Audric de Campeau’s bees might be Paris’s luckiest inhabitants. Buzzing across the city’s rooftops, they watch over some of the French capital’s most famous sights.
“My bees live 20m above Paris, while my mead lives 20m underneath,” quipped de Campeau as we climbed a ladder up to the roof of the 18th-Century French Military Academy, where a row of beehives and a sweeping vista of the Eiffel Tower awaited.
View image of Dressed like a gentleman and with his beagle always in tow, de Campeau is no ordinary beekeeper (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
Dressed like a gentleman farmer and with his beagle Filou always in tow, de Campeau is no ordinary beekeeper. Having spent nearly a decade producing artisanal honey from Parisian flowers, he is now attempting to brew one of the world’s finest meads.
Made by fermenting honey with water, mead was our ancestors’ favourite libation long before wine and beer. Often described as honey wine, African, European and Asian civilizations drank it as far back as 3000BC.
“It’s humanity’s oldest alcohol,” de Campeau said. “The Greeks and the Romans knew mead as ambrosia, or the drink of the gods.”
And that’s why de Campeau has chosen to make it in a place almost as ancient as mead itself: the Paris Catacombs, a 2,000-year-old network of caves, quarries and tunnels that stretches more than 300km under the city.
Widespread globally until the Middle Ages, mead began disappearing when mass wine production was found to be less costly and sugar replaced honey as an inexpensive sweetener.
Yet, the taste of mead can be as complex and diverse as that of wine, ranging from sugary, caramelized tipples, to dry and crisp drops, to fresh, bubbly concoctions reminiscent of Prosecco.
“The flavour of the mead is decided by the honey that’s being used,” de Campeau explained. “And the taste of Parisian honey is like that of nowhere else in the world.”
To show me what he meant, we ascended to the rooftops of the Académie Française and the Paris Mint, whose sumptuous historical facades face the river Seine.
View image of ‘The flavour of the mead is decided by the honey that's being used’ (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
“Despite popular assumption, the honey in Paris is far less polluted than in the countryside due to the lack of pesticides,” the beekeeper told me as he carefully fed his bees sugar packs to survive the winter. “The honey, and therefore the mead, is like a botanical taste of the city.”
While for wine, the influence of soil, sun and slope on the vines can transform its flavours, for mead, those influences are captured from the flowers whose pollen is collected by bees in particular areas and during particular seasons.
“Because of the diversity of trees in Paris,” de Campeau explained, “the honey has notes of berries, lychees, blackcurrants, cherries, mint and citrus.”
He then led me to a secret location in a bustling neighbourhood of Paris. Hidden at the back of a public building – undetectable to the uninitiated – a dark, steep staircase descended below the metro to what was once a medieval quarry.
The honey, and therefore the mead, is like a botanical taste of the city.
Part of the wider Catacombs network, the quarry is made up of a maze of more than 1.5km of endless corridors. The stone walls were damp to the touch, and through the gloom it was possible to spot a medieval well that went all the way up to the street.
For centuries, the Catacombs formed a vast inter-connected network of mines that construction workers exploited for their limestone deposits. The passageways allowed the workers to traverse the whole of Paris by underground, and I could still see the street signs that were once used for navigation.
The caretaker, who is part of the association that maintains the Catacombs, and who preferred to stay anonymous, told me the quarry has had many incarnations throughout the ages, serving as a limestone quarry in the 1200s, and a mushroom farm and brewery in the 1800s.
But never to make mead.
“Yet, it’s the perfect place for mead,” enthused de Campeau. “Unlike in a normal Parisian cellar, the temperature is always at 14C, there’s no vibrations, no odours, complete darkness and the humidity is at 90%.”
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De Campeau, who studied medieval philosophy, first explored the Catacombs as an undergraduate and knew immediately he wanted to brew his mead here. For him, the project was a perfect combination of his love for history with his passion for beekeeping and winemaking.
As a teenager, he taught himself how to cultivate vines at his parents’ home in the region of Champagne, and he experimented making wines. Today, de Campeau still produces several hundreds of Champagne bottles each year from the grapes he planted as a 15 years old.
His ambition is to make mead as multilayered as a great wine.
“I want to use my experience with winemaking to make the best mead possible, one that can be enjoyed 15 or 20 years later like a phenomenal wine,” de Campeau said. “It all started as an experiment with my honey, playing around [with] yeasts and the sugar and alcohol contents.”
View image of The mead is made in the Paris Catacombs, an ancient network of tunnels under Paris (Credit: Credit: HipParis/hydromel.paris)
Inspired by French winemaking traditions, he had special oak barrels made in Burgundy, and also decided to try aging in sherry casks. The oak barrels imbue the mead with tannins and hints of leather, de Campeau explained, while the sherry gives notes of macerated cherries that echo the ones present in Parisian honey.
After aging half of his production in oak and half in sherry casks for 16 months, de Campeau worked with oenologists to blend different lots of mead to reinforce the depth and flavour intensity.
The results proved beyond expectations; the rich and light mead evokes the taste of the famed Sauternes sweet wine of southwestern France, with a delicate overlay of fruit and floral aromas. De Campeau is certain that the Catacombs’ unique conditions can be credited for the exceptional quality.
He’s already planning this year’s batch, but will keep limiting his artisanal production to just four barrels.
View image of ‘The honey in Paris is far less polluted than in the countryside due to the lack of pesticides’ (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
“Demand has been through the roof,” de Campeau said. “I hadn’t planned for this at all, but mead is becoming trendy again, so people want to try it.”
“It’s funny, but there’s actually a huge demand for my mead in the United States because of Game of Thrones!”
The hit TV show has helped sales of mead grow by 42% in North America since it started airing, and is also credited for boosting its popularity in Europe and Australia.
But de Campeau isn’t worried the fad will pass. “After all,” he said, “the taste of mead is timeless.”
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