
Boiling water,… four pounds.
The whole mixed together cools down into a well-covered bowl of pewter or earthenware. In fact, we pour it through a white sheet to use it. It is good for gouty people. (Huguetan 1607, 110)

The sources in context
The historic sources show a slightly different characteristics for the beverage bochet then found in popular writing. In that regards the instructions from Le Ménagier are in stark contrast to the other sources. Not only is Le Ménagier the only source instructing to caramelize the honey, it is also the only direct source instructing fermentation. Some sort of alcoholic content is indirectly inferred from its association with other alcoholic beverages, like beer, cider and perry, but it is not explicitly stated elsewhere. There are several sources equating bochet with barley water, infusions and broth – none particularly known for their alcoholic contents. Perhaps the connection of bochet with hippocras can shed light on this question: “The whole thing happens by heat, in the fashion of hippocras” (1607). Perhaps the word bochet is not an indication of a general product (like wine, or mead) but instead of a specific process? To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at the defining features of bochet to pin down its characteristics (see table 1).

1385 1393 1393 1556 1607 1611 1684 1695 1725
HEAT, boiling &c. X X X X X X X ?
Honey X X X ?
caramelized honey X ?
Sugar X X
Fermentation X X
Infusion X X ? X X X
Hypocras X X
Kitchen spices X X X X X X
Medicinal herbs X X
Ginger X
Long pepper X
Grains of paradise X X
Cloves X X
Absinthe X
Cinnamon X X X
Coriander X X
Aniseeds X

Table 1: the characteristics of historic bochet.

The results
Honey & Sugar: Modern bochet is defined as a mead, a honey wine, flavored by caramelizing (part of) the honey. Historic bochet seems to be more diverse, and indicate bochet could be made from either honey or sugar.

Fermentation: There are indications middle Age bochet was fermented but that later bochet is not. It is unclear from the later recipes if fermentation or the addition of yeast is not mentioned because fermentation was not part of the process, or because fermentation was an obvious fact which did not need repeating. Usually this omission of process is more likely in earlier recipes than in those more recent, putting this interpretation into question. It is also a possibility the product bochet changed over time, from an alcoholic infusion akin to hippocras, to a non-alcoholic infusion, akin to modern sodas, teas and tisanes.

Process: The use of heat – boiling the (sweetened) water – is consistently mentioned, as is the technique of infusing the added spices into this hot liquid. It is likely the resulting infusion, a type of tisane or infusion by heat, was consumed at room temperature as the recipes indicate the sweet tisane is cooled down slowly (“well-covered”) and filtered before consumption.

Spices: The addition of spices is mentioned consistently as well, indicating to be another characteristic of bochet. The changing of types of spices used over the decennia could be indicative of the change in flavor preference from medieval times to early modern times; transitioning from obscure medieval cooking spices to the more typical modern baking spices.

The modern definition of bochet as a mead flavored with caramelized honey still stands, but seems to place too much weight on a singular source. The defining factors of historic bochet seem more fluid. In a way, historic bochet was similar to hippocras: they both are sweetened with honey/sugar, spiced and steeped (mulled). But the base of hippocras is wine, not water, and while it might be heated for consumption, it is less likely to be boiled as part of the mulling process, as that would drive off the alcoholic content. Bochet can also be seen as similar to mead or hydromel (the French word for mead); both use honey as a source of (fermentable) sugar. Perhaps fermented bochet could even be the French word for metheglin, a spiced or medicated variety of mead associated with Wales. The difference between bochet and metheglin could be how the spices are added: with bochet the spices are boiled as part of the whole, and with most metheglin recipes the spices are added in a little spice pouch and dry-hopped during primary fermentation. And as mentioned previously, it is not at all unlikely the beverage itself evolved throughout the ages from an alcoholic spiced honey drink, to a non-alcoholic sweetened and spiced tisane.

This change of function is not at all unusual in the world of historic brewing and illustrates the importance of historical awareness, the authenticity of traditional beverages, to the homebrewer and craft brewer alike. With the ever-growing interest, and commercial market, in traditional brews it is easy to fall into the trap of plausible assumption, and letting this assumption shape our modern perception of historic products. For instance, neither modern braggot, a mead variety using less than 50% malt in its production, and modern gruit ale, an uphopped ale using any variety of herbs, existed in this form in history. Historic braggot is actually a honeyed ale and gruit beer used very specific herbs, and possibly hops.

This misconception can have real life consequences when registering for brewing competitions, as well as licensing for commercial production. Perhaps the modern brewer can make a little room for both modern specifics, and historic fluency, and enjoy the bounty our combined history has to offer. What we can say about bochet specifically with more certainty now is that what characterizes an historic bochet is not so much that it is made of (caramelized) honey or sugar, nor if it is fermented, or not – what characterizes a bochet is how it is made. The defining features of an historic bochet are that it is made by boiling sweetened water with spices and letting the concoction slowly cool down, infusing into a wonderful tasty beverage, and anything else just makes the resulting brew that much more special!

For the complete article including more samples and specific citations, please check:

Abbreviated bibliography