Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, and frequently fruits, spices, grains or hops. (Hops act as a preservative and produce a bitter, beer-like flavor.) The alcoholic content of mead may range from about 8% ABV to more than 20%. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey. It may be still, carbonated, or naturally sparkling, and it may be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.
Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. “It can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks,” Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat has speculated, “antedating the cultivation of the soil.” Hornsey considers archaeological evidence of it ambiguous, however McGovern and other archaeological chemists consider the presence of beeswax markers and gluconic acid, in the presence of other substances known to ferment, to be reasonably conclusive evidence of the use of honey in ancient fermented beverages.
Claude Lévi-Strauss makes a case for the invention of mead as a marker of the passage “from nature to culture.” Mead has played an important role in the beliefs and mythology of some peoples. One such example is the Mead of Poetry, a mead of Norse mythology crafted from the blood of the wise being Kvasir which turns the drinker into a poet or scholar. The terms “mead” and “honey-wine” are often used synonymously.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary offers no etymology for the word “Honeymoon” (the common name for the modern custom of a newlywed couple going on a holiday together, which originated in early 19th century Great Britain. Upper-class couples would take a “bridal tour”, sometimes accompanied by friends or family, to visit relatives who had not been able to attend the wedding), it does give examples dating back to the 16th century. The Merriam-Webster dictionary reports the etymology as from “the idea that the first month of marriage is the sweetest” (1546).
“The first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure” (Samuel Johnson); originally having no reference to the period of a month, but comparing the mutual affection of newly married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane; now, usually, the holiday spent together by a newly married couple, before settling down at home.
The term most likely comes from an old English tradition that dates from the Middle Ages. Mead was drunk in great quantities at weddings, and after the ceremony nuptial couples were given a month’s supply of mead—sufficient for one full cycle of the moon. It was believed that by faithfully drinking mead for that first month, the woman would “bear fruit” and a child would be born within the year. Incidentally, raw honey has been shown in clinical studies to be a powerful fertility booster.
The Austens were enthusiastic home brewers, bottling their own wines, beers, and of course, Mead. In 1816, poor weather (due to the “Year without Summer“) created agricultural shortages which affected the Austen’s Mead production.
We hear now that there is to be no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long.
Jane Austen to Cassandra, September 8, 1816
Jane Austen’s dear friend, Martha Lloyd, kept a household book full of recipes used in the Austen home. One of these is, indeed, the Austen Mead recipe, which Jane loved so well that she wrote, in 1813, from Godmersham, “I find time in the midst of Port & Mediera to think of the 14 bottles of Mead very often…”
To Make Mead
To every gallon of water put 4 lbs of honey, and for 20 gallons add as follows: 2 oz of nutmeg, half an oz of mace, half an oz of cloves, 2 ozs of race-ginger, all just bruised, and sewed up in a linene bag; then add a large handful of sweet briar with the above, boil it all together for an hour, skimming it all the time it boils; then drain it off. Add a little balm to it, if it does not work, turn it and let it stand a day or two. Then add the juice of 6 good lemons, with the rind of them and your bag of spices in the barrel. Stop it up close for 10 or 12 months. Then bottle it for use. You may add some more spices if you like it.
Martha Lloyd’s Household Book
Historical information from Wikipedia.com