High on Heavenly Honeys

Up until a year ago, I don't think it ever dawned on me just how little I understood about honey. Like almost everyone, I know I got the basic mechanics of the stuff: bees fly around to flowers to get nectar, pick up pollen, return it to the hive where they turn it into honey. And of course I've always known that bears like honey-like most every other kid in this country, I read my Winnie the Pooh. So, "Isn't it funny how a bear likes honey. . . buzz, buzz, buzz, . . . I wonder why he does?" Tigger, you may recall, decided he didn't like honey, but what can you do? And before you give bears too much credit for good taste, my recent research has taught me that although Pooh didn't make any big pronouncements, bears also like eating bees.

But what I guess I didn't grasp until recently is, that the standard issue supermarket stuff is to the honey world, what Wonder is to the world of bread. What can I say? The plastic bears are cute, but what's inside is sweet but bland and one dimensional? Hey, I grew up eating the stuff, so I'm not making any value judgment here. But if you're going to eat honey, why not head for the most flavorful stuff you can find?

What Do You Get When You Get A Good Honey?

Granted, squeezing that plastic bear is a sweet experience. But what comes out is, shall we say, lacking in the character and charisma that a good honey ought to have. Why? Because good honey is like good wine or good olive oil: it ought to be a mosaic of fantastic, hard to describe, flavors. And it ought to be different in texture and appearance depending on where and when it was harvested. Set 10 different varietal honeys on a table and taste 'em all and you'll be shocked by the wide range of flavors and characteristics they present. Do they cost more? Usually. Are they harder to get hold of? Sure. Will you like them all? I doubt it. Are they worth the extra effort? I'd say, absolutely. And given the chance, I'm sure Pooh would too.

Ed Behr, who writes the excellent food newsletter, The Art of Eating, put it so perfectly that I'll just quote him here: "Unvarying flavor and perfect clarity should be as disquieting in honey as in wine. With honey and many other foods, what is treated most simply-least-is best; albeit the simple approach to food and drink often requires the most knowledge and discrimination from producer and customer."

So, what do you get when you get a good honey? You get enormous flavor. You get seasonal, varietal and geographical variations. You get character. And you get a big flavor bang for your sweet honey buck.

What makes one honey different from another?

Believe it or not, there are over 300 varieties of honey in the world. The thing with honey is that depending on where and when the bees have been (sorry, I couldn't resist), the resulting honey will have a wholly different flavor. Every blossom begets its own "brand." As alluded to above, honeys are as varied, as wines. Each has its own flavor, aroma, color, texture, identity. Some of my choices? Pale, cream-colored and creamy-textured almond blossom honey from Spain. Beautifully bitter, velvety, golden chestnut honey from Italy. Highly perfumed, clear, thick-textured, thyme honey from Greece. Geography plays a part as well: thyme honey from Sicily, for example, is more crystalline in texture than its Greek counterpart. My current favorite is the Miele di Alta Montagna ("high mountain honey"), gathered by Mr. Mario Bianco high in the Italian Alps each spring. Almost solid in texture, it has a coarse, granular texture, and a phenomenally complex flavor that hints of the mountain herbs and wild flowers.

So if there's all this honey variety happening out there, then what's inside the plastic bear when the label just says "honey?" Think about it. What do you get if you buy a bottle that just says "red wine?" It's wine all right. But I doubt you've got any expectations about it being the best-tasting bottle you've ever tried. What's inside most American commercial honey jars is some mixture of readily available clover (the most common American variety) honeys, blended for consistent color and flavor, year in and year out. Not bad, but neither it is it worth writing home about.

By the way, don't confuse authentic varietal honeys with commercial clover honey which has been flavored. This stuff is the honey equivalent of something like "hazelnut mocha fudge" in the world of coffee. Most of the time when you see, say, "Blueberry Honey Creme" on a store shelf, the bees that made it have never seen a blueberry blossom. Instead, it's nothing more than standard issue honey with a healthy dose of blueberry extract. My experience is that, although they may taste OK at first, they lack luster, and in repeated tasting I find their flavors on the dull side.

Why Are Some Honeys Clear, Some Creamy, And Others Practically Solid?

In the case of the best honeys, the answer again lies in the variety of flower the bees are feeding on. Honey is primarily made up of relatively equal parts glucose and fructose. The more glucose (and the less fructose), the more likely the honey is to have a naturally crystalline, nearly opaque, texture. Some honeys are naturally clear: take thyme honey from Greece, the color of light maple syrup and about as runny. Light golden Acacia is another naturally clear honey. Much commercial honey, on the other hand, is clear primarily because its been processed: natural honey is harvested, then heated to melt down the naturally-occurring crystals and filtered to remove any solid particles which might later lead to re-crystallization.

But in fact, the majority of good honeys are cloudy and naturally crystallized, thick to almost solid, often completely opaque. In Europe, these honeys are the preferred model. Certainly some are more opaque than others: good lavender honey can be nearly pure white and almost solid. Chestnut honey is the color of fudge, opaque all the way through. These are the honeys I love, for their the granular texture, the smoothness in the mouth, the fullness of the flavor.

Again, a caveat for consumers: Don't confuse these naturally crystalline honeys with commercially "spun" or "creamed" honeys. The latter are created by breaking down the natural crystals in the honey to form a softer, creamier spread: the equivalent, I suppose, of soft-spread margarine.

What Do You Do With Varietal Honey?

Well, more than anything else, you just eat it, preferably in ways where you'll be able to taste its complex character. Personally, I'm all for simply spreading it on hot toast-the heat of the bread softens the honey and releases its fragrance and flavor. And I really like varietal honeys with fresh ricotta cheese-spread a slice of lightly buttered Farm Toast with ricotta and then spoon on a generous dose of the honey of your choice. The cheese and honey combo is almost a given along the north coast of the Mediterranean: Gorgonzola goes especially well with good honey, as do most fresh cheeses. In Spain I've enjoyed slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with honey-a great way to end a good meal.

Honey is also an excellent base for marinades because it clings to meat and mixes well with other seasonings. The combination of sweet and savory works well. With meat, I prefer to use more strongly-flavored honeys because their flavors won't get overwhelmed as easily. Try rubbing a leg of lamb with a blend of Scottish heather honey and apple cider. Or try roasting chickens that have been soaked in thyme honey.

Baking With Better Honey

You can also bake extensively with good honey. Honey cake is, of course, a Zingerman's classic. In a few months we'll be making ours for Rosh Hashanah-we like to go with buckwheat honey for its robust, full flavor. In Greece, they use honey in all sorts of cheese pies.

Ever wondered why honey cakes keep so well? Honey attracts moisture, so cakes made with honey stay soft and supple instead of drying out like most baked goods. In fact, many honey-based baked goods are better a few days out of the oven. You can substitute honey for sugar in baking but be careful because it has more liquid and will alter the chemistry of your cakes or cookies. To substitute honey for sugar one to one in a recipe, but reduce other liquids used by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey used. You'll also want to beat the batter longer, and then reduce the baking temperature by 25 degrees because honey browns faster. And, FYI, 12 ounces of honey by weight equals 8 ounces by volume.

Honeys From Greece

"All is well and the honey is sweet." Greek Proverb

Honey has been totally tied into Greek culture and cuisine for thousands of years. In ancient times, honey was viewed as a mysterious substance, a bit of heavenly life left on earth by the gods for mere mortals to enjoy. Hence it was regularly offered to the gods and used in religious rituals, as well as for a beauty aid, and as a medicine. Although its hard to believe given present-day economics, in ancient times honey was far more readily available, and much less expensive, than sugar. This remained the case until sugar plantations began to boom in the 15th and 16th centuries. Honey was the primary sweetener used in Greek cooking: cakes, sauces, breads, even wines, were regularly sweetened with it. Greeks today eat about a kilo of honey a year, primarily in desserts, though they also add copious amounts to coffee and tea.

The best known Greek honey is that which the bees make when the wild thyme is in bloom in late spring. Greek honeys are generally thicker in texture-plentiful sunshine dries the honey and reduces its natural moisture content. Indeed, good Greek thyme honey is almost chewy in texture. Dark amber in color, slightly bitter, beautifully aromatic. Less known than the thyme honey, but also delicious is a really finely-flavored fir honey (no, not "fur" as in bears, but fir, as in fir tree). It's caramel in color with a lovely hint of anise-delicious on a slice of toasted and buttered bread.