The earliest known written recipes for mead date from the Greek and Roman era. The 1st century CE writings of both Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides include mead recipes; the similarities between the recipes presented by these two authors bolster theories that both writers were drawing from earlier Greek sources that have since been lost.
A common fruit addition to these classical era meads was quince, and the resulting drink was known as hydromelon, cydonomel, or cydonite.
This particular quince mead recipe dates from 1500 years later, but includes echoes of those Roman-era recipes. Specifically, it is to be fermented for 40 days in the July sun, almost identical to Pliny’s instructions. The ratio of quince juice and instructions for addition are significantly different from the earlier quince meads.
This mead starts at a relatively modest OG and uses very little quince juice. Because quince juice has a strong flavor it is distinctly present in the resulting drink, which has fermented dry each time I have made it. The resulting drink is light, quite tart (from the quince and low residual sugar) and of a moderate alcohol content (8-9%).
Quinces – photo Laura Angotti
Like many historical mead recipes, the recipe for virtuous quince mead appears in different incarnations at various times and in various locations. The following have been cataloged to date:
- Estienne, 1576 Maison Rustique: This book of advice for running a country household / farm was first published in 1554, and went through at least 5 printings/editions before this mead recipe was included in the expanded 1576 edition (content after Estienne’s death in 1564 was added by John Liebault). The book was later revised additional times, and translated into a number of languages, often with local additions (including English in 1600, see below).
My translation of the 1576 recipe from the French reads: “Take one part of honey, and six parts of rain water: put it all together in a small barrel, of good weight and well closed at the top, and so it has no air. Then expose it to a great sun, such as that that is here during July, without any rain, and leave it there around 40 days, always making sure that you turn the barrel every eight hours, for the purpose that the heat of the sun will penetrate to all sides. To give it the most virtue, it would be good at the time of quinces that you add the juice of quinces, to the fourth part of the honey, that is to say, for a livre of honey, a quarter that of juice of quinces.”
- Clutius 1597 Van den Byen: This Dutch book on bees and beekeeping contains several recipes for mead, one of which mirrors the wording we see in Maison Rustique. My translation from the Dutch reads: “Take a part Honey, six parts rain water, boil it as above, and let it become cold, add to it Quinces as the juice of Quinces, to each part of Honey a fourth part juice of Quinces, set it with Barm so the scum will rise/heave and it will come to clear.”
- Hugetan, 1607 Le Thrésor de santé, or Treasure of health: This book on living in a healthy manner, published in Lyon, France tells us “He who wants to make in quantity will place six measures of rain water in one of honey, and will boil it in July and August in the sun, as above. To give it greater virtue, in the time of quinces, he will mix in the fourth part of their juice.”
- Estienne, Liebault, Markham, Surflet, 1616 Maison rustique, or, the country farme: The title page of the 1616 English edition of the original French Maison Rustique shown here indicates some of the complicated lineage of authorship, translation, and addition that takes Estienne’s original text, adds the French posthumous additions of Liebault, includes any interpretation with the translation by Surflet, and adds content from Markham and other authors in this addition. The recipe matches the 1576 version well but clarifies “there may be for everie pound of honie a quarter of a pound of juice of quinces”.
- Elizabeth Jacob, 1654 – c.1685 household manuscript: Elizabeth Jacob put her name and the date 1654 at the beginning of this manuscript household book. There are a number of different hands (writers) in this book which includes at least 30 years of collected recipes, including culinary and medicinal recipes. The version of the recipe in this volume reads “Take one part of honey and 6 parts of rain water, put all together in a barrel well pitchd and stopt above that noe Aire at all may come into it. Afterwards set it out in the hottest weather that is in July, but out of all rain, and leave it bee About 40 days, but with promise as that you turn the barell every 8 days that it may work on all sides of it, to make it more Effectuall and of greater virtue it will be good in Quince time to mix therewith the juice of Quinces in such quantity as that there may be for every pound of honey, A quarter of A pound of juice of Quinces;”
Quince Melomel Recipe Estienne, 1616 – photo Laura Angotti
These appearances of the recipe cover France, the Netherlands, and England over a period of as much as 100 years. It is likely additional insight could be gained by looking at the specific phraseology of each recipes and known history and connections of the individuals writing each text. However here we will focus on the recipe.
The first step is looking at the similarities and differences between the versions, and different options for interpretation:
- In all versions the original honey and water mix is measured in parts, or volume. A 1:6 honey:water mix will have a gravity of about 1.06-1.065 (1.7 lb honey per gallon). It could be argued that this initial ratio is possibly by weight, but it is unlikely and would lead to an even lower gravity.
- The two English versions make it clear that quince juice is added as ¼ of the weight of the honey. This adds about 6 ounces quince juice per gallon.
The 1597 Dutch uses the same ‘part’ language as the previous part, strongly implying quince juice is added by volume. This adds about 4.5 ounces of quince juice per gallon.
For the original and the 1607 version the quince addition could be argued to be either by weight or by volume.
In either case the quince juice, at a gravity of about 1.04 doesn’t reduce the overall initial gravity by more than a few points.
- In the 1607 French, a reader without knowledge of the other versions could legitimately conclude that the quince juice is added as ¼ part of the entire volume (not just the honey). This would lead to almost 2 cups per gallon quince juice, and reduce the initial gravity to about 1.055-1.06.
These versions are not hugely different, but several of the recipes include another option:
- The 1607 and 1654 versions do not mention boiling the honey:water mixture. The 1597 version requires it. The 1576 and 1616 versions give boiling as an option. In all the cases where the honey:water mix is boiled it is boiled until an egg floats. At room temperature this is a gravity of about 1.07, barely higher than the initial mixture. But if the mixture is boiled until an egg floats while boiling (assuming the test is done without the boiling physically lifting the egg), the associated gravity will be 1.11-1.12 once returned to room temperature (equivalent to about 3-3.25 lb honey per gallon).
- Because the amount of quince juice added is measured relative to the original honey, the liquid loss during boiling does not change the final amount of quince juice per gallon.
All versions of the recipe ferment 40 days in summer sun in a closed barrel without any specific addition of yeast.
Deciding on how to carry the recipe out therefore involves two key choices: whether to add quince juice by weight or by volume (or by the total liquid volume), and whether or not to boil (actually boil, or adjust ratios to account for the liquid loss that would take place during boiling but skipping the boiling process).
In this case I chose to use the earliest, 1576 version of the recipe, and use livre as a volume measure because I think it is more likely. I chose to model the version that does not include boiling the honey:water mixture.
My goal is almost always to better understand the process and experience for the mead maker at the time the recipe was written down. Therefore, I generally follow instructions as written. Three key exceptions are:
- I sanitize containers and equipment. I choose not to model batches lost to contamination.
- I do not use wild yeast. I live in a densely populated suburban area and am not inclined to rely on wild yeast under those circumstances.
- I typically make initial batches in glass containers, modeling use of a barrel for fermentation that has seen long-term use and no longer adds notable character to the contents.
In the effort to understand the historical recipes in context I do not typically use nutrients, degassing, temperature control, or other modern methods to control the fermentation process.
I expect that each mead maker will understand their goals and adjust the brewing process to achieve them, understanding that changes in procedure will also lead to changes in results.
Ingredients for 1 gallon batch:
- Water 13 cups
- Quince Juice 150 ml (5 fl oz, ½ generous cup) (juice from about 3 med/large quinces)
- Honey 2 ¼ cups (1.7 lb)
- Beer/Ale Yeast (or other preferred yeast)
- 1 Gal fermenter
- Fermentation lock
- Add to a 1 gallon fermenter, 13 cups of water, 1.7 lb (2 1/4 cups) honey, and ½ generous cup quince juice.
- Mix thoroughly. Expected OG 1.06-1.065.
- Add beer/ale yeast.
- Let ferment using preferred fermentation protocols.
I have made this twice. The OG was 1.066 and 1.068. The second time I used closer to 1 cup quince juice per gallon. The first batch fermented to 0.998 and the second to 1.005.
Particularly with the acidic quince juice the resulting drink is relatively acidic, but even with the very small amount of quince carries the flavor of the fruit very distinctly.
The ‘boiled’ version, with its significantly higher OG could be made either by actually boiling the wort or by adjusting the honey:water ratio to provide the desired gravity (without boiling). I have made a quince mead with a higher OG which also had notably more quince juice in it; with a higher OG and the low quince juice content either higher alcohol or higher residual sugar is expected to somewhat mask the quince flavor.
Clutium, Theodorum. 1597. Van de Byen Hare wonderlicke Oorsprone. Leyden.
Estienne, Charles & Liebault, Jean. 1576. Maision Rustique. Paris
Huguetan, Jean-Antione. 1607. Le Thrésor de santé, ou mesnage de la vie humaine, divisé en dix livres. Lesquels traictent amplement de toutes sortes viands & breuvages, ensemble de leur qualité & préparation. Lyon
Jacob, Elizabeth, 1654. Physicall and chirurgical recepts cookery and preserves, Wellcome MS 3009.
Updated July 17, 2019