ONE morning while staying with a friend in Sardinia, I got into the honey jar -- or, more accurately, a shallow
glass container with a big piece of comb suspended in clear chestnut-colored honey. It had been years since I'd gnawed at comb honey, slowly sucking out the liquid and chewing on the comb until there was just a trace of sweetness left. I was ready to try a piece of honeycomb again, but I certainly wasn't ready for the taste.
"This is the famous miele di corbezzolo," my host told me. I had once tried the berries of the corbezzolo, an evergreen shrub that is part of the Mediterranean macchia, or heath. They were lightly sweet and mealy -- no preparation for the shock of the honey, which made my whole mouth tingle. It was bitter, sour, sparkling, peppery, not minty but somehow mentholated, as if the harsh purity of the forest were cleansing me. Only after a study of the world's honeys did I learn that corbezzolo is perhaps the rarest and most sought after of all.
My Sardinian host, a psychiatrist, put me in touch with the beekeeper, who had once consulted him about a fear of bee stings after suffering several surprise attacks. The beekeeper showed me some of his empty hives, which hold rectangular combs in vertical frames, as if in hanging-file cabinets. The separation between the combs is precise. Beekeeping became efficient only in 1851, with the discovery, by the Reverend L. L. Langstroth, in Pennsylvania, of "bee space" -- the amount of space bees need between combs in order to work, but not so much that they will seek to anchor the combs to one another and to their home, which is usually a hollow tree trunk rather than a wooden box. (In a wonderful folk-art museum near Trento, the capital of the unjustly overlooked Trentino region of Italy, I recently saw a "scare-bear" beehive, carved from a log and painted to look like a life-sized hussar. Bears not only like eating honey; they like eating bees.) Before Langstroth's hive, with its removable combs, bees had to be driven from the hive, often forever, before honey could be harvested.
I spoke also with Mario Bianco, an impassioned beekeeper who lives in the foothills of the Alps. He told me of passing a hive one evening where bees were ripening acacia honey, the first of the season. The scent coming from the hive, as thousands of bees beat their wings to keep air circulating so that water would evaporate and the honey thicken, was nearly intoxicating, he said. "I didn't feel the fatigue of the day anymore," he told me. "It made me joyous to be an apiarist."
I HAD no idea how keepers could tell one honey from another, or could with any confidence label a honey as coming from one plant or another. Are different honeys found in different parts of the hive, or on separate parts of the comb? Do they look different enough to be told apart at a glance? The answer was simpler than anything I had thought of. Beekeepers follow the flower, moving hives to places where the tree or shrub that interests them is in the height of bloom. They harvest the honey and then move the hives to the next likely location. The Italian word for this is transumanza, which I first learned in reference to the seasonal migrations of sheep from mountain to meadow and back. ("Transhumance," the English word, doesn't sound nearly as nice.)
The nectar of a flower bears little resemblance in taste to the fruit or herb a tree or shrub produces. Perhaps the clearest example is eucalyptus honey, whose taste doesn't recall a bit the menthol in cold remedies -- the familiar scent is that of the sap, not the flower. Orange-blossom honey doesn't taste of citrus, and I usually avoid it for its overcharged sweetness. But that laden, cloying quality does remind me of passing by a citrus orchard in bloom, or a wall of honeysuckle at night.
The texture, too, varies according to the plant the honey derives from. Its ratio of fructose to glucose, the two simple and easily digested sugars that together make up more than 70 percent of honey, determines whether a honey will crystallize with time. Most do. A few honeys, like European acacia, are so high in fructose that they always remain liquid and clear. Others crystallize almost immediately. Eucalyptus, for instance, is distinctive not for its flavor but for its near-white opacity and waxy solidity. Big producers usually heat honey to high temperatures, to dissolve the crystals forever and ensure that the honey will flow out of those bear-shaped plastic bottles. They also filter out specks of pollen, the bee's source of protein and another source of nutrition, because the specks encourage the formation of crystals and cloud the honey.
Most artisan beekeepers, in contrast, would never think of heating honey to keep it liquid, because flavor-carrying components and vitamins are lost in the process. They take very seriously the curative properties of honey, which has been used since antiquity as a salve for wounds; it is also believed to be a natural antibiotic and an effective treatment for a variety of respiratory problems. They typically dissolve it in milk (the preferred Italian medium) or tea, making sure the liquid is lukewarm, not hot.