Mead, or honey wine, considered our oldest alcoholic beverage, is produced by fermenting honey diluted with water. There is no single formula for mead, and it is made in many styles and flavors. Most mead recipes include a fruit or spice added to balance or contrast with the sweetness of honey. Some of the fruits added to mead include tart apples, citrus fruits, and raisins. Cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon are spices commonly used in making mead. Yeast, which provides the fermentation, for mead may be added by the mead maker or it may be derived from “wild” yeast existing in the air or on the surface of fruit. While mead is made and enjoyed throughout the world, Ethiopia has its own traditional honey wine known as tej, which is produced from three ingredients: honey, water, and gesho. Gesho is the native Ethiopian shiny-leaf buckthorn, Rhamnus prinoides. The stems and bark of gesho are used to counter the sweetness of honey in tej.
The production of tej is an art passed as indigenous knowledge across generations over thousands of years. The unrecorded oral tradition of tej-making has been lost in some locations. At Apinec in Bonga, we recreated the process of making tej using traditional materials and techniques along with modern production methods. A microbiologist joined us in producing tej. While we used modern techniques for sterilizing containers and equipment, we also burned Olea africana and wild pepper, two plants smoked in traditional tej making to sterilize containers. While modern sterilizing methods are effective, traditional tej receives some of its distinctive flavor from the smoke. Once a drink of nobility, tej is now enjoyed by many Ethiopians. It is usually served at room temperature in round flasks called bereles. This tej is cloudy in appearance. The processors at Bonga are experimenting with techniques to produce a clear golden, effervescent tej. Today’s photo shows bereles of tej served with a traditional meal of wot, rolls of injera, and squares of false banana enset.--Richard