Oxymel- A conundrum

Oxymel (oximel) is a drink made from honey and vinegar, usually also adding water. This drink was often a base for addition of medicinal herbs. Oxymel is often prominently featured in texts with Arabic roots, where the Islamic prohibition of alcohol becomes an added factor in trying to understand how the drink was made and used.

My efforts to understand Oxymel have been informed by a practical experiment. I took a recipe with the lowest amount of vinegar relative to water and honey and tried to make it. Despite pitching yeast several times and giving it plenty of time, no fermentation occurred. The likely reason is that addition of vinegar took the pH down below a level where the yeast was capable of working. Based on this I have concluded that oxymel is not a fermented beverage. I have discontinued including oxymel recipes in my lists of meads. But I remain open to new data that will change that opinion.

The question of oxymel is full of interesting factors, a few of which I have touched on here. In particular the migration of Oxymel from Greek texts to the Arabic world then back to Western Europe, the relationship to the Iranian drink sekanjabin, and the medicinal use of oxymel are fascinating topics.

The recipe for oxymel from Dioscorides, as presented in 1516 Baptista/Barolo Book V Oxymeli DCCCLIII

Oxymeli hoc est acetum mulsum. Temperatur aceti heminis v. salis marini libra. Mellis x. p. aquae sextariis v. una coctis decies defervescente Cortina: Deinde refrigerates,

TRANSLATION (Laura Angotti): Oxymeli is honey vinegar. Take 5 heminae of tempered vinegar 1 libra of sea salt, 10 of honey, and 5 of rain water. Cook them until the ten [tenth] is evaporated then begin to cool in the cauldron. Then cool it.

In this recipe the boiling language is unclear. It could be to boil out the ten parts, which would return it to the volume of the honey and be syrup. The old dictionary defines decies as ten times, and decimanus as tenth. Modern dictionary agrees, but has tenth as decimus.

This recipe calls for salt as well as vinegar and honey. The addition of salt places it in the minority of oxymel recipes, but others also have this addition.

Unlike more traditional meads, where the use clearly moves back and forth between the medical and culinary worlds, oxymel appears to remain much more firmly entrenched on the medical side. It is more prominently used as a solvent for various medicines, and, unlike mead, does not appear in culinary or purely brewing context.

Next week there will be no recipe of the week due to scheduling conflicts. Look for Cydonomel, Quince mead, the week after. And perhaps some discussion of my first book in the interim.

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