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Sweet Thing

To catch the buzz on honey, sample some artisan-made varietals

Sam Gugino
Posted: April 19, 2001

Sweet Thing

To catch the buzz on honey, sample some artisan-made varietals

By Sam Gugino

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Honey is a staple of Passover tables, but there's no rule that says part of a religious ceremony can't also be a gastronomic treat. Honeys are very diverse and flavorful, more so than most people think. They can be light and delicate, dark, deep and nutty, intensely perfumed and more.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of honey in the world," says Ishai Zeldner of the Moonshine Trading Company, based in Woodland, Calif., which packs varietal honeys made all over the United States. "But when we do tastings at retail events and food shows, people say, "Oh, we didn't know honey came in flavors.'"

Unfortunately, those varietal flavors rarely appear on the dinner tables of most Americans, because most honey in the United States has been homogenized by large packers or cooperatives, according to Gene Opton, author of Honey: A Connoisseur's Guide with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2000). "They blend many honeys, even from several countries, to get a consistent taste," Opton says.

Large producers also process honey so that it is brilliantly clear, and also so it won't crystallize, which it naturally wants to do. "I grew up in the grocery business. Jars of honey were always crystallized [back then]. But now they aren't because they've been heat-treated," Zeldner says. Heating honey to 160° F destroys its natural enzymes, those that give it character and flavor. Large producers also fine and filter honey, taking out pollen and other materials that not only have flavor, but nutrients. The result, says Zeldner, is a "honeylike syrup," instead of the real thing.

But small artisanal producers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are making honeys that are distinctive, if not idiosyncratic. Island regions like Sicily, Tasmania and New Zealand are especially successful honey producers, due in large part to island bees rarely being subject to disease. In the rainforest of southwestern Tasmania, Julian Wolfhagen makes an unheated, unfiltered honey whose source is the nectar of a tropical leatherwood tree. It's "in a class by itself," says Opton. Paul Ferrari, owner of A.G. Ferrari in San Leandro, Calif., imports artisanal, organic honeys, one of them made by Giuseppe Coniglio on the northern coast of Sicily. "His thyme honey has such pure flavor. It's fantastic," Ferrari says.

Varietal honeys are harder to come by than varietal wines. The problem is with the bees, which make honey from the nectar of flowers in a complex and fairly mysterious way. A colony of bees can combine to travel over 55,000 miles and tap up to 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey. And if several, perhaps dozens, of different flowers are in bloom at the same time, you've got blended honey--whether you like it or not. "Wildflower honey" is so labeled because it is difficult to determine exactly which nectars are in it.

To get true varietals, Zeldner looks for honey that's made from the nectar of flowers that bloom when nothing else does. In addition, he interviews suppliers about where and in what manner their bees are kept. He can tell whether the honey is the varietal the beekeeper says it is by its color and taste. "With yellow star thistle honey, just a little bit of another kind, maybe only 6 percent, can change the character, sometimes dramatically," he says. Nonetheless, a honey can be labeled as a specific varietal if one floral source "predominates," even if that source constitutes less than 50 percent of the total (per industry standards accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

Large honey packers like Sue Bee and Dutch Gold, and small ones like Zeldner, get their honey from a number of different beekeepers. But some beekeepers, like Gary Stockin of Stockin's Apiaries in Strasburg, Pa., make and package their own honey. Artisanal honey producers and packagers such as Stockin and Zeldner heat their honey to lower temperatures than do large-scale producers, usually between 120° F and 140° F, and strain the honey through fine-weave cloth, but do not fine it. Stockin also makes "raw" honey, which has not been heat-treated at all.

The presence of solids and a lack of clarity can prevent honey from qualifying for a Grade A (also called "Fancy") rating. Somewhat less-refined honey gets a Grade B (or "Choice") rating. But such designations can be meaningless regarding quality. Many of the most exciting honeys on the market today are graded Choice, and many top European honeys are ungraded. Appearance doesn't indicate the quality of honey, though generally the darker the honey the deeper its flavor.

Although not the case in America, crystallized honey is prized by many cultures. Honey in this form is in its most natural, and often most flavorful, state. Some honeys, like French lavender, crystallize easily, becoming almost white. Others, like sage and fireweed, rarely crystallize. Moonshine Trading crystallizes, or "creams," honey by adding small crystals from a crystallized batch to another that is not crystallized. "What's nice about crystallized honey is that it's easier to use," says Zeldner's wife and business partner, Amina Harris. "Just spoon out some, or spread it on bread."

After tasting 25 honeys, my impression is that those from Europe are generally more intense and more distinctive than those from the United States. As a group, five honeys from Badia a Coltibuono, the Tuscan wine and olive oil producer, were superb, from the honeysuckle aromas and gentle sweetness of Acacia to woodsy, mahogany-colored Manna. Manna and another of my favorites, Nature Provence's Miel de Sapin, are honeys bees make from the sap of conifers. Miel de Sapin had a refreshing, almost alpine aroma, a silky texture and a deliciously nutty flavor. J. Anderson's Scottish Heather Honey, made with 12-year-old single-malt Scotch, had floral and hay notes and a fruity, almost apricot flavor. Fully crystallized, Giuseppe Coniglio's Limone had a soothing, pure lemon flavor. The aroma of blossoms from the Millefiori ("thousand flowers") honey of Daniele Devalle, a Piedmont producer, was intoxicating.

Some of the distinctive European honeys were less approachable, but quite interesting. Brezzo Corbezzolo, from Sardinia, had the color and texture of peanut butter, and an herbal, somewhat bitter flavor. The fully crystallized texture and sweetness of Nature Provence's Miel de Lavande made it taste like lavender candy.

While more delicate, the American honeys I tried from Moonshine Trading were by and large delightful. I particularly liked Golden Tupelo from Florida, N.Y., for its nice lemon and orange aromas and flavors. Darker California Orange Blossom was more intensely aromatic, but its flavor was subtle. Button Sage, also from California, was viscous, herbal and floral. Creamy Hawaiian Lehua had a luxurious crystalline texture and rich honey taste. The most exotic of the American honeys was Hawaiian Christmas Berry, with an almost coppery color and tropical fruit taste.

Stockin's Orange Blossom had a beautiful orange blossom aroma, but, unlike Moonshine's Orange Blossom, it was fully crystallized. Stockin's Wildflower was viscous, even sticky, with a very sweet and slightly spicy flavor. Basswood honey was clean and fruity with pleasant bitterness on the finish.

Use honey in almost anything you would sugar, even in coffee, where it can round out some of coffee's acidity. But because honey is sweeter than sugar, use roughly one-third less.

Opton suggests using honey in sweet-and-sour combinations. In fruit soups, she says, it balances the lemon juice and the acidity of the fruit. Also, "beets absolutely shine with honey," she says. "And some honey in tomato sauce adds complexity in addition to sweetness."

Chef Matthew Kenney, who cooks with a Mediterranean style at his New York restaurant, Matthew's, uses honey most frequently in savory dishes. In his Moroccan lemon chicken with pine nuts and green olives, honey "gives the dish balance and makes it more elegant, as well as giving the sauce a velvety sheen," he says.

How sweet it is.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.

This article appeared in the April 30, 2001 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 31. (
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