Recreating a medieval mead requires a giant cauldron to caramelize the honey

Enlarge / A medieval form of mead called “bochet” requires caramelizing raw honey in a cauldron over an open flame.

Ah, mead, that sweet and honeyed alcoholic beverage that has been a staple in Renaissance Fairs for decades (along with giant turkey legs). It is also becoming increasingly popular with home craft brewers, as it is relatively easy to make. Those in search of a unique challenge, however, are turning to a special type of medieval mead called bochet. The only known detailed recipe for bochet dates back to the late 14th century and was lost for centuries, until it was rediscovered around 2009.

Fermentation in general has been around for millennia, and mead (“fermented honey drink”) in particular was made throughout ancient Europe, Africa, and Asia. Perhaps the first known reference to such a drink (soma) is found in a holy Vedic book called the Rig ban, around 1700-1100 BC. Mead was the drink of choice in ancient Greece; Danish warriors in Old English epic poem Beowulf frolic at King Hrothgar’s mead room; the welsh bard Taliesin (circa 550 AD) is credited with composing a “Song of Mead”; and mead appears largely in Norse mythology.

There are many different varieties of mead from around the world. But bochet is a special variety because it requires caramelized honey; additional spices are optional. This makes it attractive to craft brewers looking for something a little different – brewers like Gemma Tarlach, who recently detailed his experiments bocheting a fascinating article for Atlas Obscura.

Tarlach wanted to be as historically accurate as possible, and while investigating, he came across a 2020 document by independent researcher Susan Verlag. Verlag is a beekeeper and mead maker interested in recreating historic drinks, keeping the proper historical context in mind. “Modern recreations of historical drinks often seem to be more influenced by the poplar assumption than by historical scholarship,” Publisher wrote in his article.

Enlarge / Mead is created by fermenting honey with water. Brewers sometimes also add various fruits, spices, grains, or hops. Caramelizing the honey creates a bochet.

iStock / Getty Images

The publisher found the first complete recipe for bochet in a French collection of recipes from 1393, Le Menagier de Paris. That recipe began to circulate widely among craft brewers after the 2009 publication of The Good Wife’s Guide: A Book of the Medieval House, a translation of the original treatise. Here are the translated instructions, according to Verberg’s article:

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Bochet. To make 6 septiers de bochet, take 6 quarts of fine and soft honey and put it in a cauldron over the fire to bring it to a boil. Keep stirring until it stops swelling and has bubbles like small blisters that burst, giving off a little blackish steam. Then add 7 septiers of water and boil until everything is reduced to 6 septiers, stirring constantly. Place in a tub to cool until lukewarm and strain with a cloth. Decant in a keg and add a pint of brewer’s yeast, because that’s what makes it spicy, although if you use yeast, the flavor is just as good, but the color will be paler. Cover well and with heat 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 cloves of which there should be less; Put them in a linen bag and throw them into the barrel. Two to three days later, when the bochet smells spicy and is spicy enough, remove the spice packet, drain it, and put it in another keg that you have running. Therefore, you can reuse these spices up to 3 or 4 times (Greco and Rose, 2009, p.325).

According to Verberg, most of the bochet made today follows this basic recipe, though he cites a handful of other recipes dating from 1385 to 1725 that are more vague as to whether caramelized honey (or even fermentation) is required. Verberg suggests that the medieval definition of what constituted a true bochet was much less rigid than it is currently defined: as a mead flavored with caramelized honey.

“The defining characteristics of a historic bochet are that it is made by boiling sugar water with spices and allowing the concoction to cool slowly, infusing it into a delicious and wonderful drink,” he wrote, adding that based on his research, “it is likely to be the drink evolved over the centuries from an alcoholic honey-spiced beverage to a sweetened and spicy tisane without alcohol. “

Le Menagier de Paris (1393). “Src =” https://cdn.Insider Voice.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/mead4-640×333.jpg “width =” 640 “height =” 333 “srcset =” https: / /cdn.Insider Voice.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/mead4.jpg 2x”/> Enlarge / The process of caramelization of honey, according to the instructions of a recipe from the late 14th century found in Le Menagier of Paris (1393).

Susan Verberg, EXARC Journal, 2020

One of the first things Gemma Tarlach did while conducting her own bochet experiments was answer the burning question: what the heck is a “septier”? He searched the Parisian archives and concluded that one septier equals roughly four gallons. If one follows the 1393 recipe, that translates to a honey to water ratio of one liter of honey (about three pounds) to four pounds of water. However, “Most modern interpretations call for a ratio of 3 to 4 pounds of honey per gallon of water.” she wrote“Four times more honey than the 1393 version.”

Tarlach had easy access to raw honey, as she is also a beekeeper. Thanks to the editor, he learned that medieval mead makers did not extract honey from the wax comb like beekeepers do today. Instead, they crushed the honeycomb, which meant that medieval honey contained as much beeswax as some crushed bees. So that’s what Terlach did, using the comb from a dead colony.

Finding historically appropriate yeast for fermentation was also a challenge. Most modern mead makers use commercial wine yeast, according to Tarlach, but the 1393 recipe called for brewer’s yeast or bread. Tarlach opted for several different commercial brewing yeasts for his experimental batches, along with a batch with a variety of white wine yeast, plus a batch with wild yeast. Instead of using a laboratory-derived nutrient powder to kick-start the yeast, he added some organic raisins, reasoning that medieval mead makers would have had access to nuts.

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The caramelization process is the most complicated step. You need a very large stock pot (unless you have a very large cauldron on hand), as honey can double or even triple in volume when heated. Ruin the process and you could end up burned by a “sugar volcano” when the honey mixture explodes. And since boiling sugar sticks to your skin (unlike boiling water), those burns can be serious. It’s also important not to lean over the pot once the honey starts to bubble, as this can burn your eyes.

Bochet needs to age for about a year, so the final verdict will not be pronounced until then. But Tarlach proclaimed that his experiments were a success after testing a few of the month-long batches while transferring them to new jars:

They were slimmer in body and less sweet than other meads I’ve made, thanks to the lower ratio of honey to water. Different yeasts gave each micro-batch its own distinctive character, from an astringent, bone-dry drink made with white wine yeast to the sweetest, smoothest mix using English ale-style yeast. The dominant notes of the Kveik were bitter and medicinal, perhaps appropriate, as Verberg’s research suggests that the bochet may have been drunk to balance the moods. The wild yeast strain was milder overall, similar to the ale style but not as sweet … They all have a caramel, honey and history flavor.

Those interested in trying their luck with their own batch of bochet can find Tarlach’s fully adapted recipe here. Just be sure to use a large pot “at least three times the volume of the honey” during the caramelization step, read that you will end up scalded by the dreaded volcano of sugar.

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