In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle delves into Irish food history in modern day Kinsale.
Confession time: I’m a nerd. Once my school days were behind me and this label was no longer deathly uncool, it became a lot easier to embrace. I’m a nerd over a lot of things, obviously including food, but also in less predictable subject areas such as history and anthropology. The space in the middle of that Venn diagram, the story of food and how it has shaped us as humans, holds a special place in my heart and on my groaning bookshelf.
Evidence of apiculture, or beekeeping, has been found to stretch back as far as 8,000BC. It should come as no surprise that mead — a fermented honey wine — is the world’s oldest booze, referenced in the archaic cultures of China, India, Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks knew mead as ambrosia or nectar and believed it to be the drink of the gods, falling from the Heavens as dew before being gathered by the bees.
Closer to home, the history of mead is intertwined with that of ancient Ireland. The Brehon Laws contain some 20 pages of “bee judgements,” or bechbretha, predating the Iron Age and illustrating the significance of beekeeping and honey in Irish culture and the respect afforded the honeybee. Mead was the drink of choice for celebrations and believed to have magical and sacred properties, promoting health and virility. Copious quantities were drunk at weddings, and indeed the very term “honeymoon” comes from the tradition of giving newly-wed couples a month’s — or moon’s — worth of honeywine, thus ensuring a fruitful union. At the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Celtic Ireland and the point at which the most important roads converged, the Great Banquet Hall was known as An Teach Miodhchuarta, or “the house of mead-circling.”
It was here, in 2016, where Kate and Denis Dempsey first talked idly of making mead. The following week, Kate came home to find that her husband had filled the basement with mead-making equipment! “Six months later,” Denis tells me, “after many enthusiastic tasting sessions with family and friends, we decided to give it a go, and we headed south to the Wild Atlantic Way.” Kinsale Mead Co. is the first new meadery in the country in many, many years, and passionately food-focused West Cork is a fitting home. Their Atlantic Dry Mead is made from only raw Spanish orange blossom honey, water and yeast to make a traditional-style mead. Meanwhile, their Wild Red Mead is a melomel-style, in which fruit is added to ferment along with the honey; in this case, tart Wexford blackcurrants and sweet dark cherries. Both are gluten-free.
I ask why Spanish honey was selected. “The bees have a hard time of it here and there’s just not enough honey to go around, but we do plan to make a batch from Irish honey and are talking to some beekeepers. We were delighted to make the connection between Kinsale and Spain — the last Spanish Armada landed here in 1601 and fought with the Irish in the Battle of Kinsale. The Spanish orange groves in flower are dripping with nectar and make wonderfully citrus and floral honey. There is a long, sunny season to keep the bees fed and happy, and we’d like to think our mead captures this.” Bees are under threat around the world for many reasons, including climate change, loss of natural habitats and the use of pesticides. “We are passionate about highlighting what is happening to our bees and what we can do to change that for the good of our children.”
So how is it made? “We mix the raw honey with warm water, keeping it under the hive temperature,” says Denis. “Then we add yeast, which turns the natural sugars from the honey into alcohol. The fermentation for the traditional mead takes about four weeks and the melomel-style about half that, as there are more nutrients from the fruit. We let the mead mature for 3-6 months to allow the flavours to meld and the bouquet to mellow and become more complex.”
With renewed enthusiasm in supporting local artisan producers of late, it’s little wonder that Kinsale Mead Co. has found a welcoming niche in the drinks market, and the people who are interested in the meads are those looking for something different that’s “light, refreshing and not too strong.” Kate and Denis find that people are interested for three main reasons: its history as the world’s oldest alcoholic drink; that its primary raw ingredient comes from the honeybee, one of our most precious resources; and the fact that Kinsale is the first new meadery in Ireland in a very long time. “Once people have had a glass,” says Denis, “they’re amazed at how complex and deliciously different it is.” At 12%ABV, I love the idea of replacing a “normal” wine — almost impossible to produce in our climate — with an Irish alternative, and I can see this being a fantastic bottle to give as a gift or bring to a dinner party.
I wouldn’t dare to cook with something this unique, and so I opt instead for a recipe that would match well with the mead. Denis recommends serving the Atlantic Dry Mead lightly chilled or over ice, or mixed with tonic and a thin slice of orange; it works well with seafood or panna cotta. “The Wild Red Mead is best drunk at room temperature in a stemless wine glass, and is lovely mulled and spiced for a warming winter drink. This goes well with anything that complements a fruity sauce, like lamb, duck or sticky ribs, or with fruit cake or cheese.” After much brainstorming and changing my mind several times — at much inconvenience to the test kitchen team — I hit upon a simple pairing that works to bring out the complex flavours of the Dry Mead and aptly reflects its hometown of Kinsale. Serve these scallops with a glass of mead as a unique starter or lunch, and be sure to impress anyone at your table. Especially the food nerds.