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Sweet meads and savory dishes
a perfect pairing at Captain Cook

Down the Hatch

Iconduct beer and wine dinners at home all the time. It's a piece ofcake, really: Pull out the leftover macaroni and cheese (spaghetti andmeatballs for you uptown folks), douse the pile with cracked pepper andcrack open whatever's left from the last round of beer or wine.

Waste not, want not.

But I don't ask anyone to pay$60 to $70 for these meals; I don't ask anyone to endure them at all.

The Hotel Captain Cook does, soputting on a mead dinner presents a different set of challenges for thestaff. For one thing, people expect a little more than some grub andsomething to wash it down; for another, die-hard Cook customers have toget over the fear of fermented honey beverages shaped by experienceswith nasty concoctions made by coldhearted commercial outfits ordistant relatives.

So in the name of goodjournalism, I imbedded myself at the Captain Cook two Mondays in a rowto find out how they do it. Oh, the hardship!

Keith Saunders, a food and beverage guy at the Cook, heard about local Celestial Meads a few months ago and jumped at the chance to get its products at the Cook.

Doing a mead dinner made sense,so he secured bottles of every mead in stock from Celestial's owner,Michael Kiker, then sat down with Katrina Mazack, the assistant foodand beverage manager for the Cook, to pare the selections down to six.

"First we decide what to pour,and the chef then tastes them and comes up with dishes to go withthem," Saunders said. "We make some suggestions, and he goes fromthere."

This time, Saunders and Mazacktried the mead with various cheeses and sourdough bread and came upwith six picks, jotting notes about how each tastes with smoky cheese,soft cheese, sour bread, etc.

Reth Leones, the chef decuisine, read the notes and tasted the meads before coming up with adish for each variety. He has been doing these food pairings for a yearand a half but finds each one challenging in its own way. This time,the general sweetness of most meads made it important for him to seekout contrasts or compatibility to distinguish the flavors.

For the Sweet Tupelo Honey Mead,Leones roused up a gorgonzola and tomato pastry with chutney andbalsamic syrup, engaging the mead with a tangy, savory contrast thatwon raves at the table.

The Sourwood Honey Meadpresented the most difficult problem because of its earthy, grassy,woodsy characteristics, so Leones decided to complement its flavorswith a cream of wild mushroom soup. The pairing works, but Leones getsstressed before each event.

"Whenever I do this, I'm reallynervous that people might not like it," he said.

Yet people always love Leones'food, Mazack said.

"We have regular guests who cometo all of these things, and they say the meals are only getting betterand better."

In the end, she made a fewsuggestions, mostly about portion control and ingredient costs. He andshe work with a budget. This time, it's a little tighter since shepriced the meal a bit lower than most wine dinners, mostly becausepeople don't know a lot about meads.

But these meads aren't cheap,and neither is the food. (The mead dinner on April 24 will cost patrons$60.) But a dish can make the difference between an ordinary meadexperience and a memorable one.

So, yes, I've tried recipes forfive-cheese macaroni with scallions, but my kids reject themwholeheartedly. I'll stick to my low-labor, highly cheesy meals andleave the sublime ones to real chefs like Leones.

And, honestly, sometimes I'mhappy just washing it down.