Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica was written in Greek in about 70 CE. This 5 ‘book’ medical work covered about 600 plants, 35 animal products, and 90 minerals. It presents the appearance and growth habits of each item, and focuses on the medical uses and preparations. For plants, this melding of botany and medicine persisted for over 1500 years. The book also contains sections of more general discussion and presentation of information. It is in the fifth book on the vine/wine and minerals that we find a discussion of drinks in general and recipes for meads as a subset of wines.
De Materia Medica never left common knowledge through the Roman era, Dark Ages, and Middle Ages. Dioscorides wrote in Greek; in the manuscript era, two key translations to Latin were made. The first in the 6th century is called the Old Latin translation, and the second, from the 11th – 12th century alphabetized the text and is called the Old Latin Translation Alphabetized.
With the advent of printing, the book was published in numerous editions, and with commentary and annotations from numerous authors. The majority of texts for Dioscorides were issued between 1500 and 1600. At least 200 editions of were issued; initially mostly in Latin, then in German, Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, Spanish, Czech, and English, listed roughly in order of first appearance. Publication activity tapered off significantly between 1600 and 1700, a time period where botany was developing rapidly, and the primacy of Dioscorides was fading.
Because of this history, Dioscorides’ works provide unique challenges. Finding and reviewing every edition of every text is a huge undertaking with significant duplication. A given piece of text may have been translated multiple times, and intentionally or inadvertently changed at any point. The consistency of order and content of mead recipes allows some certainty as to the ‘original’ form of each recipe, thus a 1st c. date for these recipes seems most appropriate. Changes to the recipes with translation (usually of measurements), or intentional change (less frequent) also occur.
Today’s recipe is Melitites,
1516 Baptista/Barolo Dioscorides Book V Vinum Melitites DCCCLXIIII
TRANSLATION (Laura Angotti): Differently from mulso, which is old, austere wine, where a little honey has been added in moderation. This out of must. In 5 congio of sour must, 1 congio of honey and a cyath of salt is floated. And the vessel in which it is placed, should have enough capacity and provide enough room for the boiling. Sprinkle a little salt in the manner mentioned above, until it boils.
This recipe shows notable variation in various editions of Dioscorides, mostly due to author attempts to modernize the units of measurement for the wine must/honey and the salt. The version presented here is the most common, and based on a number of factors, I believe it to be most accurate to the ‘original’ Dioscorides.
The various recipes vary most significantly in the relative salt content. This version calculates out to about 2300 mg/L (Gatorade is about 450 mg/L, Gose beers appear to be about 400-1600 mg/L). The variants of this recipe, as units are changed with translation, vary in salt from about 1700 mg/L to higher than seawater concentration (about 34,000 mg/L) of salt.
I made this recently using a red wine must and the recipe from 1516. The resulting drink did not have notable technical errors, and was not overly salty, but my palate found the combination of wine, honey, and salt unappealing. I believe the drink would be very pleasant to others.