Food-Fermented Beverages
Mead, Wine, Ale


Mead—fermented honey—was probably the first fermented drink, perhaps another food accident. Maybe honey was left out, rain fell, yeast settled on the mixture. In both Greece and Rome, before winemaking, mead was offered to the gods. Honey was a mysterious substance to ancient people. Greeks knew bees were connected to it, but not exactly how. Romans thought honey fell from heaven and landed on leaves, “the saliva of the stars.” Honey is produced from the nectar in flowers gathered by bees to feed young bees. Most of the water in the nectar evaporates, resulting in honey, which is thirty-five to forty percent fructose, thirty to thirty-five percent dextrose, seventeen to twenty percent water, and small amounts of enzymes, etc.
Humans also started drinking wine very early. Maybe winemaking was done deliberately. Or perhaps wine was another culinary coincidence: grapes left at room temperature fermented naturally. Maybe crushed grapes and their juice left in the bottom of an animal skin fermented. Animal skins are all right for short-term transport of wine, but they aren’t an efficient way to store it. Pottery is, and by about 6000 B.C. clay jugs were being used. A clay jug with a narrow mouth can be stoppered up to prevent the oxidation that will turn wine to vinegar, while animal pouches can’t. It is from the wine residue, tartaric acid, in these clay vessels that we know how long ago humans were drinking wine.
From the beginning, wine was an upper-class drink. Beer was the beverage of the masses, and it, too, might have been the result of an accident. The housewives who were responsible for food preparation malted their grain—they let it sprout because it tasted better and it was easier to mill and bake into bread. Somehow, the malted grain fermented into an alcoholic beverage and began to be produced on its own, and women became the brewers.
The early human settlements were small villages, extended family groups organized like a tribe or clan of 200 to 300 people, with an elder male as the final authority in disputes. Perhaps he was also a sort of spiritual leader or medicine man. Nothing was written, no laws were needed, because everyone was in agreement about what was right and wrong, and everyone was engaged primarily in the same occupation—procuring and preparing food. People who had special skills like weaving, carving, or making baskets or pottery, would have done it after their duties connected to food were done. But that changed as the advantages of farming and domestication became apparent. The settlements became larger, the land was irrigated with complicated systems of canals that required organization and cooperation, and governments arose.

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