Mead: nectar of the gods
Last year the Telegraph reported that ‘Game of Thrones’ was fuelling a rise in mead consumption in the US.
So it comes as no surprise to find that the inspiration for Honey Blossom Farm’s latest venture, Apivino Mead, owes its origins to a recipe provided by an American home brewer. Mead, an ancient drink created by fermenting honey and water (and much loved by medieval monks), is experiencing a mini-revival, powered not only by the US super-series but also by a growing wave of enthusiasm for artisan alcoholic drinks as evidenced by the resurgence of craft spirits, particularly gin.
Mead hasn’t quite reached the heady heights of the gin explosion but it is gradually gaining in popularity as specialist producers around the country experiment with flavours, strengths and acidity. Chris and Janette manage around 100 hives in the Stour valley, within a ten-mile radius of Brailes, which produce two to three tonnes of honey annually. Although the majority of the honey is bottled for local distribution, the Atkins were keen to expand their range of honey products and so, in 2015, started to work with a commercial wine maker in Surrey to develop a dry mead. Those who automatically associate mead with a sweet, sticky beverage would be surprised at the results: the first batch of Apivino mead, now hitting the shelves, is a refreshing, crisp drink with a hint of honey in the aftertaste, not dissimilar to a dry cider. Lightly chilled, it would be the perfect aperitif for a warm summer evening.
The Atkins’ background is steeped in good food and drink. They owned and ran Country Bumpkins, a delicatessen in Leamington, for 16 years before creating Honey Blossom Farm in 2005. They subsequently bought Fosseway Honey from John Holmes who taught Chris and Janette the principles of bee keeping. The hives are all close to villages so the bees are collecting pollen from both field and cottage garden plants imparting distinct spring and summer flavours to the honey. It was these subtle, seasonal back notes which prompted the Atkins to start exploring the possibility of converting some of their honey into mead, not least as most commercially made meads use imported orange blossom honey, which ensures consistency but lacks originality. Making mead is not particularly straightforward as honey does not naturally provide a fertile environment for yeast culture. Therefore to achieve the required alcohol levels, a yeast nutrient has to be added to ensure fermentation occurs over the prescribed period.
But once the basic recipe has been mastered, Chris notes that: “mead can be as versatile as wine: using honey at different times of the year changes the character of the mead, much as different varieties of grape do for wine.” As part of his research, Chris has produced a blackcurrant version of mead which, when added to prosecco, makes a uniquely English kir-like cocktail. He is also working on producing a sweeter version: “I can play with lots of different recipes and flavours, changing the alcohol content to make a range of styles. It’s hugely enjoyable and absorbing work.” He is also experimenting with pure spring honey and pure summer honey to see if there is any difference in taste and character, as well as testing its longevity – which so far, has proved very positive.
Chris and Janette are creating a special product tapping into the desire for traceability and reduced food miles. All Honey Blossom Farm’s products are sold locally: the honey through four Budgens’ stores in the Cotswolds and local farm shops; and the mead through local stores in Sibford Ferris, Ilmington, Tackley and Stratford Garden Centre.
As Chris is keen to emphasise, “our mead will appeal to open-minded customers, the sort of people who are experimenting with new gin and whisky flavours, moving away from mass-produced products to something created locally.
“The gloves are off when it comes to food and taste – people want to know where their food comes from and they want to support local producers. It’s really exciting”.
As part of their experimentation, Chris and Janette have made a great discovery: mead goes surprisingly well with spicy food so they are also preparing tasting notes as part of their sales drive to introduce mead to a wider audience. The promotion of a new mead-drinking culture is clearly in safe hands: the Atkins’ enthusiasm for their products, and their future plans to train others how to make and market mead, is a great example of Britain’s artisan food culture and the creativity of her rural food producers.