By John Hailman, HT.com wine blogger
What was the favorite wine of Robin Hood and his Merry Men?
The same wine that made the ancient Romans merry but turned the Vikings vicious. This ancient wine, pale and golden, is unfortunately seldom made in the United States today, but mead can be surprisingly good.
Before good wine grapes were developed in Europe, especially northern Europe, the main ingredient in fermenting beverages was honey. Don’t turn your head too quickly. Made by good winemakers, mead is neither too sweet nor overly alcoholic, although it can be both. And its natural sugar can be fermented out. Only the aroma is like Sauternes.
Reading Prince Valiant cartoons growing up, I often wondered what that golden liquid was that the knights and serfs alike drank from the big goblets in their mead halls. Now, I learn that the places they sat were called mead benches and the great drinking vessels they passed around were called mead horns.
When I worked at a wine store in the early 1970s, we sold a half-dozen meads, mainly from England and the Scandinavian countries, although the best I ever had came from France, from the old seaside province of Normandy, named for the Norsemen who drank it there with such pleasure. Until then I’d thought any wine from honey must be pretty wimpy stuff, but if the Vikings drank it, who knows?
It goes without saying that the Vikings were not exactly gourmets. The word “vike” after all is a verb that means “to pillage.” Only the appearance of the Hagar the Horrible cartoons and his “shopping trips” to England for Helga have begun to soften their image a little. But Robin Hood is another story. The Sherwood Forest crowd included at least one lettered churchman, Friar Tuck, and it is well known that monks loved mead right up to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and monks were among the most discerning of European wine drinkers.
Of course taste was not the only reason medieval people drank mead. Its other name was Hippocras, named for the father of “medicine.”
Pure, old-time mead was made from water, honey and yeast alone. The juice of lemons was often added to make it less bland. The use of fruit juice, either lemons or oranges, to replace water makes mead into what is called melomel. An intriguing drink favored by the Romans was Oxymel, wine made from fermented mead and vinegar. Oxymel still existed in the middle ages when the English mockingly called it “Italian” wine. Sailors under Queen Elizabeth I liked to add rum to their mead. Mead made entirely with wine instead of water was called Pymet, and usually had spices added.
About the only country still having mead as its national drink is Ethiopia. A few years ago, while dining at the Red Sea restaurant in Washington, D.C., an Ethiopian friend, now a lawyer in Tuscon, introduced me for the first time to mead as a food wine. It was not a big hit with every diner, but I thought it made a descent after-dinner drink. It was called Tej and was made in Canada of all places.
For those brave enough, my friend passed on this recipe for homemade mead:
2 gallons of water
10 pounds of uncooked honey (no comb)
Flavor for acidity with 3 lemons and 3 oranges
The wine should ferment for 21 days, and then be filtered with fresh egg whites after the scum (really) is skimmed off the top. Mead is somewhat unstable, so it should be allowed to rest for six months in strong bottles with wired-on corks before drinking. The other great modern mead makers, the Masai of southern Africa, require their winemakers to remain celibate during the entire fermentation. This practice is optional, but the strong bottles are a necessity.
John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories: From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at Ole Miss.