Eating humble pie with old bottle of mead

PETER NORICE AND DEBORAH WALTON-DERRY
Last updated 10:27 12/06/2014

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In a reflective mood, Peter puts fingers to keyboard this week so, take it away Peter . . .

Sometimes our role as wine reviewers can see us being put on the spot when someone hands us a glass and asks us to name the wine. This is done with a smile (similar to that of Madame Defarge, the chief villain in Tale of Two Cities), and is invariably accompanied by a deathly hush as all eyes are on the so-called "experts".

In other words, we can be on a hiding to nothing. If you get it wrong then your years of tasting experience count for nought. Faint echoes of "whaddarya" are often heard.

On the other hand, if you get it right, then it's generally assumed that it was too easy a test and the group reverts to its previous conversation.

There are also times when a hasty assessment can cause similar discomfort.

I experienced such a moment after an evening's entertainment when two members of the group I was with produced a bottle of mead.

When I was informed that it was thought to be between 30 to 35 years old, I assumed it would most likely be past its best - my first mistake. The fact that it had been mouldering away in the back of a kitchen cupboard, not lying down, under ideal temperature conditions, for such a long time served to inflate my confidence - second mistake.

Anyone who knows anything about honey will know it's the only food that doesn't require preservatives, but thinking that the production process may have diluted the ability of honey to "last forever" I was even more confident in my initial assessment - third mistake.

In hindsight, the addition of alcohol, another preservative, should have registered with me . . . hmm.

So you can imagine, possibly even luxuriate in my predicament - and imminent denouement - when on tasting the mead I discovered it was not only fine but eminently drinkable with lashings of cashew nuttiness, integrated flavours and a delicate balance between sweet and dry with good length and body; need I go on? Even the slightly oxidative note which lifted my spirits (bad pun intended) only served to increase the mead's complexity by showing a remarkable likeness to a fine amontillado sherry - oh, dear.

There was nothing for it but to eat humble pie, which I did. Unfortunately, in this case the pie turned out to perfectly complement the mead - was there no escape?

And the moral(s) of my story - never make any grand statements until you've tasted the wine - and maybe it's best to start drinking alone.

Peter was challenged by an oldie but a goodie and I mean this quite literally. He was enjoying a medieval-style dinner after a dress rehearsal for the play, Anne Boleyn, and the Havill Mead (circa 1980) was opened for this - with trepidation on the part of the hosts. Everyone at the table was astounded by this delicious, warming, sweet, honeyed and nutty drink that was dry with a sweet aftertaste.

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Knowing little about mead, I did some research into the beverage. Because it's a fermented alcoholic drink made from honey and sometimes with wine, it has an entry in Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine. We are told mead predates either wine or beer and, as a concentrated, impure glucose solution, it has much in common with fruit wines. Monks kept bees for candlewax and any surplus honey was fermented into mead.

In light of the post-dress rehearsal dinner Peter attended, it seems ironic that traditional mead making ended in Britain as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII.

Since World War II a mixture of wine and honey has been marketed as mead; grape juice is mixed with honey before fermentation. Traditional mead making also has a following today and the Havill brand still exists.

- The Marlborough Express

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