Starting my 2020 topic of flavorings used in historical mead recipes.
Ginger is the most common added flavor in historical mead recipes. Almost 1/3 of all cataloged recipes use ginger as an additive.
For recipes from the mid-17th century to 1750, ginger is noticeably more common than the second most common addition (cloves). In recipes from 1601-1669 ginger is only slightly ahead of cinnamon and cloves. In recipes dating up to 1600 the current catalog count places both cinnamon and cloves slightly ahead of ginger in frequency.
The fraction of recipes using ginger goes up over time, as does the fraction of recipes using spices in general. The prevalence of ginger as one of the spices in recipes containing spices also appears to go up slightly over time.
This ingredient is easily identified and carries a consistent name throughout history. In the modern day many cultivars are grown for culinary use.
Today, ginger is available in a number of forms including fresh, candied, dried and pickled. Pickled ginger is unsuited to mead making. I do not believe that candied ginger was used in historical mead recipes because recipes typically call out ingredient processing of this type and there is no such language used for ginger.
Logically, fresh ginger root would not survive transit from its native Asia several hundred years ago. However, European cultivation of ginger was initiated by the Romans, and ginger is hardy to temperate areas of Europe. It can be grown in pot culture with some care in most of the rest of Europe, so we can conclude that fresh ginger would have been available in most of Europe for use in historical mead recipes. It has been noted that ginger grown in different regions has different flavor characteristics.
Almost no historical mead recipes clearly specify which form of ginger they use.
A few recipes give a weight measure for ginger, in which case common sense and looking at the relative volume of fresh versus dried ginger leads to a likely conclusion. The accompanying picture shows 15 grams (about 1/2 ounce) each of fresh, dried, and candied ginger. The fresh and candied have about the same amount of root, but the dried is much more.
Dried, Fresh, and Candied Ginger
Many recipes measure ginger in “races” a rather non-specific amount defined as a root or sprig of ginger. In this case fresh ginger seems the most likely version to supply such an amount. But this measure opens another issue – anyone who has looked at ginger root can imagine how this definition can be interpreted to mean a small or a large piece.
The easy identification of ginger hides the issues that make actually using ginger in a historical recipe complicated. Many recipes are unclear as to whether fresh or dried ginger is added, giving an uncertainty of both amount and the flavor variations between fresh and dried. The additional uncertainty of the amount used (particularly when a “race” is called for, provides the mead maker with a lot of leeway to interpret instructions.
This potential variation of how ginger is used in modern re-creations seems suitable for the most common additive for historical meads.