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.
"Spun" or "creme" honeys are those whose crystals are broken into tiny bits to give a homogenous, spreadable consistency. Unlike heating and excessive filtering, the fine grinding of crystals will not in itself reduce the nutritive content, and the resulting texture is a great convenience for people who like honey instead of, or with, butter on warm English muffins and other breakfast breads. But I prefer honeys just as they are -- anywhere from perfectly limpid and flowing to opaque and grainy. Most are somewhere in between.
Honeys called "wildflower" are often light-colored, clear and liquid mongrels that taste neither flowery nor perfumed. They're bland and too sweet, as I also find clover honey, the kind most commonly made in this country. One exception is the wildflower honey from the Piedmont hills made by a company called Agrimontana, a small, quality-minded concern that also produces Italy's purest and best fruit preserves and jams. Its wildflower honey has the sudden intensity and sweet-sour aftertaste of a berry-flavored sourball. (You can order it from Dean & Deluca , at 800-221-7714; the price is $8.50 for about a pound -- a fairly typical amount for specialty honey.) Another exception is Mario Bianco's "alta montagna," or high-mountain, wildflower honey, which is gathered from alpine flowers at 4,000 feet above sea level. Although powerfully sweet, it is also beautifully round. (Formaggio Kitchen, an excellent cheese shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stocks Bianco's honeys, which are twice as expensive, and will mail them: the number is 617-354-4750.)
Many people prize the delicacy and clarity of acacia honey. I find it too delicate for any use except sweetening; it dissolves easily because it almost never crystallizes. If you'd like to try it, I'd suggest that of Rustichella, a producer in the Abruzzo region of Italy. You can order Rustichella's honeys from Zingerman's, at 313-769-1625, or from Dean & Deluca or Formaggio Kitchen.
The pale straw-yellow color of acacia suggests another generalization: the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. And another: the later in the honey-producing season, the darker the color. Orange and citrus honeys are usually made in early spring, acacia in late spring. Wildflower and eucalyptus honeys are usually made in early to mid summer.
When the heat of summer is cooling and the bees have finished the bulk of their production, honeys start to get really interesting. Mario Bianco also keeps bees in Sicily, where in June and July he moves them to the Iblei Mountains below Mount Etna, near Syracuse, to gather thyme honey. It is magnificent: a rich golden straw color, semi-liquid and clear, with a flowery and not overpoweringly sweet flavor that suggests lavender rather than thyme. (Greece, too, produces superb thyme honeys.)
Another pleasing midsummer honey is wild blueberry from Blue Barrens Farm, in Maine (I found it at Dean & Deluca), which, in an exception to the rule, both smells and tastes of blueberries. K. Dun Gifford, the founder of Oldways, a group devoted to conserving traditional methods of growing and preparing food, and an ardent beekeeper in the Boston area, says that this exception applies to all honeys from berry flowers. Maine farmers have recently begun to rent great numbers of bees to pollinate blueberries. In Following the Bloom, a handsomely written book published in 1991, Douglas Whynott chronicles the season of several migratory beekeepers; the blueberry flats of Maine are a stop on their cross-country route.
Mid to late summer is also the time of chestnut honey, my favorite among the kinds that are relatively easy to find. Chestnut honey is clear and dark, with a smoky, slightly bitter flavor that people either love immediately or decide to avoid. It goes brilliantly with sweet Gorgonzola cheese: a perfect dessert is a soft wedge of the lightly salty, creamy veined cheese drizzled with limpid chestnut honey. (Around the Mediterranean, honey and cheese are considered a classic pairing, like Stilton and port.) I also like Rustichella's chestnut honey with the mild but tangy Vermont Sheep cheese, one of the country's best artisan cheeses (Formaggio Kitchen sells it). Honey from the manuka tree of New Zealand, too, will complement either cheese. It has a slight bitter aftertaste and the licorice-like flavor of horehound.
American buckwheat honey is as dark as molasses and has some of its hearty, malted flavor, with a hint of bitterness; it's less subtle than chestnut but worth seeking out. I've also found echoes of the husky flavor I so like in the lively creamed honey from Oregon Apiaries, which unfortunately produces mostly flavored honeys (raspberry, apricot, vanilla, and the like) -- a trend to be scotched before flavored honeys acquire the popularity of flavored coffees.
Chestnut is one of the few honeys that is made better by a dry summer. Low rainfall usually means fewer flowers and less nectar, resulting in scant production and weak-flavored honey. In the case of chestnuts, however, a lack of rain reduces competition from other flowers, and the honey gains intensity. Mario Bianco still speaks with reverence of his potent chestnut honey from the very dry summer of 1983.
THE use of honey is not restricted to sweets: witness the enormous popularity in recent years of Honeycup mustard and its many imitators. (Shockingly, the original is sweetened only with brown sugar, but some imitators do include honey.) Honey is an excellent medium for marinades, because it helps stick the flavorings to the food you mean to grill; try mixing it with white wine or lemon juice, herbs, and olive oil for meat, or with grated ginger, soy sauce, wine, and oil for fish. A glaze of honey rubbed over a chicken to be roasted will help brown and crisp it. My mother would massage the skin of a capon with a paste of honey, flour, salt, and pepper, bound with chicken fat; in Honey, a lovely little illustrated book, Sue Style suggests glazing a chicken with a tablespoon of honey mixed with three tablespoons of olive oil and the juice of a lemon.
Honey of course plays a fundamental role in many sweets. The chewy nougat hazelnut torrone, from the Piedmont, and almond turrón, from Spain, show how well honey goes with nuts, and Jews guarantee that the new year will be sweet by serving honey cake to friends on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Substituting honey for sugar in cakes can be tricky, because it is both sweeter and moister, and sometimes requires the addition of baking soda. It's best to rely on a recipe that has been formulated to use honey.
Few precautions are necessary when using honey to sweeten a pie filling, however, except that you should add two or three tablespoons of quick-cooking tapioca to absorb the liquid. (If honey has crystallized, you can liquefy it in a warm-water bath or in a microwave oven.) In the new At Home With Patricia Wells, the author writes of an easy apricot-honey tart: "For the past ten years, this has been, hands down, my most successful dessert."
The full flavors of a special honey come through when it remains uncooked. Sue Style's favorite honey dessert is a soft ice cream -- what the Italians would call a semifreddo. It doesn't require an ice-cream machine. Beat three egg yolks, one whole egg, and half a cup of honey until light and airy, and separately whip one and a quarter cups of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the beaten-egg mixture and stir in three tablespoons of toasted and chopped hazelnuts or walnuts (you can add other flavorings, of course; pastry chefs lately seem to favor lavender with honey). Freeze the mixture in a bread pan or other tin or in custard cups lined with plastic wrap. This would be wonderful with a peach-and-blueberry cobbler or an apple-and-pear pie.
Or you can keep things to their simplest, as is always my preference, and serve whipped cream sweetened with honey on fresh or poached fruit. In his Book of Tarts, Maury Rubin suggests heating a mixture made up of half a cup of honey to a cup of whipping cream only until the honey melts (be sure it does not simmer or boil) and then chilling it for several hours or days before whipping, so that the cream will be infused with the flavor of the honey. The ultimate version of this would use clabbered cream from Egg Farm Dairy, in Peekskill, New York (914-734-7343), the best crème fraîche I have found in this country. Here is where a relatively delicate honey might be preferable, especially because the lighter-flavored honeys are often the most liquid.
Nothing tantalizes me more, though, than that pungent, tingling corbezzolo honey. I accepted a big jar of it from my host's former patient without even a show of protest. And I discovered a passionate beekeeper, Maria Aresu, in Donori, a village in the verdant rolling landscape about an hour north of Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. She led me through a tasting of half a dozen honeys, discussing the variation by season, describing the fields and hills she favored, and offering her observations of bee behavior. Much as she liked her thistle and other honeys, she placed corbezzolo -- whose supply is least dependable -- in a category of its own. Aresu beamed as she recalled how a roomful of tasters at a national honey judging had given her a spontaneous ovation when they tasted her corbezzolo honey. Had I been there, I would have led the applause.
Illustration by Christopher O'Leary
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; Molten Gold; Volume 278, No. 3; pages 94-96.