The World of Fruit Meads (Melomels)

January 2014 018Mead is the alcohol made by fermenting honey. We already know that fruit and honey are a winning combination: when these two are fermented together, the resulting beverage is called a melomel. One foot in the fruit wine world, and one foot in the mead world, melomels are an exciting variation on the idea of drinking fruit with dinner. It seems to me that just about every meadery out there makes at least one melomel, and often multiple melomels, even if they don’t make a traditional mead! Many meaderies make melomels as small batches, almost like a “soup du jour.” These small batch melomels sell out almost as quickly as they appear and there’s no way to list them all.

Melomel is a category of mead in which both honey and fruit are combined in the initial fermentation. When this is done, both the honey and the fruit contribute sugars to the fermentation (as opposed to fruit being added to finished mead as a flavoring). In the United States, TTB regulations forbid the blending of “agricultural wines” with grape wines or fruit wines after fermentation, even though this is common practice in the rest of the world and among home mead makers. The fruit component must be added before fermentation, or can be added only as a flavoring (not as a sugar contributor) after fermentation. Commercial American melomels may be made from whole fruit, crushed fruit, fruit puree, or dried fruit mixed with honey and water (and sometimes herbs, spices, or flowers as well). Melomels from all other countries may be blends of finished mead with finished fruit wine, or finished mead with finished grape wine.

Melomels may be high alcohol or low; dry or sweet; still or sparkling; delicate or robust. The category of melomel also includes the smaller categories of pyment (honey fermented with grapes) and cysers (honey fermented with pressed apples).

I am aware of widely-available commercial American melomels made with the following fruits: apple, apricot, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, chokecherry, cranberry, currant, elderberry, fig, grape, juniper berry (arguably a spice rather than a fruit), lingonberry, mango, mulberry, orange, peach, pear, plum, raisin, raspberry, rhubarb, and strawberry. I’m sure there are others. Melomels have the potential for truly regional flavors and styles, since many fruits (think Northwest berries, tropical fruits, citrus, or pawpaw) have strong regional associations.

Try strong fruit flavors like currant or elderberry with cured or smoked meats and game meats. Well-known Portland, Oregon chef Sean Temple (formerly of Paley’s Place and of Paulee) recommends Hidden Legend Elderberry Mead with coffee-and-black-pepper-crusted carpaccio topped with spicy arugula greens!

Try earthy fruits such as blackberries and raisins with earthy savory foods such as cauliflower or mushrooms. Sky River Meadery’s Blackberry Mead is outstanding paired with roasted, caramelized cauliflower.

Autumn fruits such as cranberry, pear, and apple carry all the right connotations for the Thanksgiving table and for pairing with traditional holiday fare, but they also pair well with anything you might try with the fruit on its own: for example, pears pair well with blue cheese, and so does a pear mead. Apples pair well with cinnamon, and cysers pair well with almost any sweet cinnamon dish. On the savory side of things, apples go well with pork, and so does cyser.

Berry melomels such as blueberry, strawberry, loganberry, raspberry, marionberry, cherry, and currant can generally be paired with anything that might go with the berry, or with jam or jelly made from that berry. For example, a classic Pacific Northwest entrée is salmon stuffed with chanterelle mushrooms and blackberries. This dish goes beautifully with a blackberry melomel, and the flavors of salmon and chanterelles in other recipes go well with a blackberry melomel, too. Similarly, many dessert recipes pair lemons and raspberries. A raspberry melomel pairs nicely with lemon merengue pie, but a not-too-sweet raspberry melomel also pairs nicely with an entrée of lemon chicken! Mixed berry melomels (several meaderies offer products with a blend of berries, such as “Marriage” by Celestial Meads in Alaska, and “Desire” by Moonlight Meadery in New Hampshire) are a surprisingly good pairing with pizza!

Although all melomels are made from both honey and fruit as the fermentable sugar sources, they cover an enormous range: dry to sweet; low alcohol to high; subtle to intense fruit flavors; still to carbonated; and they may include more than one fruit, or include herbs, spices, or other flavorings such as chocolate. (Wild Blossom Meadery in Chicago, Illinois, makes a cherry-chocolate melomel that is just divine).

On the one hand, melomels may be thought of as a variation on fruit wines, and pairings for a particular fruit wine are likely to work well with a similar melomel. However, many fruit wines tend to be dessert wines, while many melomels are dry, tart, complex, and very food-friendly to savory foods as well.

Some pairings just suggest themselves naturally: a sweet, rich cherry or raspberry melomel with a dark flourless chocolate cake; a pear melomel with ginger cake; sweet apple melomel with anything cinnamon. And almost any melomel will work with a custard or creamy dessert such as crème brulee or cheesecake. But don’t limit yourself to dessert. There are plenty of savory pairings for melomels of every flavor.

Generally when designing a pairing, you’re unlikely to have more than a few melomels available to you. More likely you have just one or a few in your pantry that you are considering for dinner tonight or tomorrow night, perhaps with a few friends coming over. You won’t have a wide range of already-known meads to choose from, and you won’t have the large number of ingredients at hand that a restaurant chef might have. So read the descriptions on the label: is it a dry mead, or sweet? Does the label suggest that the fruit is subtle or intense? Are there other flavors involved? How much alcohol? As you compare the bottles, take into consideration the season of the year, your guests’ food preferences, and the food ingredients you already have at hand. Pair lower-alcohol melomels with more delicate foods such as chicken and seafood. Pair dry and intense fruits with richer foods such as lamb and pork. Pair sweeter melomels with spicy foods such as Asian or barbeque. Finally, consider the fruit that is in the bottle. A good way to think of food pairings for melomels is to consider the primary fruit in the bottle, and then consider the foods where that fruit would work well as an ingredient. Let’s take cherry. Dried cherries and port are often combined with duck, pork tenderloin, or with lamb, venison, or game meats. Cherries are great with goat cheese, black pepper, arugula, and balsamic vinegar in a salad. Belgian cherry rabbit stew is a favorite dish of mine. You can either replace cherry ingredients in the recipe, such as replacing the Belgian cherry lambic beer in the rabbit stew recipe with a cherry mead, or you can take the cherries out of the recipe and let the melomel fill that flavor gap as an accompaniment, instead. Of course you can also include the cherries in both places, letting the cherry beverage mirror the cherry flavors in the food (February is national cherry month in the U.S., so that makes a good excuse to go over the top with that particular fruit)! Cherries also complement chicken, almonds, chocolate, custards, mint, and nuts.

The seminal book “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page is a terrific reference. Look up your particular fruit and be inspired by the list of potential ingredient matches.

Apple melomels (also called cysers) can work in place of ciders generally. They go well with all cheeses, particularly blue cheese, and also pair well with beets, bacon, pork, sausage, liver, lobster, goose, duck, chicken, and turkey. Consider chicory and other bitter greens, almonds, carrots, celery, chestnuts, fennel, ginger, horseradish, onions, pecans, pine nuts, rosemary, green or purple cabbage (raw or cooked), sauerkraut, turnips, or walnuts as additional ingredients. Consider smoked or grilled preparations. Endive, bacon, beets, and white beans work well together in any of several preparations with a cyser, which also compliments pumpkin or winter squash cooked any way. Apple cysers are also lovely on a cold evening as a mulled wine (heated, with added spices, and served in a mug, perhaps garnished with a cinnamon stick).

Apricot melomels complement rabbit, chicken, and lamb, especially in Turkish or Middle Eastern dishes. Their flavors suit tropical or southeast Asian recipes. Consider recipes that include almonds, cherries, coconut, ginger, hazelnuts, lemon or lime, lingonberries, pineapple, pistachios, plums, rice, sesame, and tarragon. Apricot melomels also go well with sweet potatoes or with lobster.

Blackberry melomels, especially a dry one such as Sky River Meadery’s Blackberry Mead, complement earthy flavors such as roasted cauliflower, wild mushrooms, and salmon.

Blueberries work well with blue cheese, lamb, fish, and chicken, especially with additional flavors of apples, apricots, ginger, honey, lavender, lemon, sour cream, maple syrup, and thyme. Consider serving a blueberry melomel at brunch, with or without blueberry pancakes or muffins. If you would pour blueberry syrup on it, you can drink a blueberry melomel with it instead! Try a blueberry melomel with Duck Breast Salad with Blueberries, Walnuts, and Currant Vinaigrette (Beth Hensperger Not Your Mother’s Weeknight Cooking).

Cranberry melomels are perfect for Thanksgiving, and make a welcome replacement to canned cranberry sauce, or perhaps served in addition to your own homemade recipe for cranberry relish. Cranberry melomels are lovely year-round with any ingredients that might find themselves on the Thanksgiving table. Duck, pork, poultry, chicken liver pate, turkey sandwiches, sautéed butternut squash slices, and pumpkin soup are all delicious with cranberry melomels.

Currant melomels pair well with lemon desserts, or with game and mushroom dishes. Currant melomels with strong flavors can handle game and carpaccio; medium currant melomels are nice with salmon; lighter and more delicate currant melomels pair beautifully with sushi.

Elderberry melomel, especially if it’s dry and intense, is wonderful paired with carpaccio and arugula, or with a classic steak. Hidden Legend’s Elderberry Mead is up to these intense beef pairings.

Figs are a classic flavor combination with prosciutto and melon; try fig melomels with a baked honey ham; with a grilled ham-and-swiss sandwich, or a ham and swiss quiche. Stuff figs with prosciutto and feta and serve with a fig melomel. All cheese plates are good with fig melomels; especially when they include goat or blue cheeses. Try pairing these main ingredients with almonds, cinnamon, citrus, polenta or corn in other forms, cream, ginger, lavender, mint, black pepper, peaches or pears, rosemary, thyme, or walnuts. A salad of arugula or other bitter greens such as chicory, with gorgonzola or another blue cheese, and walnuts goes very well with a fib melomel. So does any variety of nuts with figs, or stuff dried or fresh figs with cheese and ham. Fava beans, love fig melomels, especially when they’re combined with bacon or pancetta, leeks, and cream, and seasoned with sage or savory. For a dessert treatment consider baklava with a fig melomel.

Grapefruit melomels go well with Brussels sprouts, fish and shellfish, especially lobster, crab and shrimp, soft cheeses, lamb, and liver. Look for recipes that include cashews, chicory, cabbage, honey, orange, melon, mint, or rosemary. Grapefruit is also outstanding with avocados and shrimp, which makes me think of fresh Mexican food such as a fresh-made guacamole and grilled skewered shrimp.

Guava melomels complement Hawaiian, tropical, and southeast Asian cuisine; especially fish and shellfish, and light grilled chicken. Light guava melomels are good with delicate seafood dishes such as mahimahi or crab. Sweeter guava melomels are outstanding with spicy southeast Asian food. Look for recipes that include cinnamon, ginger, honey, lemon or lime, mangoes, and pineapple.

Mango is a very popular melomel ingredient. Its light sweet flavor goes wonderfully with Indian, southeast Asian, and Polynesian cuisine, as well as with most Middle Eastern dishes, and even with Chinese and Japanese food, including sushi. It is especially good with fish, shellfish (especially crab and shrimp), and chicken. Look for recipes that include almonds, coconut, ginger, raspberries, cucumber, and star anise. Chinese almond chicken, coconut shrimp, any ginger chicken or ginger seafood recipe pair beautifully with Mango melomels. These melomels tend to be light in intensity and in alcohol. Try pairing them with food recipes that include mango. For example, a fresh mango-papaya-pineapple chutney with simple grilled white fish, served with mango melomel makes an ideal summer barbeque party. Or try it with spicy black beans.

Peach melomels tends to pair better with poultry and seafood: duck, chicken, white fish, salmon, and shellfish. Complementary flavors include almonds, basil, cinnamon, coconut, red currants, ginger, hazelnuts, lemon or lime, and pecans. Outstanding with Thai food, spicy dips, curries, spicy food in general, and barbeque sauce or barbequed meats, especially Southern barbeques.

Pear is a popular choice for meadmakers. Pear melomels range from light, floral, and cidery melomels, to rich, sweet, heavy dessert wines. They are all terrific with cheeses, especially brie, feta, and all kinds of blue cheeses. They are fabulous accompanying a spinach salad with sliced pears, warm bacon dressing, and blue cheese crumbles. These melomels also pair well with acorn, butternut, and other winter squashes, or sweet potatoes or yams, especially when they include nuts, black pepper, and nutmeg or mace. Pear melomels can be amazing paired with trout: try a classic trout amandine served with a dry to semisweet pear melomel! And pear is great with all things cardamom or almond, whether prepared in a sweet or savory style.

Plum melomels easily replace plum wine in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, pairing well with almost any Asian food and any spicy food. They’re also excellent with goose or with lamb, or with smoked salmon; and can be very good with some barbeque sauces. Washington State Chef Russell Lowell uses Adytum Cellars’ plum mead in his whipped cream. He said, “it smells like the scent of a woman in summer”. I’m imagining that whipped cream on a baked fruit tart or a bowl of fresh strawberries!

Pomegranate melomels are lovely with duck, Middle Eastern food in general, and Persian food in particular. Try them with eggplant dishes such as Imam Bayildi, or ratatouille. They’re particularly good with shrimp and other shellfish, and also with venison and game meats. Note that a lighter- intensity pomegranate flavor pair best with shellfish, while stronger-intensity pomegranate melomels will better stand up to richer game dishes. Woodstone Creek (Ohio) recommends their pomegranate melomel with light snacks, cheeses, fruits or salads.

Raspberry melomels range from the lightest, lowest-intensity fruit, with tart, crisp, dry flavors, to rich heavy dessert meads that you could pour over chocolate cake as a dessert sauce. You’ll find every shade of flavor in between, and matching the intensity and sweetness level is key for successful pairing. Green beans and almonds work well with a light and dry raspberry melomel. Raspberry melomels pair well with many fruit desserts and with desserts in general, even – or maybe especially – those that don’t have raspberries in them, such as pear, apricot, brown sugar, caramel, chocolate, cream cheese, currant, citrus fruits especially lemon, mangoes, melons, peaches, pears, sour cream, and vanilla. Lemon cake or lemon merengue pie really pop with a raspberry melomel.

Strawberry melomels seem especially appropriate in summer, and are great with summer salads. Tart and off-dry strawberry melomels are lovely with salmon, shellfish, and salads. Rhubarb and strawberries are a classic combination: for a surprise twist on this theme, try a rhubarb-plum crisp paired with a strawberry melomel. Strawberries pair well with many other fruits; this is likely why fresh strawberries are so popular in fruit salads. This versatility means that a strawberry melomel will complement almost any other fruit dessert as well. Sweeter dessert-style strawberry melomels are wonderful with any dessert that either contains strawberries or might be garnished by a strawberry. Almonds, apricots, brown sugar, sour cream, black currants, figs, kiwi, maple syrup, mascarpone cheese, peaches, and vanilla are great pairing flavors to start. You can’t go wrong with a green salad with fresh fruit in it.

In short, the world of melomels is almost as large as the rest of the world of meads in general. Melomels are not automatically sweet and insipid dessert wines; in fact, a great many of them are tart, well-balanced, sophisticated beverages that can elevate dinner cuisine in a way that more neutrally-flavored wines and beers can’t even come close to. There are meaderies now in forty-six U.S. states and most provinces in Canada, so find a nearby meadery, visit the tasting room, find a few varieties that you like, and talk pairings with the tasting room staff! They’ll have good suggestions for you. www.amazon.com/wine and www.vinoshipper.com are also good sources. Bring home some melomels and start cooking!

About the Author:

Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor (whose mother’s maiden name is Rivard!) is a farmer and meadmaker. She is a founding owner of Kookoolan Farms and Kookoolan World Meadery in Yamhill, Oregon. The Mead Tasting Room and Mead Superstore at Kookoolan Farms features their own Mead, Kombucha, and Vin de Noix, plus the largest selection anywhere of Meads and Melomels available for tasting and for purchase: over 120 different Meads from all over the country, and all over the world. Tasting room open Fridays-Saturdays-Sundays 11AM to 6PM and anytime by appointment (503) 730-7535.

Video tour of the tasting room: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCUVMHcxbwA

For photos of her tasting room and Mead selection please see here:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.634936833236558.1073741829.251481434915435&type=3

You can also follow Chrissie’s blog at www.kookoolanblog.com for frequent posts on mead and food pairings.

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