Mead is thought to be the ancestor of all fermented drinks. Its ingredients and preparation are simple: Yeasts naturally present in the air will immediately start to ferment honey when diluted with water. It’s no surprise then that mead was a staple in cultures from Europe to Africa to Asia. Where there were bees, there was mead.
Throughout Eastern Europe it was a popular drink and was once prepared in all Polish homes, where women would be responsible for making the drink, while men looked after the apiaries. Glass was often too expensive for poor families, so mead was stored in home-produced clay vessels that had fired in small kilns.
But as industrial mead production took over, fewer and few families prepared it the traditional way and today, only one mead maker in all of Poland still uses the traditional recipe.
Maciej Jaros lives a few kilometers from Warsaw. His family business has made mead ever since the Polish government removed the ban on small private enterprise in 1991. ”When my father started this business, he used my grandmother’s recipe,” he explained. She was one of the few people still alive who knew how to achieve the exact balance between flavor and aroma.
In his small workshop, Jaros keeps an apiary of 30 hives that produce a dark yellow and aromatic honey. “If you don’t know how to make honey, you cannot make mead,” he says. “The quality begins with the honey. Different meads have very different tastes. We make one just from linden honey, others from lavender or buckwheat.”
Many types of mead exist, varying in quality according to the proportion of honey to water—from one part honey to three parts water, to two parts honey to one part water. The latter version, called pultorak, is the most precious.
The preparation of Polish mead begins by boiling honey and water mixed with local herbs. The mixture is then fermented and aged in large stainless steel barrels. Some varieties of Polish mead are traditionally flavored with raspberry, apple or grape juice.
The greater proportion of honey, the longer it can be aged. The product needs to age six or seven years before sale–-a prospect that often scares away the younger generation of mead producers–but bottles aged 15 and even 20 years still exist.
Jaros makes the honey, the mead itself and even the clay vessels in which the mead is bottled. His mead is completely different from the industrial versions widespread on the Polish market, where lack of flavor is compensated for with artificial aromas. The definitive ingredient is time. “Industrial mead is made very fast; ours is aged from two to 15 years.”
To protect this endangered production, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity launched a Presidium project to promote and develop authentic Polish mead and to guarantee that the product is sold at a fair price on the market. Only then will producers overcome their fear of the initial investment and revive this ancient product.