July 01, 2008

Olga's Ferment

On July 24, Russians celebrate the name day of Olga, the widow of Prince Igor and the very first person in Kievan Rus to accept Christianity. But Olga was more than simply a pious figure. She was also a crafty ruler who did not hesitate to exact revenge on her enemies. The Primary Chronicle describes how she avenged the death of her husband in 945 by devising three ruses against Igor’s killers, the fierce Derevlians. For one, Olga invited the Derevlians to a funeral feast in Igor’s memory. Invoking the great tradition of Russian hospitality, she plied them with vast quantities of mead (мёд, myod), a fermented honey wine often flavored with berries and herbs. When they were thoroughly drunk, she had them massacred, 5000 in all. 

From a later entry, in 996, we learn that Prince Vladimir held a feast in Olga’s honor, for which 300 barrels of mead were produced. From these descriptions we can deduce the important role mead played in Russian feasts from earliest times. After the acceptance of Christianity, as elsewhere in Europe, some of the most sophisticated alcoholic beverages were produced in monasteries, and monastyrsky myod became the gold standard. Unfortunately, Peter the Great preferred both the stronger kick of vodka and the taste of foreign wines, so mead declined in popularity during his reign. Even so, in her famous 19th century cookbook, A Gift to Young Housewives, Elena Molokhovets offers several instructions for preparing it.

The Russians were particularly renowned for their fruit-flavored meads. The German traveler Adam Olearius, who visited Russia in the 17th century, waxed rhapsodic about the aroma and flavor of the raspberry mead he was offered. There are two basic methods for preparing mead. The first, for vareny or boiled mead, involves heating honey with water and then adding yeast and sometimes hops to initiate fermentation. The second, for stavlenny myod, calls for mixing prepared mead with fruit juice and leaving it to stand until a fine flavor develops. In addition to the juice of freshly pressed raspberries, the Russians used cherries, currants, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries. Often, spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom were added. The variations were many. The Domostroi, the 16th-century book of household management, offers recipes for several different meads: boiled (obvarnoy), white (made from light, clear honey), honey (with a greater proportion of honey to water), ordinary, boyars’ (for which the honeycomb is left in during the initial fermentation), spiced, and berry. Berry meads offered the further advantage of using large quantities of summer fruits, which could then be enjoyed in a new form throughout the long Russian winter. 

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