Thursday 15 October 2015

Dark Mountain mead

Today is publication day for the long awaited Dark Mountain Issue 8 - our first themed book and paperback. Titled Techne it is a wide-ranging collection of essays, reflections and maker guides on all aspects of technology and tools.Tonight we launch at the /i’klectik/ studios in Lambeth where I am giving a slideshow of some of the artworks and photographs in this densely illustrated volume, and Mark is giving a demo on how to make a wild autumn mead. As well as co-editing the book I have written two of its pieces. Here is the first, a short practical one (the second Wayland and the Futuremakers will come later). 

This is a mead made for a talk about Dark Mountain at the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, last June. My fellow editor Steve Wheeler and I had been invited to present our talk without any technology or power, as part of a ‘de-industrialising‘ workshop called ‘Breakdown breakdown’, organised by the artist and activist Brett Bloom. I took a jar of mead along as part of the performance.

Honey and water infused by botanicals make the simplest, most off-grid, hands-on, archaic, indigenous drink you can find anywhere. You can conjure mead elixirs from any fruit or leaves or roots, depending on your intent or sense of adventure. Fragrant elderflowers, bitter dandelion roots, birch bark, hawthorn berries; the mead circles of rural Tennessee, according to master fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, make them with just about with anything. Ours had a fruity theme: conference pear, lemon balm, apple mint, lime blossom honey. The key ingredient in mead is raw honey. The honey has to be non-pasteurised, so it contains the wild yeasts that make fermentation happen.
Midway through the presentation, just after Steve had whirled about the circle of people, reading from his Dark Mountain piece, Ragnanok, about modern warrior training in Sweden, I passed the mead around to see if anyone could guess what it was. No one did, although a girl from Finland did say it reminded her of something her people made with raisins. 

‘Well, if you remember your Nordic mythology,’ I said, ‘you’ll know that when Odin and his sky warriors weren’t preparing for the Last Battle, they were drinking mead!’

The first time I encountered mead, I was investigating plant medicine in Oxford. One night, after drinking a cup, I dreamed my head was covered in bees. It was intense. The second time was at an editorial meeting in London. Six of us had been running a newspaper against the odds and were closing shop after three years. We sat in a circle, feeling The End drawing nigh, when the managing editor exclaimed, ‘Let’s have some mead!’ and brandished a Kilner jar containing an elixir of rose petals, redcurrants and windfallen cherry plums. Five minutes later we were all falling about laughing. I thought I was going to burst with happiness. 

‘It might be the end of the world as we know it,’ I declared to the audience. ‘but at least we can have a good time! 

1 handful each of mint and lemon balm leaves, or seasonal edible flowers and leaves
500ml of pure spring water (local if possible)
1 pear (organic), chopped (or any unsprayed seasonal wild or garden fruit
½ jar of raw honey (small local producers rarely process their honey)
1litre Kilner jar

METHOD: Pick a good handful of lemon balm and mint leaves from a garden or unpolluted location, and make them into a strong tea with some of the water (just off the boil).  Let it cool. Dissolve the honey with some of the cooled tea in the Kilner jar, then add all the rest of the ingredients, plus several fresh lemon balm leaves.

Leave the jar somewhere warmish and visible. Every day take up a wooden spoon and swirl the mixture briskly anti-clockwise and then clockwise. It doesn’t matter if you keep the jar open or closed, but if you close it you need to ‘burp’ the jar every day. It will make a satisfying hiss as the CO2 escapes and froth vigorously. Each day the mead will look different. The colour and fragrance will change. Transformation is happening!

After about 5-7 days it is ready to drink – though you can bottle it once the fermented process is complete and keep it for years. It is particularly delicious mixed with wine, fruit cordial, apple juice and/or sparkling spring water.

 All the ingre- dients in this mead are traditional herbs for relaxing and cheering you up. Contrary to expec- tation, facing the end of the world as we know it can be a cheerful thing, as every attempt to deny the situation, or to keep things going against the odds, disappears. It opens up a space you didn’t think was there. Suddenly you can see what or who was around you all the time, but you were too fraught to notice. 

The alchemical mead jar at the centre of the talk was a kind of metaphor for the Dark Mountain Project. I wanted to show hown if you gather some creative uncivilised ingredients (people) together, they can made a heady, healing and joyful brew. What is happening in that Kilner jar is the magic and medicine of fermentation -  communities of microorganisms working together, exchanging material, creating new forms, making life happen. All the active ingredients in honey are dormant until you mix them with water, and then everything wakes up. The yeasts that live on the surface of leaves and the skins of fruit add to the live action and flavour. The sweet nectar of flowers gathered and processed by millions of bees feeds them, and then us. Rewilding in a jar. 

Sip, share and enjoy!

END NOTE: Since writing this piece I have made fruity and foraged mead elixirs through several summers, beginning with strawberry, rhubarb and rose in June and ending with damsons, crab apple and sea buckthorn berries in September. Instead of making a tea of leaves as in the above recipe, I add more fruit and flowers directly into the honey-infused water. I sieve the fruit usually after a week and keep the mead in the fridge where it continues to ferment, though at a slower pace. Three of the best mixes are wild cherry and meadowsweet, gooseberry and elderflower, and blackcurrant and fennel. A great way to enjoy the top half of the year!

 Images: front cover of Dark Mountain 8 designed by Andy Garside; a late summer mead with cherry plums, rowan berries, yarrow flowers and mallow (Mark Watson); Mark in action at recent Raw Food and Drink demo at Giddens & Thompon's Bungay (photo by Josiah Meldrum)