The near sub-zero temperature got me thinking about mead. Dug out a piece I wrote back in 2006.
Warsaw Insider (January 2006)
Mead is as much a Polish heritage as pierogi and bigos are but it’s been sidelined by vodka, wine and Mojito. That’s no reason why this traditional tipple can’t be on the tip of your tongue.
Leszek Bronikowski rubs his hands together and blows his breath into them. The restaurant manager of Chłopskie Jadło is describing the people who order mead. People who have just stepped in from the chill. Mead, served warmed or at room temperature, is a bracer to ease winter’s tenacious grip.
“It used to be the number one drink in Poland,” he says. We try to put our fingers on a period when mead was the toast of the Polish society. He hasn’t heard of Leszek the White, a 12th century prince, whose knights wouldn’t take arms in the Crusades because mead wasn’t available in Palestine. Mr. Bronikowski time-travels to the Deluge (Potop). ‘Potop’ is also the title of the second part of a trilogy written by Henryk Sienkiewicz* on the 17th century Swedish invasion of Poland. In that epic, Zagłoba, a likeable character (“known to all Poles,” adds Mr. Bronikowski ), was often seen in the company of mead.
It’s not easy to get in the company of mead in cafés, clubs, pubs or restaurants. Even some establishments that pledge allegiance to traditional Polish fares would sooner pickle you in tequila than have you sipping mead. If it’s on the menu, it usually just says ‘miód pitny’ (drinkable honey). You’d need to ask if it’s półtorak, dwójniak, trójniak or czwórniak.
Don’t be startled by the naming convention. There’s logic to this local jargon. Mead is made from fermented honey and water. It’s the ratio of honey to water that gives the tipple its Polish denominations. The amount of honey is constant, always one part. Water is the variant. Półtorak has 0.5 part water to one part honey. 0.5 + 1 = 1.5, hence the name one-and-a-half (półtorak). It is also the sweetest of the lot. Dwójniak (double) has one part honey to one part water. Trójniak means triple, i.e. two parts water. And czwórniak (quadruple), the driest, has three parts H2O.
When fruit juice is used, it replaces part of the water. Spices may be added, too.
At Chłopskie Jadło, it’s półtorak. But you wouldn’t know that from the menu. You wouldn’t know what spices it’s laced with, either. “It’s a secret,” smiles the manager. Originally, Chłopskie Jadło’s mead was brewed in their maiden restaurant in Głogoczów (80km from Kraków). Now, it’s outsourced to a meadery. Which one? That’s a secret, too.
But To Lubię café makes no secret of their Dominican mead.
“Legend says that in 1603 the Dominican order came to Warsaw. They produced bricks and mead,” says Basia Bednarz, the co-owner. With the proceeds, the friars built the St. Jacek’s Church on ul. Freta. The clergy recently found archived scripts stating that the order indeed brewed mead, she adds.
The Dominican church and To Lubię joined forces and called upon the Jaros meadery to revive the church’s recipe. Jaros is a family-run business and the queen bee of the Polish mead-making circles. Divine intervention coupled with top craftsmanship produced an ambrosial dwójniak.
Mead leads you into the realms of Jadwiga, Piastun, Kasztelański, Koronny and more. Each brand name is flavored by the choice of honey used, and sometimes with accents borrowed from fruits or spices. Each is aged in barrels, exiled for different durations, and bidding their time to swirl in your company. So tip mead into your (cordial) glasses. And soak in its warm mellifluous buzz.
* Henryk Sienkiewicz, 1846–1916, a Polish novelist and short-story writer, awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Tip on serving mead: If served warm, do not allow it to come to boil. “Heat to about 80 – 900C,” advises Mr. Bronikowski.