You can imagine my extreme hesitation at the idea of making a bochet mead. I am a cold-method meadmaker. I heat water as little as possible to mix with the must, and heat the honey not at all. the days of pasteurizing my own honey are long past. Heat drives off aromatics and a fair amount of flavor, and these days I want to profile the honey as perfectly as I can.
What’s a bochet? It’s a mead where you cook the honey until it’s well caramelized – very well caramelized indeed. My friend Carl Swan had the courage I never had. And he did it with my honey.
Pronounce it bow-shay, please. Not botchit.
On a cold, snowy February day, I drove to Cygnet Hollow Farm in Louisa County, Virginia, where he’d set up a big pavilion for a group brew day. Mind you, the snow was blowing horizontally, but Carl had a firepit going to warm our hands by, and our equipment didn’t seem to mind much – boy did everything cool down fast! We all made multiple batches of things as long as we had such a roomy setup and friends to talk to while we worked. I put together a lemon ginger mead and a British style mild ale (Carl’s recipe, in fact); Carl might’ve brewed a beer and a couple of meads. But the pièce de résistance was the bochet.
I had had the extreme good fortune to win a pail of Dutch Gold orange blossom honey when I won Best In Show at Valhalla: The Meading of Life last year. When a girl’s got sixty pounds of honey, the least she can do is share. I think some of my honey went into every batch we made that day, and of course was the basis for my mead. As the afternoon wore on, we measured out about 15-18 lbs of honey into a cauldron, and set it over a little jet propulsion burner. That thing worked like a champ, making my brewing turkey frier at home look lazy. We kept it from burning, stirring regularly, and watched in horrified fascination while the honey turned bright orange, then deeper orange, until (after something like 45 minutes) Carl declared it done.
How did we know when to stop? There are two historical recipes I know of, and as good little historical enactors we are of course documenting our sources. I seem to remember a recipe (from Apicius?) in which is described cooking the honey until the little bubbles burst and give off a puff of black smoke. Now, that’s caramelized. The other is the 1393 Goodman of Paris, translated here by Eileen Powers: “BEVERAGES FOR THE SICK – BOCHET To make six sesters of bochet take six pints of very soft honey and set it in a cauldron on the fire, and boil it and stir it for as long as it goes on rising and as long as you see it throwing up liquid in little bubbles which burst and in bursting give off a little blackish steam; and then move it, and put in seven sesters of water and boil them until it is reduced to six sesters, always stirring. And then put it in a tub to cool until it be just warm, and then run it through a sieve, and afterwards put it in a cask and add half a pint of leaven of beer, for it is this which makes it piquant (and if you put in leaven of bread, it is as good for the taste, but the colour will be duller), and cover it warmly and well when you prepare it. And if you would make it very good, add thereto an ounce of ginger, long pepper, grain of Paradise and cloves, as much of the one as of the other, save that there shall be less of the cloves, and put them in a linen bag and cast it therein. And when it hath been therein for two or three days, and the brochet tastes enough of the spices and is sufficiently piquant, take out the bag and squeeze it and put it in the other barrel that you are making. And thus this powder will serve you well two or three times over.”
What’s a sextier? As Cindy Renfrow says in Take a Thousand Eggs, “The original French ‘sextier’ is explained by Jerome Pichon, in his notes as “Sans doute le setier de huit pintes plutôt que celui d’une demi-pinte (ou chopine).” [“Without doubt the sester of eight pints rather than that of one half-pint (or chopine).”*]
Using this definition of sextier to determine the proportion of honey to water, we get:
6 pints honey to (7 sesters x 8 pints/sester = 56 pints water), or 1 part honey to 9 1/3 parts water to begin with. (This is boiled and reduced to 48 pints (6 sesters) total volume.)”
The color was appalling. It turned an orange no honey should be without additives, and it did it all on its own. All we did is stir. When Carl called the cooking quits, he mixed the (very) hot honey with water to make a must; when it cooled down he used a Montrachet yeast. I have this feeling it’s going to be extraordinary.
And I have just about enough of that orange blossom honey left to try it on my own…