St Patrick's Day: Irish History of Meads

Tomorrow is St Patrick's Day, so here's an excerpt from Chapter 10 about mead's history in the Irish and Celtic world.

At its peak, Celtic civilization spanned almost all of modern Europe excepting the Italian and Greek peninsulas. Celts occupied the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) except for the Basque region, and even occupied parts of modern Turkey.

In Irish history, one of the great rulers was Queen Maeve (in modern English form) or Queen Medb, Maedb, or Meadbh (in old and middle Irish forms), a name that means “she who intoxicates,” as in: intoxicatingly beautiful and seductive. The name is clearly cognate with the English word “mead”.

The Scottish tribe, the Picts, contributed both the tradition of heathered meads and ales, and also the root of our English word “picture”: Picts were highly-tattooed warriors sometimes covered head to toe in pictures. The Scottish after-dinner liqueur, Drambuie, is a relative of fortified dessert meads, and several meaderies and breweries make both meads and beers flavored and/or bittered with heather flowers.

In the British Isles, grapes don’t consistently ripen, and hops weren’t adopted until the fifteenth century. But historically, forests and meadows were rich and abundant, yielding much honey, particularly heather honey. In the absence of hops for bittering and preserving, heather tips and flowers from the heaths and moors were used to flavor and preserve meads. Grapes and hops were not introduced into the British Islands until after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Prior to that, only meads and ales were drunk, and even after that, it was the Norman-French conquerors and aristocrats who drank wine. Meads and ales were drunk by the common people.

Designing Your Pairing with Anglo/Celtic/Germanic Cuisine

Irish cuisine is marked by fresh and smoked seafood including salmon, shrimps, mackerel, herring, trout, scallops, mussels, oysters, and sole; game, particularly venison; lamb, beef (corned beef, and Irish stews), pork, pheasant, blood sausage (black and white pudding) and sausages. Vegetables include both wild-foraged and domesticated including nettles, wild mushrooms, onions, cabbage, kale, dillisk (seaweed) and particularly potatoes. Summers don’t generally have enough hot days to produce much in the way of fruits, but rhubarb, apples, and wild berries are plentiful.

In general, here are the styles of mead that will pair well with British, Irish, and German foods: • Dry traditional meads served chilled like white wine served with seafood and chicken dishes and with lighter fare such as potatoes and salads • Heavier-bodied, off-dry and semisweet traditional meads served with savory pies, richer foods, and with red meats • Dry cysers; I’m particularly fond of pork dishes paired with cysers. • Meads made from heather honey • Metheglins flavored with heather flowers and with other flowers such as lavender and elderflower