Sunday, December 4, 2016

Su Dongpo Is A Tease

Last time, I translated a mead recipe from Zhang Bangji, which he claimed was the one Su Dongpo used and wrote poems about.  Apparently unbeknownst to Zhang Bangji, but knownst to us, Su Dongpo wrote a huge book of literary spew where he talked about random topics, Dongpo's Forest of Footnotes.  One of those footnotes, the twelfth entry on scroll eight, is about mead.

This is a received text, a scan of an 18th century copy made during an attempt to catalog and reproduce every book ever written, which means that there's no punctuation since it hadn't become popular in China yet.  I'm going to lean a bit on the punctuation from the blog post that led me to this text, but the blog post was missing some phrases so I've taken a more rigorous crack at translating it than I did in my first blog post.



予作蜜酒格與真水亂
My method for mead: stir together in pure water:
每米一斗用蒸餅麵二兩半餅子一兩半如常法取醅液
For every dou of grain, 2.5 liang of steam-cake flour, and “cake seeds” 1.5 liang just like the normal way for taking the liquid from un-pressed wine.
再入蒸餅麵一兩
Add another liang of steam-cake flour.
釀之三日嘗
Ferment for three days.
看味當極辣且硬則以一斗米炊飯投之
Observe the flavor - is it appropriate?  If it’s harsh or hard, then take another dou of cooked grain and add it.
若甜軟則每投更入麴與餅各半兩
If it’s sweet and soft, then with every addition also add yeast cakes and [other] cakes, one half liang each.
又三日再投而熟
Wait another three days and it will be done.
全在釀者斟酌增損也入水少為佳
When fermenting, always be aware of how the brew will expand and contract.  The less water you add, the better.

This recipe has some problems.  There are questions about what "steam-cake flour" and "cake seeds" are, but I think those are just different kinds of yeast cakes, ground up.  But worse, where's the honey?

The text could be corrupted.  It's hard to know if that's the case, so I'm going to ignore that possibility.

One interpretation of the text as it stands is that this isn't a mead recipe but a "honey wine" recipe - wine that tastes like, or is somehow otherwise reminiscent of honey.  I don't think that's very convincing unless it's unrelated to the author's poem about mead, which is definitely about mead since it mentions bees several times.

A possibility raised by my colleague Song Zidie is that the “steamed cake flour” and “cake seeds” contain the honey.  “Cake seeds” may actually mean “pancakes.”  This strikes me as unlikely, but it’s definitely not outside the realm of Chinese brewing (see: mutton wine).  Scroll 7 contains a reference to “steam cakes” that says something like “Some years ago there was a flood in [place] [...] and when the waters receded, [the river] was silted up, and was not able to be deep.  It was called “steam cake silt,” and the court hated it.”  I don’t see that too much can be drawn from this text, though.  Other references to “steamed cakes” really do seem to mean the food, cakes that are steamed, not yeast cakes so I’m confused here.

Another interpretation is that I've got something wrong with that first line.  It's weird grammatically which might mean that I'm parsing it wrong.  Let's break it down.  When a character has multiple meanings in A Student's Dictionary, I'll number them, and omit meanings I think don't fit.
予 "1. I, me"
作 "3. devise, create, make."
蜜 "1. honey, sweet; possibly pre-Han loanword from the Tocharian B mit [this doesn’t help but is super cool].”
酒 “generic term for alcoholic beverages produced through fermentation.”
格 1. “Frame(work), structure, scaffold(ing).  2. Established custom or law, precedent, protocol.  3. Bring to (proper) pattern, systematize; frame, put together, coordinate.”
與 “2. Join with”
真 “1. b. Pure, perfect.”
水 “1. Water, liquid.”
亂 “1. b. trouble(d); confuse(d); blur(red); jumble(d), mix(ed) up.”

I think 予作蜜酒格 is the “topic” of the sentence: “The framework [I use] when I make mead.”  Which leaves 與真水亂.  真水 is pretty clearly “pure water” - I don’t see any other plausible readings.  與...亂 suggests “Join x and the following, and mix” but it’s funny diction.  There are other words for mix that I would expect in this context (混, 攪 for example).  So maybe it’s saying to join the following ingredients with pure water mixed with something?  And maybe that something is implied to be honey?  It’s a stretch.  I’m not sure.

I'm disappointed that this recipe isn't very useful as it stands, but we do have the other mead recipe from Zhang Bangji, so I think I'll start by trying that one out.

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A Mead Recipe

Recently, I posted about my search for a Chinese mead recipe, and some potential leads.

Today, I cracked open the English-language textbook on Chinese food and beverage production, Science and Civilisation in China Volume 6 Biology and Biological Technology Part V: Fermentation and Food Science, and it contains a section on mead (page 246)!

It backs up my research so far, although it doesn't include the really early archaeological finds because they were excavated after it was published.  There are a few mentions of honey used for various things in the classical period, but it isn't until the Tang dynasty in about 650 that we start to see references to mead.

The Song dynasty author Zhang Bangji (張邦基) recorded in his book Random Notes from the Scholar's Cottage (《墨莊漫錄》) what he claims is Su Dongpo's recipe for the mead mentioned in the poem I translated last time.  Science and Civilisation has a translation, but I decided to make my own before I read theirs.  It's in the fourth scroll, section 68:

東坡性喜飲,而飲亦不多。
It being the case that Dongpo’s nature was to like to drink, when he drank he did not drink many different things [possibly just “did not drink much”].
在黃州嘗以蜜為釀,又作《蜜酒歌》,人罕傳其法。
In Huangzhou he experimented with using honey to brew, and also wrote The Song of Mead, but people rarely share his method [for brewing].
每蜜用四斤煉熟,入熟湯相攪,成一斗,
For every four jin of honey, purified fully, put it into boiling water and dissolve it, to make up one dou.
入好麵曲二兩,南方白酒餅子米曲一兩半,
Take two liang of good wheat yeast cakes, and one liang of southern baijiu yeast cakes.
搗細,生絹袋盛,都置一器中,
Grind until fine, put them in a newly-woven juan cloth [dense silk tabby] bag, and put everything in a single vessel.
密封之,大暑中冷下,稍涼溫下,天冷即熱下,
Seal it tight.  In great heat cool it and in coolness warm it.  If the weather is cold, then heat it.
一二日即沸,又數日沸定,酒即清可飲。
In one or two days it will bubble, and after several more days the bubbling will stop.  When the wine is clear you may drink it.
初全帶蜜味,澄之半月,渾是佳酎。
At first, it will keep the taste of honey, but after half a month of clarifying, it will be fine strong wine.
方沸時,又煉蜜半斤,冷投之尤妙。
Again adding half a liang of purified honey, cold, just when it begins to bubble is marvelous.
予嘗試為之,味甜如醇醪,善飲之人,恐非其好也。
I tried this myself, and the flavor was sweet like rich-tasting shortwine, but experienced drinkers may not enjoy it as much.

My translation agrees pretty closely with the Science and Civilisation translation.

The recipe mixes weights and volumes, which means we need to be careful with the amounts we assign to them since it's not strictly proportional.  Fortunately, Wang Li's dictionary has historical information on quantities.  We want to know how big a jin, a liang, and a dou are, around 1100 CE, during the Northern Song dynasty.  Su Dongpo wrote a little earlier than Zhang Bangji, but they were not so far apart.

During the Song dynasty, Wang Li gives us the following sizes:
1 jin is 16 liang, and based on archaeological finds a jin is about 633 g, so a liang is just under 40 g.
1 dou is 9.5 L

So, redacted, and rounding slightly, our recipe is:
  • 2.4 kg honey for the primary addition
  • 20 g honey for the secondary addition
  • Water to make up 9.5 L
  • 80g good wheat yeast cakes
  • 40g southern baijiu yeast cakes
And following the steps above, which are pretty straightforward.  This is about a 1:4 honey:water ratio, which will make a medium strength mead at about 10-13% abv, give or take.  That explains why the author thinks it's nice, but not strong enough for drinkers used to 15-20+% wine produced by staggered additions of rice.

Next time, we'll take a look at a recipe which might be from Su Dongpo himself!

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