Drink - Victoria Moore rediscovers England's oldest alcoholic drink

"You can almost hear Grendel knocking," said Bee, uncorking the first bottle

Bee Wilson, whose food columns used to grace these pages, has been writing a book on bees and honey, and she very kindly invited me to assist her research by joining her to taste mead.

When Bee first mentioned this, I was not entirely sure what I thought of mead. Somewhere in my head it was categorised alongside the black-pudding soup that's served at a restaurant in Burgos, in Spain, that looks and tastes like the floor scrapings from a medieval banquet. So I didn't immediately think, "Ooh, that'll be Christmassy." Instead, I steeled my stomach in readiness. This proved to be unfair.

At chez Bee, there were a lot of signs of honey-related baking, including a rather solid cake from a centuries-old recipe. It was not the sort of thing you would want to eat after getting off the 15.45 from King's Cross. But after a freezing early-morning gallop over miles of heath, when your hands are so cold that they feel stumpy and numb, I would imagine that nothing could seem more delicious.

"You can almost hear Grendel knocking at the door," said Bee as she uncorked the first bottle. She was right. Mead was a favourite drink in the Middle Ages and is mentioned in Beowulf: "Gæþ eft, sé þe mót / tó medo módig siþþan morgenléoht" ("May go bravely/To mead when the morning light"). It gave us the word honeymoon - drinking mead each day through the cycle of a whole moon was what newly wed Norsemen and Norsewomen were supposed to do to increase their fertility.

As befits what is said to be England's oldest alcoholic drink, it is also extremely simple to make - just ferment a mixture of water and honey with yeast, store in barrels and flavour with spices if you so choose. But it is not exactly widely drunk in 21st-century Britain, which is probably why so many of our samples looked to have come straight from Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe. Predictably, the more gifty they looked, the worse they tasted. One smelt of wet concrete and public lavatories.

The better ones were the sweet varieties. They were not at all unpleasant, smelling of honey and white flowers, sometimes with a slight linctussy flavour. Just one seemed to show how mead should really taste. Again, it was a sweet one: Old Jenny from the Lurgashall Winery, which sells seven different kinds of the stuff. Lurgashall says Old Jenny is made from "a secret blend of herbs and spices to a 16th-century recipe". We detected nutmeg and cloves among the delicious, warming flavours.

It seemed the thing to drink by candlelight before walking to midnight Mass. And perhaps a second glassful, once safely home again, gathered around the dying embers of the fire before going upstairs to bed, would be a good thing, too.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out