Thursday, April 30, 2009


This is an essay that Sandra wrote as part of her study for the Master of Gastronomy course

Mead has a long and rich history. It is generally acknowledged as the first alcoholic drink known to man dating back about 8000 years.1 2 It is a beverage resulting from the fermentation of honey and water producing “honey wine”.3 Mead was ubiquitous in ancient civilisations worldwide, for example Vikings, Teutonic tribes, the Celts, Chinese, Mayans and Ethiopians. There are many references to mead in early writings, such as the Sanskrit text Rig-Veda, and the epic poem Beowolf. In 70 B.C.Pliny recorded a mead recipe.4 It has cultural associations with pagan gods, magic, rituals, festivals, medicine the church and the nobility. The rise and fall of its popularity and significance has been greatly influenced by agricultural developments, technological advances and sociological factors.
It is likely that mead was discovered accidentally, perhaps created by fermentation of honey diluted by rain and trapped in hollows in trees,5 centuries before man had any understanding of yeast and fermentation.6 Fermentation is the process by which yeast and some bacteria metabolise carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.7
It was first described by Pasteur in 1857.8 The alcohol produced is toxic to the yeast. If there is sufficient sugar, the yeast will make enough alcohol; to kill itself. If there is an excess of sugar this results in a sweet drink. If there is insufficient sugar the yeast will stop dividing and no more alcohol will be produced. Unfortunately it may not taste good. Over 160 varieties of yeast and some bacteria are capable of fermenting sugar, many producing off tastes.
Our Neolithic ancestors must have tasted mead and been profoundly affected by it. As the resulting mind altering and mood elevating effects of alcohol could not be explained, it was reasonable to regard it as infused with the spirit of the Gods, with magical and sacred properties.9 10 The history of mead is shrouded in mythology. It was known as Nectar/ Ambrosia by the Greeks; ‘food of the gods’. Odin was said to have existed on mead alone.11 The Thriae, prophetesses at Delphi, known as ‘Melissae’, honey-priestesses, derived their inspiration from a honey intoxicant.12 Honey was thought to descend from the heavens in dew before being collected by bees, the messengers of the Gods.13 Mead played a significant part in ancient Norse rituals, especially the blot and sumble.14 The sumble is a drinking ritual where stories poetry and oaths were shared. The blot is a sacrificial rite. The original animal sacrifice was replaced by mead, and poured onto the ground or altar. In Celtic tradition mead was thought to enhance virility and fertility and have aphrodisiac qualities15. It was drunk from large communal drinking vessels called mazers. In Celtic wedding ceremonies newly weds were encouraged to drink mead for a month to increase the likelihood of a male heir, which may be the origin of the word ‘honeymoon’16
Before cultivation of grapes and grain wild bees were wide spread. Although some nomadic tribes carried knowledge of the natural fermentation of honey the geographical distribution of mead suggests that people independently discovered these skills. In Medieval times mead making was the province of a select and trained guild that controlled production and distribution17. At the time of the harvest hives were raided and the honey sent to the Lord to produce ‘high mead’ and as a sweetener. The wax, used for candles, medicinal salves and jewellery making, was dropped into vats of boiling water, melted, cooled and removed leaving a residue of sweet water. This was fermented by wild yeasts and made the ‘small mead’, which was drunk by priests and commoners.18
A variety of spices and herbs and fruits were added to mead to produce better tastes or to add curative properties. Metheglin may have ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander cinnamon, cloves or vanilla. Methglin derives from the Welsh meddyglyn meaning healing liquor and was originally employed in folk medicine .19 It was used in the treatment of melancholia, circulation, stomach and lung maladies20 The alcohol in mead provided a source of nutrition as well as the unsuspected benefit of sanitation, its manufacture destroying many pathogens in unsafe drinking water.21
Numerous factors reduced interest in mead. Sociological changes after defeat of the Norwegian King Harold and the Norman conquest in 1066 left the Norse in disarray and led to a greater French influence on British drinking habits22, and shifted interest towards viniculture and wines. With the industrial revolution and mechanical separation of wax from honey, there was insufficient honey left to make commercial quantities of mead.23 It requires warmer temperatures and longer fermentation than beers or wines.24 It is also more labour intensive and thus there is little scope for mechanization. It is unsuited to mass production. As agriculture developed and the availability of grapes and grains increased honey remained relatively scarce and expensive. With the use of hops beer became more stable and consistent with better taste. Thus beer and wine gradually replaced mead. Increasing urbanization and readily available cheap sugar also contributed. Since the 19th century mead making has survived as “an artisan craft void of large scale commercialisation”,25 however it has continued to be drunk, and even remains the national drink in Ethiopia known as T’ej26
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in mead. Standard bearers are monastic societies and organizations like The Society for Creative Anachronisms
(SCA) that endeavours to accurately recreate pre Renaissance culture.27 The internet provides further stimulus with a wealth of information about every aspect of mead. There is an International Mead Festival and an International Mead Association.28 This resurgence is partly due to an interest in our past, to novelty, to meads association with nature, its cheapness and due to the fact that the ingredients are universally available and the process for making mead is essentially simple.
Throughout its history, as described in this essay, mead is seen as an exemplar of the role of alcohol in society. It caused inexplicable mood changes distortions inperceptions of reality and “… might have been thought to bring man closer to the gods”.29
Communal drinking is a social act facilitating bonding and was integral to many rituals.30 Mead provided calories and a bacterially safe liquid. Mixed with herbs it had medicinal attributes, it elevated the spirit, relieved pain and liberated man from daily tensions.
Mead has failed to maintain a major place in our culture today because of competition from beer and wine. The culture of grape wine and beer drinking has been surrounded by a mystique that cannot be matched by mead. Technological advances, mechanization and social factors have all played a part. Schramm believes that the reputation of mead as a powerful aphrodisiac, regardless of its verity, and the enthusiasm of the SCA, will ensure that mead will always have some place among our wines.31


1 Richard Cornish, The Age, Epicure, July 24, 2007.
2 ScienceDaily, Dec 07, 2004. Accessed 30/03/2009.
3 Don and Patricia Brothwell, Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, “Ancient Peoples and Places” Thames and Hudson, London 1998. p145
4 Wikipedia. Accessed 28/03/2009.
5 Richard B, Webb, The History and Magic of Mead, Accessed 30/03/2009.
6 Sky River. “A Brief History of Mead” Accessed 30/03/2009.
7 New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol 4 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 15th Ed Chicago, 2005. p740
8 New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol 7 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 15th Ed Chicago, 2005. p987
9 Webb. p1
10 Sky River. p1
11 Vicky Rowe. Gift of Gods, Drink of Kings, “”. Accessed 03/03/2009.
12 Harrison, Jane “Mead: Nectar of the Gods” . Accessed 03/04/2009.
13 Sky River p1
14 Lewis Stead. Mead: The Brew of the Gods “Internet Book of Shadows” Accessed 28/03/2009.
15 Stacey Slinkard, Honey Wines are on the Rise” Accessed 26/03/2009.
16.Webb. p1
17 Lady Bridget. and Lord,Riekin. “A Brief History of Mead” Accessed 18/03/2009.
18 Wikipedia
Joan P. Alcock. Food in the Ancient World “Food Through History” Westport, Connecticut, London. Greenwood Press. 2005. p 91
20 Maxwell of McLaren Vale “Meads History and Recipes” p1 Accessed 26/03/2009.
21 Webb p1
22 Ken Schramm “The Compleat Mead Maker” Brewers Publications, 2003. p13
23 Schramm p14
24 Schramm p14
25 Lady Bridget p3
26 John Dilley, Dick Dunn, et al. “Mead”. The Mead Lovers Readme file, revision 14. Accessed 24/03/2009.
27 Schramm p15
28 Phillips p1
29 Conference 5. Principles of Gastronomy. Adelaide Uni. Assignment notes. 2009.
30 Schramm p16
31 Schramm p15

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Maris (Malvern) 09

Right at the start of Glenferrie Rd. at the Dandenong Rd end (no.15) is a surprising little restaurant. I was disappointed 18 months ago but it continues to get good reviews so we tried it again and I'm glad we did. The decor is unchanged. A wooden rocking horse in the front window, white artificial marble topped bare tables with chicken themed straw bread baskets - quite a homely feeling about it.
Before anything house made very crunchy bread was served with an olive and anchovy paste and an lovely amuse bouche of tomato jelly with a light foam was presented. We started with two soups - the crab consomme, with abalone, celeriac and tarragon, ($17) was tasty and well seasoned, the Jerusalem artichoke soup, an unusual offering, served with lots of goodies including a soft poached egg and black pudding, ($17) really excellent full of taste.

For mains the gnocchi were unusually soft and very bland. They were mixed with duck meat and outstanding duck liver and celery salad ($24)
I would have preferred a firmer texture.
The smoked free range suckling pork belly was super. Served with a rather minimal smokey potato cream and pickled vegetables ($33)

Very tender with a light smokey taste and aroma rising from the plate it was delicious. On another occasion we tried a couple of other dishes. An entree of grilled quail with fine barely, soft duck egg and shimeji mushrooms ($17)
was hard to identify from its presentation. The quail had been completely boned making it an easy dish to enjoy but the taste was extremely mild and modified by its accompaniments. A poached quince amuse
before the main was very pleasant. We then enjoyed a slender fillet of King George whiting with braised rice, chorizo and cuttlefish with a light mussel sauce,
a very delicate dish ($33), and a good example of slow cooked beef with swiss chard, fregola, radichio and blood orange. ($32)
This was so tender one would hardly need teeth to enjoy it and tasted great too. A serve of fried organic potatoes ($8)

was also much appreciated. Another palate cleanser appeared before the cheese. We shared a plate ($25) of French and Italian cheeses. Good size and good variety, one goats milk, one sheep and two cows milk but I could have done without the peccorino which I prefer grated on pasta.
Unfortunately the dessert, panacotta, with macerated figs and apricots with almond biscuit ice cream
softened and more or less melted before we got to eating it.
Prosecco still at $9 a glass was a pleasant accompaniment.
I think the dearest item on the menu is $33 and we ended up paying about $145 before the gratuity. It defies my imagination to come up with the answer to the question How do restaurants set their prices. Why is this dish $17 and that one $18 or $32 or $33 or whatever. I would be pleased to be enlightened.
Score: 15/20

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Carre Deli (Elsternwick) 09

This little gourmet deli around the corner from Glenhuntly Rd serves a small range of sandwiches and light meals. A constant stream of Deli customers keep the staff very busy and their four tables are constantly occupied. The walls are lined with gourmet pastas, fancy spices and virgin olive oils,

It's not Simon Johnson but they do have some very nice looking cheese. A blackboard serves as the menu

and the prices are very reasonable. We enjoyed a pastrami sandwich between two toasted slices of rye
and a rare beef roll $8.50 each.

The chicken soup looked fantastic - next time. There will be a next time!
Worth a visit for the Glenhuntly Rd brigade.

CHATTER 19 - The Distinguishing Dish

For ethnic cuisine are there particular dishes which mark the excellent chef from the very good, the good and the just plain ordinary?
To some degree I think there are such dishes. I think for Chinese sweet and sour prawns in batter is a good example. To retain any crispness the sauce has to be added only a moment before the dish is served The proportions and size of the accompanying pieces onion, pineapple and peppers and the proportion of them to the prawns is important as is the amount they have been cooked. Getting the sauce right is crucial it has to be not to thin nor to gluggy or gluey, not to sweet nor to sour and, obviously, served at an appropriate temperature.
For a French restaurant perhaps French onion soup is a pretty good test. Every element can be out of proportion or the onion can be over caramelised.
There area lot of things that have to be just right. I have had so many bad creme brulees and other custard, so many bad attempts at mousses, failed self saucing cakes I think there is probably a dessert which is a true test of a chef. Can a single dish distinguish a Greek chef, a Lebanese a Japanese or any of the other myriad of cooking styles?

Red Emporer (Southbank) 09

This restaurant on two floors on the upper level of Southbank, with a view over the yarra, has been an institution of fine Chinese cuisine for over a decade and features regularly in the AGF. Two hats five years ago and one for the last few years. It was highly regarded both for the a la carte menu and the daily yum cha was among the best.

We have not been for just over four years now after a disappointing yum cha. This time we went in the evening for a meal. We started with some mixed dim sum

and a serve of pork dumplings

($9 for three) I was surprised at how very ordinary they were. Quite small, firm, hard really, and lacking in taste. There was no moisture at all in the pork dumplings. Delicate and quite tasty prawn stuffed scallops, eight of them,

served in a to heavy sauce with green peas was a fair start to the meal. Pleasant but not very special. A serve of sweet and sour prawns, another eight!,
would have not been out of place at any suburban Chinese take away. They were soggy and the sauce was sweet but not at all sour.This we followed with a plate of mixed Chinese vegetables,

almost totally lacking in taste. It did look good though! My disappointment was palpable.The restaurant is looking tired

and the Cantonese style cuisine has slipped badly. Prices are a little above the average but wines are exceptionally cheap. There is a modest range by the glass from as little as $4.50 for a house red but averaging around $9. Cocktails are $11 We ended up paying $67 per person for entree and main, rice and wine but no dessert.
Comments: Now only of historical interest for me

Score:12.5 /20