Herb and Spice Use in Recipes

A metheglin is any mead with herbs or spices added. For the purposes of looking at historical meads, this group includes about half of the recipes. Therefore breaking the category down further makes a lot of sense. A natural break is between meads made with herbs and those made with spices. A third category becomes those that contain both.

When the additions are grouped purely by the culinary definition, the lists do not appear to match natural breaks in the groupings of flavors as they are added in the recipes as a whole.

What is an herb, a spice? A spice by culinary definition is a seed, fruit, root, or bark used to color or flavor food. An herb is leaves, flowers or stems used for the same purpose. These categories have changed over time; and some cite an herb as leaves of non-woody plants only and spices as everything else.

When the spice group is defined as culinary definition spices that were also historically imported as part of the spice trade, the categories and the recipes match much better. Saffron is included in this group based on recipe analysis and point of origin. Culinary spices that would have been locally grown in Europe, such as fennel seed, mustard seed and parsley root are pushed over into the herb category that then becomes herbs and locally-grown spices.

Coriander was locally grown in parts of Europe, but when looked at based on ingredients accompanying it in recipes it fits better with the imported spices rather than herbs, and so has been left with them.


Spices are a wonderful flavor addition for mead.

About 1/3 of the total recipes include spices (375 out of over 1100 recipes, the 1100 includes duplicate recipes).

About 1 in 6 (15%) of the recipes from before 1600 contain spices, whereas over 1/3 (35%) of the 17th century recipes contain them. This strongly suggests a shift in how mead was flavored over time.

Cinnamon, cloves, and ginger are most prevalent spices, each appearing in about half of the recipes containing spices. Cinnamon is slightly more prevalent in earlier recipes, and cloves become slightly more popular in the 17th century. The type of cinnamon is not usually specified, but both cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon (Ceylon) are expected to be present.

In the middle range of popularity, appearing in 16-30% of spiced recipes are (in decreasing order of frequency): nutmeg, pepper, mace, saffron, and grains of paradise. Saffron is more prevalent in earlier recipes, and mace and grains of paradise are relatively more popular in the 17th century. Non-specific terminology leaves some uncertainty in differentiating between mace and nutmeg.

Galangale, in just under 10% of spiced recipes, doesn’t fit in a frequency grouping, but seems to become more popular as the 17th century progresses.

The final class, infrequently used spices, appear in less than 5% of recipes each: cardamom, coriander, long pepper, spikenard, cubeb, and cumin. Spikenard and long pepper tend to be in earlier recipes, and coriander, cubeb and cumin in later ones.

Almost 20% of the recipes that specify spicing indicate that the brewer should use whatever spices they see fit; many of these give examples of the spices that should be considered.

A number of these spices are uncommon in modern cooking, but even though they may be a challenge to find, all of these are worthy of brewing consideration specifically cubeb, grains of paradise, long pepper, spikenard.


Herbs are a common metheglin additive in medieval, renaissance, and early modern mead recipes. I have made a division for meads containing flowers, such as roses and hops to separate them from herbed meads.

I currently have about 280 recipes from prehistory to 1668 that use herbs out of some 1100 total recipes (including duplicates). That is about ¼ of the total recipes in my database. Anther 190 include flowers, with some overlap.

About half of the herb recipes contain only a single herb and 2/3 of them have only 1 or 2 herbs. A direction to add herbs ‘as desired’ is not uncommon, appearing in 33 recipes (some are also counted as single herb recipes with instruction that name one or more herbs first). The most herbs in a single recipe is 19, and less than 10% of the recipes have 8 or more herbs.

There are about 100 different herbs cataloged so far from the extant recipes. About 1/3 of these are only used in one recipe, and another 1 in 7 (~15%) are only in 2 recipes. Therefore about ½ of the herbs are in only 1 or 2 recipes. The average herb appears in 5-6 recipes.

Rosemary, sage, marjoram, hyssop, and thyme are the most common herbs used (in descending order of frequency), each appearing in over 40 recipes.

40 recipes instruct the reader to use the herbs they desire in their mead.

The flower recipes are dominated by roses and hops, and the group includes about 190 recipes. About 1/3 contain hops, and the same number roses or rose juice. Only 3 (3 instances of the same recipe in different sources) contain both hops and roses. Meads with roses and hops are less prevalent in the 17th as opposed to earlier centuries.

Last updated March 13, 2018