Wurtzburg Mead 1350

The first known German cookbook dates from about 1350. Das buch von guter spise, or ‘The book of good food’ is part of a manuscript held by the Library of the University of Munich (Historisches Lexikon Bayerns). The larger manuscript is called the Hausbuch des Michael de Leone.

The Hausbuch (literally ‘house book’) is also called the Wurtzburg song manuscript because it is well known for the poetical/musical contents. Additional topics include literature, health and medical information, political information, and the cookbook.

Some 25 years ago, a friend of mine who was studying for a technical PhD, decided that for fun and distraction she would translate the almost 100 recipes of Das buch von guter spise Middle High German cookbook and start modernizing and making food from the recipes. She knew my not-yet-husband and I were brewers and after translating the mead recipe (Wilt du guten met machen, or ‘How you want to make good mead’, recipe number 14 in the manuscript), she enthusiastically told us that we should make it, so we did. As far as we know, my husband and I were the first to brew directly from this recipe in the modern age – 650 years after the recipe was written down.

The drink made in accordance with the original instructions (most notably without yeast nutrients) produces a sweet, carbonated, relatively herby brew that has always been well received. The recipe can be readily adapted to not boil the honey (by adjusting the ratio of honey and water). If made as written with yeast will lead to a range of fermentation endpoints that may not match the historical version.

The book was originally two volumes, containing 33 chapters. The first volume is lost with the exception of about 6 pages. The second volume contains 285 leaves (each leaf having a recto and verso side), and was written out in German and Latin by at least 12 different writers. Michael de Leone appears to have intended his book to serve as a lasting reference work for his family on the farm for which he was named. (background information from German Wikipedia “Das Buch von guter Speise” and “Hausbuch des Michael de Leone”)

The recipes from Das buch von guter spise are replicated in part, sometimes with modifications and additions in other 14th and 15th century manuscripts. To date I have not found duplicate or closely related versions of this recipe in any other source.

THE ORIGINAL RECIPE

Scans of the entire text can be found at https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/10638/. Page 318 of the scans, containing the mead recipe is shown below (Courtesy of Open Access LMU):

In the original (typography modernized) German:

“14. Wilt du guten met machen.

Der guten mete machen wil. der werme reinen brunnen. daz er die hant dor inne liden künne. und neme zwei maz wazzers. und eine honiges. daz rüere man mit eime stecken. und laz ez ein wile hangen. und sihe ez denne durch ein rein tuch. oder durch ein harsip in ein rein vaz. und siede denne die selben wirtz gein eime acker lanc hin und wider. und schume die wirtz mit einer vensterehten schüzzeln. da der schume inne blibe und niht die wirtz. dor noch giuz den mete in ein rein vaz. und bedecke in. daz der bradem niht uz müge. als lange daz man die hant dor inne geliden müge. So nim denne ein halp mezzigen hafen. und tu in halp vol hopphen und ein hant vol salbey. und siede daz mit der wirtz gein einer halben mile. und giuz ez denne in die wirtz. und nim frischer heven ein halp nözzelin und giuz ez dor in. und giuz ez under ein ander. daz ez geschende werde. so decke zu. daz der bradem iht uz müge einen tac und eine naht. So seige denne den mete durch ein reyn tuch oder durch ein harsip. und vazze in in ein reyn vaz. und lazze in iern drie tac und drie naht und fülle in alle abende. dar nach lazze man in aber abe. und hüete daz iht hefen dor in kumme. und laz in aht tage ligen. daz er valle. und fülle in alle abende. dar nach loz in abe in ein gehertztez vaz. und laz in ligen aht tage vol. und trinke in denne erst sechs wuchen oder ehte. so ist er allerbeste.”

A modern translation (courtesy of Alia Atlas):

“He, who wants to make good mead, warms clear water, so that he can just stand to put the hand in. And take two maz water and one honey. One stirs that with a stick and lets it set a while and then strains it through a clean cloth or through a hairsieve into a clean barrel. And boil then the same wort against an acre long there and back (as long as it takes to walk this distance and back) and remove the foam from the wort with a bowl with holes. The foam stays in the bowl and the wort does not. Next pour the mead in a clean barrel and cover it, so that vapor can not get out, until one can bear the hand there in. So take then a half maz pot and add until half full hops and a hand of sage and boil that with the wort against a half mile (as long as it takes to walk this distance) and give it then in the wort and take a half nut of fresh yeast (the amount that could be held in a nutshell) and give it there in and mix it together so that it will ferment.  So cover also, so that the vapor can get out, a day and a night. So strain then the mead through a clean cloth or through a hairsieve and three nights and pour (it) in a clean barrel and let it ferment three days and three nights and fill (it) in all evenings. There after one lets it go down and looks that the yeast comes therein. And let it lay for eight days, so that it falls and fill in all evenings. There after let it down in a resined barrel and let it lay eight days full and drink in the first six weeks or eight. So is it the best.”

Terence Scully, a food historian, in his 1995 The art of cookery in the Middle Ages translates the last sentence as guidance to drink it *after* the first 6-8 weeks. Scully also translates ‘hops’ instead of yeast as the contents of the nutshell, which equates the words hopphen and heven. I think yeast is the better translation. As for the aging question, we tried it before and after 6-8 weeks. And when we didn’t agree we tried it some more. The only conclusion we ever came to was we like the mead whenever we drink it.

REDACTING THE RECIPE

Turning the old recipe into a modern version (redacting) presents typical challenges for recipes of its kind.

It is worth noting that in reviewing the recipe for publication 25 years after our original redaction, I have made a few changes to it where I no longer agree we had the best interpretation of the text. This is an important aspect of redaction; there are almost always multiple options, and selecting the best choice is a matter of expertise, opinion, preference, and other factors. Typically, there are interpretations that are clearly more or less likely, but it is often true that there are multiple possible interpretations of equal strength or likelihood.

Notes on recipe interpretation and choices:

  • The initial step of adding honey to warm water and then filtering has been omitted. We judged that this step is intended to remove particles such as bee or wax pieces from the honey, a step not required with modern raw or processed honey. The instructions indicate a return to ambient temperature before subsequent steps.
  • When we first made this recipe, finding the volume of a maz took some library research. Today a simple internet search on Maz might lead to the conclusion that a Maz (or mass) is one liter (a standard beer pour in parts of Germany and Austria). Historically maz was a different measure. The original source for our conclusion that a historical maz is 1.43 liter is lost to me, and recent research suggests historical maz measures of widely varying volume (from just under 1 liter to almost 2). Because the honey:water ratio is by volume the exact size of the maz is not critical, but is relevant in gauging the addition of herbs and yeast.
  • Honey in an age where honey collection generally meant destruction of the hive would have been almost exclusively a mixed source honey, with more or less hive debris present depending on the processing method. I use raw wildflower honey.
  • Boiling the honey/water mix an acre and back initially seems strange, but both our translators agree that it is a measure of time, an acre is about 200 feet square, going around it once would take about 5 minutes moderate walking, or 10 minutes for twice around (there and back) Note that those who do not want to boil the honey, would skip this stage, boil the herbs in the water, and then mix in honey after the boil.
  • A handful of sage and ¾ liter of hops is a lot in our one gallon batch. We decided to pull this back a little (which would also happen if the approximately 2 liter maz is assumed).
  • Sage could be dried or fresh leaves. Since sage is common and hardy, fresh is most likely. Handful is remarkably variable. We’ve typically used a small ‘handful’.
  • Many modern hops are much higher in bittering agents than their historical cousins. We use Hallertau or Saaz, which are noble hop varieties that are fairly old and which are likely to be most comparable to their historical cousins.
  • The hops would be leaf hops, much fluffier than the pelleted hops commonly available. Some say about 10% more leaf hops (by weight) are required to get the same effect compared to pellets. Estimates of volume for leaf hops suggests that 1 oz leaf hops is 1-2 quarts (liters).
  • We typically do not cool the wort before adding the hops and sage. This is done to speed the brewing process, although a bit more flavor may be derived from the herbs if they heat up before boiling with the wort.
  • Boiling against half a mile. 10 minutes is a good estimate.
  • The half nut (half of a nutshell full) of fresh yeast would generally be the lees from a batch of ale/beer or mead.
  • Strain the hops and sage out and put the mixture into a clean barrel for 3 days. Barrel use is a complicated issue relative to end flavor. Variables include the wood used (probably oak, but oak varies regionally), age (a brand new barrel would leach a lot of flavor, one used for years would impart little to no residual wood flavor), previous contents (even if ‘clean’, a barrel just used for storing wine could impart a lot of flavor). Our basic version of this recipe uses neutral fermentation containers (glass, plastic) to model an old and clean barrel that would leach little to no flavor into the mead.
  • The original indicates that you ‘fill in’ the wort each evening as it ferments. This is not an uncommon practice, usually using wort saved for that purpose. Liquid is lost in fermentation through conversion to CO2 and potentially through foaming over (this recipe is prone to foaming, a blow-by is a good idea). Filling in will avoid oxidation and prevent contamination taking hold in the headspace. Using a modern fermentation container, we keep it closed and do not top off.
  • After 12 days it is placed in a resined barrel. This will reduce further barrel/wood flavors from coming in, and will also add flavors from the resin. We’ve chosen to not model the resin flavor addition. However, given the high sugar content, and likelihood for fairly high residual sugar in the brew, the resin might add balance with the hops and sage.
  • We have modified the fermentation schedule to allow for bottling.

OUR BASIC RECIPE

This recipe has been written in an effort to provide a product that is relatively close to what a 14th century mead maker would have achieved. The mead maker is encouraged to modify it to match their preferences for final product and to use desired modern mead making techniques, noting that such modifications will

Ingredients for 1 gallon:

  • 3 quarts water
  • 5 quarts honey
  • 75 oz Hallertau hop pellets (or Saaz)
  • About 8 large fresh sage leaves (1 Tablespoon rubbed dried)
  • Beer or Ale yeast

Instructions:

  1. Take 3 quarts warm water.
  2. Stir in 1 ½ quarts honey bring to a boil and slow boil approximately 5-8 minutes. Skim and remove any scum.
    If not boiling honey omit this step.
  3. Add hops and sage.
  4. Bring to a boil and boil approximately 10 minutes.
  5. Allow to cool.
  6. IF not boiling honey, add 1 1/2 quarts honey to 2 1/2 quarts of the water mixture after the hops/sage are boiled in.
  7. When mostly cooled, add yeast, cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours.
  8. Strain wort into sterilized fermenter (removing hope and sage).
    If trying to emulate barrel fermentation, model here.
  9. Use a blow by for the first few days (about 3) of fermentation.
    Follow selected nutrient addition and degassing schedule.
  10. Rack at about 8 days and let ferment until the fermentation slows.
  11. Bottle after fermentation is complete; depending on fermenting temperature. Ours has typically run close to 30 days; the recipe calls for 20 days. The resulting mead should be slightly “herby” to the nose and taste and be well carbonated.
  12. If desired, use preferred techniques to stop fermentation, carbonate, and back-sweeten (back sweetening will probably not be required).

This basic recipe can and should be adjusted to meet the goals and desires of the brewer.

The choice of honey, fresh vs. dried sage, pellet vs. leaf hops, type of hop, type of sage, specific yeast strain, yeast culture versus yeast from an active fermentation, amount of hops/sage, modeling of barrel aging or not, and modeling of resined barrel or not are all possible modifications to the basic recipe based on convenience, historical focus, or preference.

Most brewers also have preferences on how they carry out brewing and fermentation. In particular the level of technology and science used in the brewing process is highly individual. Some of these techniques and methods will affect the outcome of the recipe, and adjustments may be required if a more ‘historical’ flavor is desired.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atlas, Alia, tr. 1994. Daz Buoch von Guoter Spise.

Scully, Terence. 1995. The Art Of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Wikipedia. “Das Buch von guter Speise”. Last modified September 18, 2017; accessed December 8, 2017.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Buch_von_guter_Speise

Background information on the first German cookbook.

Wikipedia. “Hausbuch des Michael de Leone”. Last modified November 5, 2017; accessed December 8, 2017.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hausbuch_des_Michael_de_Leone

Background information on the manuscript containing Das Buch von guter Speise.

Last updated July 17, 2019