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Monday, August 19, 2013

Agamé ‘Tej’ or ‘Mes' - a delicious honey wine! ... And a bit about Sabagadis.

delicious honey wine called tej or mes
 Tej in Amharic or Mes (meh-uhz) in Tigrinya is a popular honey wine that is brewed throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea.   FYI, for the purposes of this post I will refer to this delicious drink as mes.

Mes is flavored with the  powdered leaves and twigs of Gesho  (Rhamnus prinoides) which is a species of buckthorn and is a  hops like bittering agent .   It is known to have a deceptively sweet taste that masks a  high alcohol content , a percentage which varies greatly according to the length of fermentation.   Mes is usually made in batches at home and methods of production vary from region to region and house to house, so you will not really know what you are getting into till you taste a mixture.  

Rhamnus prinoides
If you do not know someone who has brewed mes recently but want to give it a try, fear not!   Many Ethiopian restaurants serve it these days and in Ethiopia there are whole bars dedicated to mes, just ask for  a "tej bet" which literally means 'house of tej'.   Remember, tej is the Amharic word (national language) for mes (provincial, Tigrinyan language).   So if you are after some mes it should  not be hard  to find.   

Ethiopian Animal Horn Cup

A great improvement from the old days, I would say.   Before the 19th century mes was a drink reserved exclusively for  royal families .   At that time it was customary to have a servant whose sole responsibility at banquets was to look after the mes.   The servant, after presenting the mes, would hold out the  hollow of his hand  and the receiver would fill it with wine and watch the servant drink the wine before taking a sip himself,  a custom which was considered to be a  provision against poison .   It was also customary for the royals to drink the mes from cups that were carved out of  animal horns


Honey wine's name "mes" / miys
Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez, relates mes to the Arabic mata, which means "mix well," and with the Old South Arabian myt, which means "wine."  It seems quite likely that Ge'ez borrowd "myt" and transformed it into "mes," thus making the history of "mes" easier to trace than the history of "tej."


In 1877 a Frenchman named Emilius Cosson observed:

The Abyssinians hold to the ancient rule which forbids the mixing of cups and council together, and it is not their custom to discuss any serious subject while drinking tedge (tej/mes); things which would give grave offence, if said before drinking, are accepted as merely banter under the genial influences of the mead; chaff and jest are therefore freely indulged in at these feasts. This custom, however, renders it a very difficult matter to induce an Abyssinian to talk seriously, as he is sure to try to put off the trouble of so doing by sending for the tedge horn, after the arrival of which, it is useless to try to make him talk sense. 

For a more extensive history of mes drinking customs check out Harry Cloman's article on the University of Pitsburgh's website.

Mes ready for a party.
A rounded vase-shaped glass container called a berele (which looks like a florence flask) became the vessel of choice to drink mes out of in the 19th century.   It's a clever design, intended to help you keep out dust and flies by just laying your thumb over the spout.   A portable, secure, fashionable beverage holder that became perfect for parties.  


"To drink tej is the highest bliss of some Abyssinians; it is one of the main objects of their existence" - Montagu Wellby 1901


I recently learned that it was a member of the House of Agamé that democratized the drinking of mes.   Sabagadis (pron: Sah-bah-gah-dis) is a celebrated ruler from the  House of Agamé .   He governed a vast area from Tigray and Semien throughout all of Eritrea.   He is also the one who boosted the importance of Adigrat by making it his capital.   Anyway, at the time of Sabagadis' reign mes and a specific traditional Agamé dinner dish called "tihlo" were still reserved exclusively for royal households.  


Sabagadis is said to be the last successful ruler to peacefully unite Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Sabagadis held strong beliefs in the equality of all people.   That belief affected his governing style and policies which included a change to this custom of controlled food consumption.   He believed that  all people  should enjoy  all food  and nothing should be reserved exclusively for the royal court.   So he symbolically invited the public to eat tihlo and drink mes together with the royals at a great big feast and the royals ate injera with the people.   From then on the female household heads began brewing mes for weddings, naming ceremonies, religious holidays, and other celebrations.   Mes became the go-to drink enjoyed by all on special occasions.

Traditional Ethiopian Beehives:

  
I personally love the mes from Adigrat, Ethiopia.   I always ensure I have a glass of mes whenever I'm in town.   The honey from the Agamé region is legendary.   

2 comments:

  1. Hi, My name is Hanna , I am from Shum Agame Woldu , My Grand Father is Dej Desta Hailemariam from Adigrat

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  2. Hi Hanna, it sounds like we are related. Which parent of yours was the child of Dej Desta? It would be great to exchange emails - you can reach me at hodgesjoanne@hotmail.com.

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