By Unnr in elska á Fjárfella (Susan Verberg, 2017) of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn in the Kingdom of Æthelmearc.
Recreating medieval brews in our modern times is a fun and tasty way to connect to our historic past. Unfortunately, having a deeper understanding about the chemistry involved in fermentation does not necessarily translate into an easier interpretation of medieval recipes. Our modern brewing methods and sanitary measures evolved, and the language and terminology used in brewing changed over the years as well. The arcane language of early medieval recipes often makes modern interpretations approximations at best, and modern brewers with their own interpretation of the same recipe make variations which sometimes differ slightly and sometimes differ quite a lot. For instance, in my own work to recreate two mead recipes, numbers 9 and 10 in V: Goud Kokery which is part of the 14th century manuscript Curye on Inglysch, I initially used the editors’ suggestions on how to interpret recipe 10 To make fyn meade & poynaunt. After half a dozen or so mediocre variations, and a deepening puzzlement on the sequence of steps in the recipe, I realized the editors’ interpretation has practical issues. Expecting something was off with the technique, instead of tweaking the recipe to make it fit our modern conceptions, I delved deeper into the practices used during our time of study to track down where it went off track.
The first step was to look into the source of the fermentable sugars in mead – the honey – which at the same time located the source for fermenting yeast. Medieval honey would have been available in different states and different grades. The highest grade honey was life honey, which is the honey that drips out first without any assistance and is highly regarded both in brewing and in medicine. Life honey is honey which is completely untreated, and held in such high esteem that in medieval Dutch cooking and brewing recipes it had its own term: ‘zeem’. The translation for ‘zeem’ is given as ‘ongepijnde honing’, unhurt or unprocessed honey and also as ‘maagden honing’, or virgin honey. Unfortunately, true to medieval practice, the word is used interchangeably for life honey and high quality processed honey, and it is up to the reader to interpret which ingredient is meant. (openlaszlo) What makes life honey so special, and literally alive, is that even though honey is antibacterial, it is a welcome host for osmophillic yeast strains like Saccharomyces rouxii, Sacharomyces var. osmophilus and Sacharomyces bisporus var. mellis. (Rasmussen, 21)
Osmophillic yeast is able to thrive in highly concentrated sugar solutions, and is best for the fermentation of honey solutions with sugar concentrations above 15%, but generally does not produce alcohol as well as the common beer and wine yeasts. If sugar concentrations are below 15%, the wine and beer yeast varieties of Sacharomyces cerevisiae are the best choice for optimally fermenting honey. (Rasmussen, 21) When processing life honey temperatures exceeding 154 º Fahrenheit / 68 º Celsius (Hagen, 148) will kill ambient yeast and heating honey to facilitate flow often does not produce life honey. Also, like the term ‘zeem’, the term ‘life honey’ is sometimes used for true honey that is alive and will start fermentation, and sometimes for honey of the best quality. If the life honey asked for in a recipe is to be truly boiled, then it does not need to be alive honey and you should not sacrifice your labor-intensive honey-yeast starter to literally emulate the medieval recipe. One thing to keep in mind when fermenting with osmophillic yeast: as the starting sugar concentration or density is high, it will have a slow start, especially compared to pitching modern concentrated yeast.
Processed honey is graded depending on how it is removed from the comb: with unprocessed life honey being first grade, second grade is what would easily be leaked out and strained when breaking up or crushing the comb cell structure (equivalent to our centrifugally-extracted honey), third grade is extracted by washing the leaked combs in heated water whereby the leftover and crystallized honey dissolves but the wax is not melted, and then a waste grade is created by squeezing the washed combs with a twisted bag press to get the last little bits of liquid out (often used for servant grade). This is not recommended by the Reverend Charles Butler, who warns in his 1609 beekeeping treatise Feminine Monarchie: “& some (which is worse) doe violently presse it out. But by these means they shal have no fine & pure raw hony, howsoever afterward they handle it.”
Leaking can be facilitated with heat, and as long as the radiant temperature is kept below 154 º F the ambient yeast will survive. Leaked honey is used in recipes calling for volumes or weights. Honey from different bio-regions or different seasons (a wet spring, a dry fall, etc) can have different sugar concentrations, and when using volumes or weights, can lead to slight differences in sugar concentration, as the Digby recipe Mr. Pierce’s Excellent White Metheglin confirms “When it is blood-warm, put the honey to it, about one part, to four of water; but because this doth not determine the proportions exactly (for some honey will make it stronger then other) you must do that by bearing up an Egge”.
Washing can be facilitated by agitation by hand, which also keeps the water temperature in check to make sure it is not hot enough to melt wax (upwards of 144 ºF or 62 ºC). Coincidentally, if honeycomb is warmed enough to dissolve the sugars but not enough to melt the wax, the ambient yeast is able to survive to start fermentation. As the sugar concentration of washed honey is unknown – not enough honey will make weak mead which spoils much quicker, while too much honey can inhibit yeast growth giving competitors a chance – it is advisable to use a hydrometer to check gravity (the amount of sugar in solution); either with a modern glass hydrometer, or with the egg float test, which basically does the same thing but with a renaissance flair.
The next step is to look into the cooking process: how exactly did the honey become must. Many medieval recipes advise to boil the must. Since the source of medieval water is most often rather suspect, up to the point of deadly, this is not per se a bad thing. For the flavor of the honey, it would be better to boil the water first, and add the honey when it is blood-warm to then start fermentation. Alcohol’s preservative properties combined with the antibacterial effect of honey makes for a safe product to drink, much safer than surface water, even without boiling. According to Feminine Monarchie, heating above temperatures which would hurt the skin “The best way is to put it into an oven after the batch is forth, but not before you can abide to hold your hand upon the bottome, for feare of overheating the hony” is known to damage the honey. Maybe, even though in cooking recipes the word ‘boil’ is most often meant as a roiling boil, in brewing it might mean the process of cooking? Unless refermentation during warm weather is meant, to confuse the matter even more! As Hugh Platt in his 1594 Jewell House of Art and Nature complains “If any sweete Wines happen to reboile in the hot part of the Summer, as manie Vinteners to their great losse have oftentimes felt”.
The word ‘seethe’ or ‘seething’ is even vaguer. Does it mean simmering, or being at a boil but not bubbling? Or does it mean the process of heating, which could be anything from above room temperature to near boiling? For instance, the recipe To Make Mede in the 14th CE Curye on Inglysch cookbook uses both ‘boil’ and ‘seethe’ “& thanne take that forseid combis & sethe hem in clene water, & boile hem wel” but after all that the combs should still be intact enough to be pressed out “After presse out thereof as myche as though may”. This indicates the water temperature did not actually exceed 144° F or 62 ºC and melt the wax. Thus instead of translating the following quote to “take the previously mentioned combs & simmer them in clean water, & boil them well”, should it perhaps be “take the previously mentioned combs & heat them in clean water, & cook them well”? Since the latter interpretation matches the Feminine Monarchie’s technique “set it in some vessel over a soft fire, and stil keep your hand in the vessel stirring about the honie and the wax, and opening the wax piece-meale until the hony and not the wax shal be molten,” and it makes sense, I think this would be the correct interpretation. And as ambient yeast survives heating to 154 ºF /68 ºC this would mean the must is still viable for spontaneous fermentation, without the need for adding barm or lees from a previous batch.
Back to the two recipes, interpretations of the translation is re-evaluated. The reason I work with both recipes is that recipe 10 looks back to recipe 9, even more so in the re-evaluation than I initially had thought.
The two original recipes and the proposed alternate interpretations:
9 To make mede.
Take hony combis & put hem into a greet vessel & ley thereynne grete stickis, & ley the weight theron til it be runne out as myche as it wole; & this is called liif hony. & thanne take that forseid combis & sethe hem in clene water, & boile hem wel. After presse out thereof as myche as though may & caste it into another vessel into hoot water, & sethe it wel & scome it wel, & do therto a quarte of liif hony. & thanne lete it stone a fewe dayes wel stoppid, & tis is good drinke. (Hieatt & Butler, 150)
9 To make mead.
Take honey combs, and put them into a big vessel & lay in there big sticks, & lay the weight on it until it runs out as much as it would; & this is called life honey. & then take those mentioned combs & simmer them in clean water, & boil it well. After press out of it as much as you can & cast it into another vessel into hot water, & heat it well, & scum it well, & do thereto a quart of life honey. & then let it stand a few days well closed up, & this is a good drink.
If the honey combs are literally simmered and boiled, the wax will melt into the sugar solution. Interestingly, while the combs are quite bulky in their solid state, once they are melted within the sugar solution there is not a whole lot left. In one of my experiments, the combs were boiled in clean water and poured through a cheesecloth filter while hot, and in another experiment the combs were boiled, the must was cooled down first, and then poured through a cheesecloth filter. Filtering the waxy must while hot particulized the hot wax, which then solidified in tiny particles which mostly stayed suspended in the must. During fermentation a thin film of wax particles formed on the surface, which created quite a nice surface protection. After bottling, the wax particles would form a haze around the neck of the bottle (shake well before pouring) and while sipping there was a distinct sensation of lip balm around the lips. Many of these issues were negated by filtering the wax must after cooling it down, though the sensation of lipbalm never completely went away. For the amount of wax comb that went into the must and the insignificant amount that was recovered during filtering, the indication is that most stayed in solution with the sugars. Boiling the wax to dilute the honey does not coincide with the available information (as in, there should be comb structure left to be pressed) plus, the wax adds a significant (although not unpleasant) taste to the must.
Boiling the wax comb and honey to make the must. From the 4 scraped frames of honey comb only about an inch worth of black gook was recovered. Most of the bright yellow wax disappeared during the boil.
9 To make mead.
Take honey combs, and put them into a big vessel & lay in there big sticks, & lay the weight on it [of the combs] until it runs out as much as it would; & this is called life honey. & then take those mentioned combs & heat them in clean water [not hotter than your hands can take], & cook it well. After press out of it [the combs] as much as you can & cast it [the liquid] into another vessel into hot water, & heat it well, & scum it well, & do thereto a quart of life honey. & then let it stand a few days well closed up, & this is a good drink.
The second recipe:
10 To make fyn meade & poynaunt.
Take xx galouns of the forseid pomys soden in iii galouns of fyn wort, & i galoun of liif hony & sethe hem wel & scome hem wel til thei be cleer enowgh; & put therto iii penyworth of poudir of peper & i penyworth of poudir of clowis & lete it boile wel togydere. & whanne it is coold put it into the vessel into the tunnynge up of the forseid mede; put it therto, & close it wel as it is aboue said. (Hieatt & Butler, 150)
10 To make fine mead & poignant.
Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & simmer it well & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it boil well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before.
The suggestions by Hieatt & Butler are as follows:
The word ‘pomys’ translates as apples (p. 207). [This exact word only shows up once as part of V: Goud Kokery; variants from other recipes are ‘poumes’ and ‘pommys’ which both refer to a softened apple dish.]
The ‘forseyd pomys sodden’ evidently refers to a recipe the scribe has omitted (p. 150)
Fyne meade and poynaunt V 10, spiced mead. Despite the initial directions, no recipe calling for cooked apples actually occurs in the vicinity of this one. The quantity of spices called for would work out to something like 2 oz. of pepper and ¼ oz of cloves: this would not make a very spicy drink, considering the 34 [edit 24] gallons of other ingredients. (p. 188)
The immediate issue with recipe 10 is the translation of the word ‘pomys’. From its similarity to the word ‘pommys’ it seems self evident it would refer to apples (linguistically via the French word ‘pomme’ for apple). The word ‘pomys’ in modern times could translate to ‘pomace’ or apple pressings, the apple solids left over from the making of cider, or apple juice. To my best knowledge, the word ‘pomace’ is never used for the juice, always for the leftover solids from pressing, so I am inclined to forgo the option of it meaning juice, or the must from recipe 9.
Another issue is the meaning of the word ‘tunnynge’, which I’d like to address first. The word ‘tunnynge’ can be interpreted as either a measurement (a ‘tun’ or a barrel of 252 or 265 gallons, a defined unit of volume in the 14th century) or an action (tunning). My first trial used the tun as a measurement and found that it adds too much volume to the amount of honey & malt for a proper ferment. The recipe instructs “put it into the vessel into the tunnynge up of the forseid mede” which at first reads like it barrels up twice: “put it into the vessel into the tun of the previously mentioned mead”. My current interpretation is “put it into the vessel into the tunned up previously mentioned mead”, or, use a transporting vessel (see image below) to move the wort/must and add it back “put it therto” into the barrel of the mead made with recipe 9. This would indicate recipe 10 is not a stand alone recipe, but instead uses the mead made in recipe 9 to make something else, called fyne meade and poynaunt. This would basically make a braggot, except instead of adding honey & spices to ale to re-ferment (as a typical period braggot), it adds wort (malt) and spices to mead (akin to a modern braggot, or malted mead).
Back to the pomys. Hieatt & Buttler assume “the ‘forseyd pomys sodden’ evidently refers to a recipe the scribe has omitted” as “despite the initial directions, no recipe calling for cooked apples actually occurs in the vicinity of this one”. When the directions in recipe 10 are interpreted as if ‘pomys’ meant apple, to make a spiced apple wine sweetened with honey and wort/malt, the ratio of solid apples and fermentable sugars to liquid does not seem to add up. To properly ferment a certain amount of apple solids, it would need to be at least submerged, which combined with the direction to cook it “soden in iii galouns of fyn wort” makes for apple sauce consistency. If enough water is added to create an acceptable cooked apple wort the amount of fermentable sugars is too low for a proper ferment, and if the water ratio is balanced for a proper short mead ferment, the must is so dense it is difficult to get a good ferment (and have liquid left over at the end, the apple solids suck it up like a sponge). This recipe had a tendency for the apple sauce to create a pancake at the surface which then would get pushed up by fermentation gasses, straight out through the airlock, which necessitated stirring the must back down every other hour or so until primary fermentation slowed down. In other words, the recipe does not make sense, it does not work well, and the resulting brew would spoil prematurely on a regular base, indicating an unbalanced recipe. Combined with the interpretation that recipe 10 could be a back ferment of recipe 9, similar to a modern braggot, it puts the translation of ‘pomys’ to apple in serious question.
Before fermentation (L) and after fermentation (R). One quart of apple solids added to one gallon of water, with appropriate honey and malt. Cooking made the apple fall apart and most of the available liquid became absorbed.
What could be meant instead? If “the forseid pomys sodden” is to be taken literally as something cooked from the previous recipe, then let’s look back to see what fits. The bulk honey from recipe 9 does not come from leaked honey but from washed out wax comb: “& thanne take that forseid combis & sethe hem in clene water, & boile hem wel”. When the alternate interpretation for ‘seething’ and ‘boiling’ is used, the directions to “heat them in clean water, & cook them well” would generate left over wax combs, which are then “presse out thereof as myche as though may”. If the alternate interpretation is not used, and the must is literally simmered and cooked, then the wax would have melted and there’d be nothing left to be pressed, strongly indicating lower temperatures than the melting point of wax. The wax comb from recipe 9 is both cooked and pressed it would fit the description of “the forseid pomys sodden” of recipe 10 perfectly (Magnus).
10 To make fine mead & poignant.
Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys [the squeezed combs of recipe 9] cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & heat it well [below 154 ºF, and the ambient yeast will survive] & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it cook well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead [add it back into the barrel the 20 gallons came out off]; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before.
Twenty gallons of pressed comb cooked in 3 gallons of malt seems like a too small ratio of solid to liquid. Unexpectedly, I found from experience that boiling comb in a sugar solution does not generate a significant amount of melted wax and as the combs are probably also somewhat wet, even after manual pressing, they could conceivably have some crystallized honey remnants left to add to the must. When the combs are boiled in the wort/must, the scum floats to the top, just like with clarifying honey, and has to be removed “scome hem wel til thei be cleer inowgh” at the same time. And while Hieatt & Butler thought the small quantity of pepper and cloves “would not make a very spicy drink”, adding boiled wax combs to the mix significantly changes the taste of the mead (mead made with honey in which wax has been boiled has a very distinctive spicy, earthy taste).
The translation of the two Curye on Inglysch mead recipes by Hieatt & Butler, even though not completely understood, theoretically makes sense. It took some dedicated experimental archaeology, so to speak, to come to the conclusion that the modern interpretation did not add up and a different way of thinking was needed. Instead of looking at individual recipes as singular snippets, sometimes it’s necessary to see a recipe within a broader historical context. For example, the cooking technique called “blanching” historically meant soaking in cold water until the almond skins came off, while in modern times it means pouring boiling water over them until the almond skins come off. While the end result seems the same, almonds soaked with the modern method tends to make dry crumbly marzipan, while cold soaked almonds makes great sticky marzipan, just like grandma used to make. I learned not to assume just because a word or technique had a modern equivalent, it therefore historically meant the same. While seething and boiling might actually mean simmering and boiling in one recipe, when dealing with brewing recipes, I now tend to double-check (Is there wax involved? What happens to the life honey?). When emulating a historic recipe, I look for similar recipes and check if there are nuances to the techniques and ingredients used; it might explain something I did not even realize might be questionable. And just because something was written down eight hundred years ago does not make it infallible: people make mistakes, especially with the older texts, the artisans were not the scribes; translators made errors, as recipes would be translated and republished (no medieval copyright), and some people are just better brewers than others.
When interpreted within a broader context, the two Curye on Inglysch mead recipes work surprisingly well and work well together. Recipe 9 makes good basic mead and includes detailed albeit cryptic information on the processing of the comb, which is omitted by many later period mead recipes. For now – until new information presents itself – recipe 10 seems to be meant as an addition to a barrel of mead made with recipe 9, to back sweeten and spice up mead with boiled beeswax comb, for just that special occasion. And who’d have thought that…
Want to read more? Check out my (newly updated) brewing paper Of Hony, a collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes, listing 46 period mead recipes, on Academia.edu at:
Butler, Charles. The Feminine Monarchie. 1609. Oxford: 1623.
https://books.google.com/books?id=f5tbAAAAMAAJ&dq=the+feminine+monarchie+butler&source=gbs_navlinks_s Transcription by Susan Verberg.
Digby, Kenelme. The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Knight Opened, 1669
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Anne MacDonell (ed.), 2005 https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16441
Hagen, Ann. A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production and Distribution. Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995.
Hieatt, Constance B. & Butler, Sharon (ed). Curye on Inglysch, English culinary manuscripts of the 14th century (including the Forme of Cury). Early English Text Society. London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Private communication with Peter Olson (East Kingdom brewing Laurel lærifaðir Magnus hvalmagi).
Rasmussen, S.C. The Quest for Aqua Vitae. SpringerBriefs in History of Chemistry, 2014.
Verberg, Susan. Of Honey, a Collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes. 2017.
Protz, Roger. The Ale Trail. Eric Dobby Publishing, 1995, p. 30
All photography © by Susan Verberg.