As mead sheds its wenches-and-jousting image, I’ve started to come around
By M. Carrie Allan Columnist, Food
In this era of constant accusations of media bias — left-wing, right-wing, gull-wing (that’s bias against DeLoreans) — I confess: I have a long-held bias against mead. Despite regularly incorporating honey syrups into cocktails, until recently I’d largely avoided honey’s fermented iteration, either straight or as a mixer.
The source of my bias was a Renaissance festival I attended years ago. I expected to love it; after all, I’d read “The Chronicles of Narnia” at least five times. I can wench with the best of them. When we went, my friends and I bought cups of mead and “medieval” food (crusaders apparently got around on funnel cake and Ye Olde Empanadas) and wandered about taking it all in: the jousts, the bearded men in velvet pantaloons smithying various weapons.
Giddy from the mead, I paid extra to see a creature billed as “The World’s Littlest Unicorn,” which turned out to be a goat in a jacket. No one had even bothered to stick a fake horn on it. When the little girl ahead of me said plaintively, “That’s not a unicorn!,” The World’s Jerkiest Carny told her she was right: “And do you know why it’s not a unicorn? Because children don’t believe in unicorns anymore.”
Next day I woke with a sugar headache that felt like I’d been hit with a mace. And I hadn’t even had that much mead. For days, a taste of disillusionment lingered, along with the faint scent of goat.
Leave a hateful note in the comments — or pin one to my door with an elvish dagger from the SkyMall catalogue — but perhaps you can understand why it took me a while to start mixing drinks with this ancient beverage that, like so many other categories of older food culture, has resurfaced in our contemporary one.
With its long history and connection with agriculture, locavorism and fermentation, mead seems a particularly outsider art in the often-corporate beverage world. Some argue it’s the oldest fermented drink, though the Renaissance fair connection is off-base: Honey is an ancient and virtually global sweetener, and mead has roots in China, India and Africa as well as Europe. (The Ethiopian honey wine tej is arguably a mead variation; how much of a variation depends on how long an argument you want to have.) While honey-based, meads typically incorporate a variety of other fruits, herbs and spices, allowing yeasts to create fermentation.
My mead-avoidance policy had been easy until relatively recently. Trying to avoid mead was like trying to avoid hearing King Crimson’s 1973 album “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” on the radio: Pretty easy.