Boiling & Seething: Recreating Two Medieval Mead Recipes was originally published at Zymurgy online: https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/boiling-seething-recreating-two-medieval-mead-recipes/
Making mead has been a passion of mine ever since we started our homestead in the rolling hills of the Fingerlakes. Another passion is medieval history, and while these two might seem worlds apart, learning for instance how mead was brewed in history can give quite some interesting tips on how to brew naturally. For instance, my experiments to emulate two 14th century mead recipes taught me a trick or two on what to do with frames of crystallized honey from hives which had not made it through winter.
My initial interest in brewing from two specific medieval recipes was the mention of apples: it looked to be the earliest apple mead (cyser) on paper. Living in an orchard area, I have a soft spot for cysers and bought the transcript of the 14th century English manuscript to try my hand at making my own, medieval style. To my surprise, the recipes as noted down did not work. While I had checked, and double checked, the editors’ translation interpretations, the amounts did not add up, and the literal interpretation did not make sense. And what really bothered me is that while it tasted ok, it was really difficult to keep from spoiling. Something was not right. Instead of changing the recipes to fit my modern needs, I wondered if the recipes had been wrongly interpreted…
To apple? Or not to apple?
The first clue was that the manuscript had two mead recipes, and the second one – the one with the possible apples – referred back to “cooked apples” used in the previous recipe. But that recipe did not use apples at all; it listed how to make plain mead. So what could that pesky word mean instead? The questionable word was “pomys”, which looks a lot like pomace, the solid leftovers from making apple cider. As I live next to an orchard I’ve been around pomace for years, picked it up to feed our goats, and now make my own as we finally got our own press. So at first the interpretation by the editors that pomace meant apples made perfect sense. Except it does not work using apples. So what else could it have been? Looking a little deeper into the meaning of the word – I am not a native English speaker – I found it means fruit pressings in general. And while the previous recipe did not use any other fruit either, it did have something which was pressed: it had honeycomb.
And what about the comb wax
Which brings us back to the first recipe: that one did not work out right away either, of course. It instructions are to boil and simmer the honeycomb to make a must. At the end of all that cooking it instructs to press out the remaining comb, except with all this cooking there won’t be any, and cooling down the must does not make it re-appear. After doing several iterations of this recipe, the only way I could make it fit, was by not translating the words ‘boyling’ and ‘seething’ literally, but as the process of heating and cooking. If I literally cooked the must, the wax would melt, and interestingly it would not solidify as expected when the must cooled down. If the must was heated enough for the honey to dissolve but not so much the wax would melt, the resulting wet comb could be pressed to get the last bits of liquid out (and fit the description ‘sodden pomys’ quite perfectly). This technique of heating enough so it does not hurt the skin, then using your hands to work the comb, break it up and get it all to dissolve well, is straight from a medieval beekeeping manual and a very functional way to process loose (and old, crystallized) honey comb. And interestingly, if the must is consequently never heated above the melting point of wax, the ambient osmophilic honey yeast survives. As it has slightly higher temperature tolerances than traditional beer/wine yeasts (154ºF instead of 120ºF) it now has a nice competition free start in a sugar rich must.
Illogical? Maybe not
First I have a recipe which makes nice plain mead, followed by a recipe which lists a number of ingredients including malt, honey, pomys and spices – in odd proportions – and then instructs to put all this in the vessel in the barrel of the “forseid” mead. At first I thought of a scribal error – did the scribe really mention the barrel twice? – and then it hit me: the recipe instructs to make a sweetened flavoring to add back to the mead made in the previous recipe! The pomys is not there to add to the sugars, it is there to add to the flavor profile. I learned from making many ‘hive’ meads that wax – especially broodwax, wax used to store pollen and bits of propolis – adds a significant earthy spiciness to the brew, which combined with the pepper and cloves also mentioned in the recipe makes for a very nice, rather complex flavor profile.
I started out to recreate medieval cyser, and ended up emulating modern braggot, while in the process learning to work with parts of the hive which I might otherwise have scrapped. But then, being frugal is both a homesteading, and a medieval, kind of thing!
For brewers interested in trying their own version
The original recipes from the chapter V Goud Kokery in Curye on Inglysch:
9 To make mede.
Take hony combis & put hem into a greet vessel & ley thereynne grete stickis, & ley the weight theron til it be runne out as myche as it wole; & this is called liif hony. & thanne take that forseid combis & sethe hem in clene water, & boile hem wel. After presse out thereof as myche as though may & caste it into another vessel into hoot water, & sethe it wel & scome it wel, & do therto a quarte of liif hony. & thanne lete it stone a fewe dayes wel stoppid, & tis is good drinke.
10 To make fyn meade & poynaunt.
Take xx galouns of the forseid pomys soden in iii galouns of fyn wort, & i galoun of liif hony & sethe hem wel & scome hem wel til thei be cleer enowgh; & put therto iii penyworth of poudir of peper & i penyworth of poudir of clowis & lete it boile wel togydere. & whanne it is coold put it into the vessel into the tunnynge up of the forseid mede; put it therto, & close it wel as it is aboue said.
Recipe 9 To make Mead:
Take honey combs, and put them into a big vessel & lay in there big sticks, & lay the weight on it [of the combs] until it runs out as much as it would; & this is called life honey. & then take those mentioned combs & simmer [heat] them in clean water [not hotter than your hands can take], & boil [cook] it well. After press out of it [the combs] as much as you can & cast it [the liquid] into another vessel into hot water, & heat it well, & scum it well, & do thereto a quart of life honey. & then let it stand a few days well closed up, & this is a good drink.
Recipe 10: To make fine mead, and poignant.
Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys [the squeezed combs of recipe 9] cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & heat it well [below 154 ºF, and the ambient yeast will survive] & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it cook well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead [add it back into the barrel the 20 gallons came out off]; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before. The original transcriptions, and the suggestions for interpretation, can be found in the Early English Text Society publication by Constance Hieatt & Sharon Butler (ed). Curye on Inglysch, English culinary manuscripts of the 14th century (including the Forme of Cury). London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- The original transcriptions, and the suggestions for interpretation, can be found in the Early English Text Society publication by Constance Hieatt & Sharon Butler (ed). Curye on Inglysch, English culinary manuscripts of the 14th century (including the Forme of Cury). London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Butler, Charles. The Feminine Monarchie. 1609. Oxford: 1623.
- Hyll, Thomas. A Profitable Instruction of the Perfite Ordering of Bees. London: by Henrie Bynneman, 1579.
- Lawson, William. A New Orchard and Garden. London: by Nicholas Okes at the Golden Vnicorne, 1631.
- Platt, Hugh. Jewell House of Art and Nature. London: Peter Short, 1594.
- Verberg, Susan. Of Hony, a Collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes. 2017.