Friday, 2 July 2010

Mead: the Mother of Booze (NU126418)

The ancestor of all fermented drinks, antedating the cultivation of the soil.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, historian.

One of Lindisfarne’s most noticeable commercial concerns is St.Aidan’s Winery, producers of the famous Lindisfarne Mead. But what exactly is this strange concoction? Well, basically, it is a mixture of honey and water, fermented with yeast so that the sugars in the honey turn to alcohol. And as for its history, well, it is very likely the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world.

Lindisfarne may well be England’s ‘Cradle of Christianity’, but it can make no such claim when it comes to the old tipple. For mead has been around – in all the major centres of civilisation – for many thousands of years. Earliest references stretch back to around 7,000BC to (very) ancient China; and Africa, too, can claim a lengthy heritage. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the invention of mead marked the passage of man’s development “from nature to culture”. In Europe, the drink probably arrived with the Beaker people around 2,000BC; and Aristotle and his pals were known to have indulged in the heyday of Ancient Greece. The Germanic tribes of northern Europe (the Vikings included) helped make mead very much as popular as ale in the Dark Ages, and this is when it entered our own culture big-time. The word ‘honeymoon’ is derived from the Norse custom of having newly-weds drink the stuff for a whole moon in order to increase their fertility. So I guess it was considered an aphrodisiac.

So quite why the religious houses of Dark Age England took to brewing and drinking mead I shudder to think. Anyway, the monks of Lindisfarne were especially keen, it seems, though they would have probably claimed it was nothing more than a little side-line of their beekeeping hobby. As you can imagine, during its long and colourful history, mead has developed countless variants. Different strengths, the inclusion of fruits, spices and herbs (and sometimes hops), differing maturing periods – and even, recently, the development of carbonated and sparkling versions, as well as dry, semi-sweet and sweet mixes – all helping to enrich the world of the mead aficionado.

Mead has enjoyed its good times and bad. Its popularity waned as the Middle Ages progressed, taxation and strict regulation taking their toll. And when cheap sugar imports began to arrive from the West Indies in the seventeenth century, beekeeping and honey production took quite a knock – and so, then, did mead production. But hang on it did, especially in areas in which grapes could not be grown for the production of wine – and for that we have the monasteries to thank.

So say what you will about these religious types, but on this score, at least, they seem to have got their priorities right.

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