I’ve always felt there was a seductive nature to honey. Think about the words associated with it: luscious, soothing, comforting, oozing, dripping – even the simple word “honeypot” can have a lascivious connotation. Do you know what the worker bees secrete to feed the queen bee? Another double entendre: royal jelly. They secrete royal jelly. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Honey in History
OK, so now that I have your attention (and perversions aside), honey has to be one of the most diverse foods ever enjoyed by man or woman. It dates back thousands of years. In my research, I’ve seen dates going back as far as 8,000 BC or as recent as 2,000 BC. According to Louis Grivetti from UC Davis, there were references to honey 10,000 years ago shown on petroglyphs in Spain and India.
It is so important and common throughout our history that it is mentioned in just about all creation myths, religious texts, ancient and modern literature, medical journals and even pop culture – where it exists in many forms, including song lyrics (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), hairdos (have you seen Marge Simpson), tattoos (check this one out) and our lexicon (how about the word honeymoon).
But before I get off the historical and cultural significance of honey, I thought I’d retell one of the most interesting myths I found that related to honey and bees. It was an old Thai myth that told the story of the creation of the elephant’s trunk.
One day a long, long, long time ago – even before elephants had trunks – there was a raging forest fire that swept over all the land. With nowhere to go to escape the smoke and flames, all the bees hid in the mouths of elephants for safety. Obviously, this was a major inconvenience for the elephants, so to get the buzzing bees out, the elephants blew so hard their mouths stretched out to form what is now known as a trunk. They breathed in the smoke through their trunks and chased out the bees.
Is it a coincidence that after all that time, bees still build honeycombs in hollow trees, the TRUNKS of trees? Could one say that it reminds them of an elephant’s trunk? You be the judge.
Culinary Value of Honey
This is all great and interesting, but what about honey in culinary terms. Believe it or not, there are over 300 varieties of honey in the United States, with the mild clover honey being the most popular. Just about every major region in this country produces its own honey.
Did you think I’d ever use the term “terroir” when discussing honey? Well, I’m going to. There are many factors that affect the taste and color of honey. Think of it in the same terms as a fine wine. Since honey is made from bees pollinating flowers, factors such as soil conditions, water and sunlight (among others) from the area where the flowers grow will have an impact on flavor and consistency.
There are two main categories or sources of honey:
- Honeys produced by a range of flowers – typically called wildflower honey
- Honeys from a single source, or single variety – they are named after the actual source e.g. Orange Blossom, Lavender
Many people think that the source flower of the honey will influence the flavor; meaning honey from blueberry flower pollen will taste like blueberries. You certainly get a fruity flavor from such a honey, but actual blueberry flavor may be a little more challenging for the average person. However, color will certainly be dictated by the source of the honey. Consistency can range from light and runny to thick and opaque depending on many factors including filtration. I personally enjoy the more complex, thicker, deeper hued honeys.
Tasting Honey, Or Is It A Honey Tasting
So, now you’ve convinced me to buy all this honey. What do I do with it? Why not invite over your food enthusiast friends and have a honey tasting. Yeah, I just said honey tasting. We’ve all heard of wine tastings and cheese tastings and beer tastings, but why not honey. It’s simple – just buy a range of different honeys from light to dark in color and from thin to thick in consistency and serve them with complementary foods such as toasted nuts, figs, apples, peaches and various cheeses. You can also think about serving sweets made with the honeys being served – for example, make a gooey and crunchy baklava. Being a porkavore, I’d also add bacon, ribs and ham to that list (or really anything pig related), but that’s optional.
Common And Not-So-Common Pairings
There certainly are many common honey and food pairings. Try figs and hard cheese or peaches and fresh goat cheese with honey. However, I urge you to try honey with other not-so-common pairings. A few others to inspire you are honey with: coffee, duck, pistachios, whiskey, lavender, dark chocolate, ginger, cognac and thyme.
To inspire you even further, Michael Laiskonis from LeBernardin in NYC said (in a book titled The Flavor Bible, written by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg) that he has scorched honey to create a new flavor, specifically for a dish of burnt honey caramelized pistachio ice cream. Not sure about you, but I’m sold.
I could go on forever, but one last suggestion: honey butter. Last June at the farmers market in Salt Lake City at Pioneer Park, there was a honey producer who made his own honey butter. I almost became a religious man that day, dropping to my knees and thanking God that such a food could exist.
It’s actually very simple to make and it all relies on the quality of ingredients – combine a complex, small batch honey with local farm fresh butter. Stir the two together until smooth, add a pinch of salt and then spread on anything from toast to a damp sponge. I mean that. This concoction can make anything scrumptious.
The Final Plea
As a parting thought, it’s important to know that many grocery store honeys are typically sourced from other countries that have the pollen removed in an attempt to also remove contaminants. It shouldn’t technically be called honey by FDA standards and doesn’t have the health benefits typically associated with honey. Therefore, I recommend when buying honey make sure you buy it from local sources, and look for organic because it is subject to higher standards. In Utah we have a number of great sources of local honey. I personally prefer Slide Ridge Honey (they also make a tart honey vinegar).
Thanks for your time and patience during this lengthy dissertation on the humble ingredient, honey. If you have any suggestions for a great source of local honey or interesting flavor combinations, please tell me about it in the comments box below.