You might be forgiven for not recognising the name Modomnoc of Ossory, although full marks if you do. Heck, you can join my pub quiz team. Modomnoc was one of the minor-league saints, a disciple of St David’s and a talented beekeeper to boot. He was known for talking to the insects and they would form frantic clouds around his head as if his words were nectar. After studying in Wales the apiarist saint left for Ireland in a small boat but the bees duly swarmed after him as if old Modomnoc was a one-man honeypot.
Modomnoc kept his nectar-seeking charges in a quiet corner of the monastery garden, where he planted the kind of flowers the bees loved best. He would have approved of the ceanothus outside my study window where there are currently six species of bee being typically busy. One of the few benefits of lockdown has been our appreciation of nature and bees have very much flown into the public consciousness. One of my friends even got himself a hive and we are promised the first jar.
Bees have long been kept for making honey and, in Wales, for making mead, a tradition which continues to this day. A cursory glance at the online map shows there are half a dozen mead makers in the country, making a range of sweet drinks. It’s a simply-made drink which is claimed to be the oldest in the world and one which has been given a commercial boost by the simple fact that the characters in Game of Thrones are partial to a sweet tipple. In Ethiopia and Eritrea there’s a version of it called ‘Tej’ which is the national drink. And in Wales, too, it has a long history. In the 6th century poem ‘Y Gododdin’ there is the expression ‘talu medd’ (payment in mead) which refers to the soldier’s relationship with his lord.
During the Middle Ages mead was a staple part of the Welsh diet, along with beer and bragod ( a sometimes rough drink made from beer and honey) and in the native laws the mead-maker was included among the officers of the king’s court. The Welsh used spices and herbs to flavour their meads and the word for this flavoured mead was meddyglyn, which includes the word “meddyg,” or doctor, which underlined a belief that it was medicinal as well as merry-making. It was during the Middle ages, too, that honey was supplanted by the cheaper sugar as that started to be imported and so, in turn mead was edged out by beer. That didn’t mean that mead or ‘medd’ in Welsh disappeared off the scene all together, of course and so the 18th century balladeer, Sion Abell, in his ‘Song Against Drunkeness, Lies and Miserliness’ coins a word, “medd-dod” for being the worse for wear, or, indeed the worse for mead.
Mead is certainly taking off across the world, with the American Mead Makers Association reckoning that a new meadery is opening in the States every three days. One of the latest to join the Welsh mead-making roster is Mountain Mead, based in Tregarth near Bangor which is one of those great ideas born in a shed. Or, rather a quartet of sheds where “The Shed Club” met to do some domestic work and to sample home-made tipples. Former sheep farm worker Mike Cooke’s mead went down well with other club members and he duly teamed up with tree surgeon Jacob Milner to produce the mead in larger quantities. The environmental concern with honeybees, and their decline, is reflected in the names their bottles sport, mostly birds on the RSPB’s list of endangered species such as Melyn yr Eithin/Yellowhammer, Telor y Coed/Wood warbler, Gylfinir/Curlew and Grugiar Ddu/Black Grouse, not to be confused with Red Grouse which is of course a whisky.
I always used to enjoy rounding off a meal with a dessert wine but I’ve now switched allegiance to such meads, which can be dangerously more-ish and have great variety. It’s a sweetly simple way to support Welsh producers and support our native bees into the bargain. One sincerely hopes to create a small buzz with the idea.