Lots of foods are good. Only one is the product of nature aiming for irresistibility. Honey is food as seduction, nourishment and variety. There are, quite simply, almost as many types of honey as there are flowers.
Put bees on lavender, and the piercing perfume will permeate the honey. Meanwhile, avocado blossoms produce honey that’s mysterious, musky and strong. Chestnut honey is almost savory, so much so that it’s better served with pate and cheese than spooned into cream. Almond honey is just plain bitter, and farmers leave it to the bees.
Then there are the delicate surprises. California black sage, perhaps the most aromatic plant of the West, produces the subtlest honey imaginable. Meanwhile, honey melted off beeswax casings is so strong it could pass as molasses, and is perfect for beef marinades. One thing is clear: Honey is not so much a food as a school of foods. There is no one texture, color or taste.
But perhaps the most striking thing is how little humans have interfered with it. Although our animal breeders have changed the shape of cows, our agronomists have bred corn to the point where we can’t be sure of its wild ancestry, and our food processors have turned cheese into something that can be sprayed from a can, the main change in honey is that, thanks to an 1850 invention of a retractable bee frame, we can extract it from hives without killing the bees.
If you bought a jar of standardized Sue Bee clover honey, put it in a time machine and beamed it back to a cave man, the only thing that would confound him would be the vacuum packing and screw top lid. The honey he would recognize.
It is one of the last truly wild foods that pass the lips of most Americans. Even the most common supermarket blends still have a distinct gamy tang, a complex register of flavors and a host of nutrients nowhere to be found in sugar.
Think about it, and of course honey would have to be more interesting, more resilient than almost any other food. Ever since plant life extended beyond swamps and conifers, our diet has depended on it. We owe our existence to flowering plants. They owe theirs to honey.
Plants that need bees to pollinate them developed nectar as bait. They not only came up with the most compelling concoction possible for bees to drink, the plants also devised signage to direct them to it. The colored stripes on the corollas of, say, a violet, may look like decoration to us, but the botanical term for them is “honey guide” and the setting the “honey pad.”
The arrangement was so successful that lots of fruits and nuts began to grow, followed by warmblooded mammals like us. Today, apiarists at Cornell University estimate that one-third of the food we consume comes from crops pollinated by bees.
Exactly when we moved from eating plants pollinated by bees to raiding beehives for honey isn’t clear. But somewhere along the line, we figured out that bees consume enough nectar and protein-rich pollen to keep airborne, but their main purpose is to ferry it back to their hives to store for intemperate months, and to feed their young.
At the hive, the nectar is whisked inside and fanned by bees with their wings until enough water evaporates so that it won’t ferment or spoil. The bees then promptly seal the concentrated nectar, now honey, in protective wax combs. The finished product is imperishable. It may darken with age, or crystallize around a speck of dust or pollen, in which case a moment in the microwave will reliquefy it. But unless it’s watered down, it won’t spoil. The only safety concern is for infants, who should not be given honey until after they are a year old, when their immune systems are complete.
In her galloping read, “Food in History,” Reay Tannahill suspects that humans began beekeeping in central Asia. The universality of the Eurasian words for it -- Sanskrit madhu, Chinese myit, Slavic medhu, English mead, French miel -- all say pastoral herders to her. From thence, it’s a respectable guess that Turkish traders spread throughout the Middle East, where honey and fruit connoisseurship had been well established since antiquity.
Beginning in the 16th century, just as Europeans brought honey bees to America, trade in Caribbean sugar cane and a swelling slave trade introduced the world to another sweetener: sugar.
A gamy complexity
This set the scene for an uneasy relationship with honey and a defection of gourmands to sugar. While refined sugar became the choice of the elite in Europe and America, wild honey was dismissed as folksy, at best to be spread across a slice of hot buttered toast. At its worst, it became the emblem of the health food movement. It had such image problems that the current editor of Gourmet once devoted a column in this newspaper to how much she loathed it.
Science now is confirming that honey is better nutritionally than sugar. Phyto nutrients, antioxidants, much of human evolution behind it, one would have thought this obvious. The trick for cooks with palates trained on sugar and its one-dimensional sweetness is learning to handle the gamy complexity of the timeless food. For example, consider how well honey’s spice sits in tea, but how it’s deeply objectionable in coffee.
Even when honey is exactly what you want, there can be an unpredictable range of flavors within certain honey varietals. Expect them and taste for them. When Edon Waycott, a superb cook and for years the jam maker for Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, devised an orange blossom baklava for us, we found orange blossom honey could be intensely floral, a veritable grove in a jar, or so mild it almost was indistinguishable from clover honey.
This is because, under federal standards, you need only as much orange blossom honey as you do votes to recall a California governor: 51% will do it. The milder honeys are blends; the more perfumed ones the more pure.
The tradition of blending honey isn’t to deceive, explains UC Davis apiarist Eric Mussen. It’s to create a consistent product. Un-blended varietals vary dramatically from batch to batch. Supermarkets and many customers won’t accept this.
To find pure varietal honey, replete with its ups and downs, one must look elsewhere. Go to www.honeylocator.com, and you’ll be directed to sources for honey made from apple blossoms, Hawaiian Christmas berries, huckleberries, tupelo and thyme.
Or, better yet, go to your local farmers market. Bill Lewis, an aerospace engineer turned beekeeper in the Angeles National Forest, takes his sage, citrus and wildflower honey to markets in South Pasadena on Thursdays and Montrose on Sundays.
He works with whatever’s flowering in southern and central California. When black sage is in bloom, the bees produce a uniquely delicate sage honey. Other times they browse on sumac and buckwheat. “When I don’t know where they’ve been foraging, I call it wildflower,” he says.
Unlike store-bought honey, Lewis’ is cloudy. In the packing room behind his house in Lakeview Terrace, he shows how the honey is spun from frames, filtered to remove pollen grains and grit, and bottled. That’s it. To filter it, small-time beekeepers warm it to hive heat, 90 degrees or hot enough to liquefy it, but they will resist going too much hotter because it creates a caramelized flavor and darkens the color.
He estimates that there are as many as 300 to 400 small-time beekeepers in Southern California. But many are so busy with their bees, they don’t bottle. This is where packers come in, such as 109-year-old Miller’s Honey in Colton.
Miller’s used to keep bees too, explains Marketing Director Merrill Paxman. Now it just blends, packs and sells. It will take shipments as large as a tanker truck or as small as a single 55-gallon barrel. Inside, labeled jars, samples from each delivery, run from apple blossom white to a dark molasses brown. “Each batch is checked for flavor, color and moisture content,” Paxman explains.
Miller’s heats the honey it receives to about 130 degrees. Then they blend it so customers, which include Stater Bros. and Whole Foods, get a consistent product week after week.
A local beekeeper shows up in Miller’s office, looking to charge a pair of beehandling gloves against a delivery of four barrels of honey. His name is Steve Estes, he’s as toothless as Chris Cooper in “Adaptation,” a loner just in from the desert and about to return to it. He used to work as a painter, he says, but beekeeping gives him independence. He and his father have had their 300 hives on tamarack trees around Indio. After a disastrous time last year, with drought and mites, this year has been good. Prices have improved since the Food and Drug Administration staunched the flow of contaminated Chinese honey and rains have been adequate. There are flowers for the bees to work.
“The fall bloom is looking real good,” he says. “If fall bloom is good, we’ll go into almonds looking real good.” By spring, he’ll need to divide his hives before moving onto the citrus crops.
Paxman smiles. According to him, Miller’s founder, Nephi Miller, a Utah Mormon, invented itinerant beekeeping and following the crops after bringing his hives from northern winters to forage on Southern California chaparral. Food historians think it probably happened a bit earlier, and to the east in ancient Mesopotamia.
Either way, it hasn’t changed much. You take bees to the blossoms, and they do the rest.
Honey-brandy ice cream with fig jam
Total time: 35 minutes plus several hours cooling and freezing time
Servings: 6 to 8 servings
Note: The fig jam recipe is from “Chez Panisse Fruit,” by Alice Waters (HarperCollins, $34.95). The honey-brandy ice cream recipe is adapted from “Leaves From the Walnut Tree,” by Ann and Franco Taruschio (Pavilion).
1 3/4pounds ripe figs (about 6 cups quartered)
3/4cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Cut the tough ends off the fig stems. . Quarter the figs and place in a medium saucepan with the sugar, lemon zest, salt and water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, until the figs are soft and translucent.
2. Puree the mixture by passing it through a food mill and return it to the saucepan. Cook over low heat until it is a very thick paste, about 15 minutes.
Honey-brandy ice cream
1 1/2cups milk
1 1/2cups whipping cream
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4cup avocado blossom honey
1/4 cup brandy
1. Heat the milk and whipping cream together in a large saucepan until scalding but not boiling. Remove from heat.
2. Stir a little of the hot milk into the beaten eggs then return the mixture to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens slightly. Do not boil.
3. Remove the custard from the heat and stir in the honey until blended, then add the brandy. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any lumps.
4. Chill in the refrigerator several hours or overnight, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. This ice cream tastes best served right from the ice cream maker, topped with a spoon of fig jam. Otherwise, spoon the ice cream into a chilled glass bowl and cover before freezing. Remove from the freezer to temper 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Each serving: 480 calories; 6 grams protein; 68 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 173 mg. cholesterol; 146 mg. sodium.
Escarole salad with honey-glazed pecans
Total time: 35 minutes
Note: From “Covered in Honey,” by Mani Niall (Rodale, $19.95)
1 egg white
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound pecan pieces (about
1. Whisk the egg white in a large bowl until very foamy. Add the honey and continue whisking for 5 to 10 seconds. Add the cinnamon, ginger, cumin, salt, pepper, cayenne and pecans. Mix until the pecans are well coated, and spread the mixture evenly on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray.
2. Bake in a 300-degree oven until toasted, about 30 . Remove from the oven every 10 minutes and stir to ensure even baking.
3. Cool and store in a covered container at room temperature for up to one week. Makes 4 cups of glazed nuts. Use 2 cups in the salad; reserve the rest for later.
Red wine vinaigrette
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 scant tablespoon fireweed honey (or other light wildflower honey)
1/2cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced chives
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar and honey until emulsified. Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the olive oil. The ingredients should blend and emulsify easily. Stir in the salt, pepper, chives and shallots. This dressing will keep well in the refrigerator, covered tightly, for 2 weeks. Makes 1 cup.
1 head escarole, washed, dried and torn into leaves
4 ounces (1 cup) gorgonzola, crumbled and divided
2 cups honey-glazed pecans
1/2 cup red wine vinaigrette, or to taste
1. Toss together the escarole, half the gorgonzola and 1 cup of the pecans in a large bowl with the vinaigrette. Divide among 4 plates and garnish with the remaining gorgonzola and pecans. Serve immediately with the remaining dressing on the side.
Each serving: 698 calories; 14 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams fiber; 63 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 30 mg. cholesterol; 634 mg. sodium.
Edon Waycott’s baklava
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes plus overnight standing
Servings: About 22 pieces
Note: Panko is Japanese bread crumbs, available in Asian food sections . Look for fresh filo leaves in the refrigerator section of Middle Eastern markets.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and clarified, plus 1 tablespoon unmelted butter
3 cups finely ground walnuts, almonds or a combination of both
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 pound filo leaves, fresh or thawed overnight in refrigerator
1 1/4cups panko crumbs
3/4 cup water, divided
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup orange blossom honey
1. To clarify butter, melt slowly in a saucepan over low heat. Remove pan from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Then tilt pan to skim off foam; discard. Spoon butter into a small bowl, discarding the milky residue.
2. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with the tablespoon of unmelted butter. Mix the finely ground nuts and cinnamon in a bowl.
3. Do not open the package of filo until it is completely thawed and ready to use. When it is opened and the leaves unfolded, invert a 9-by-13-inch baking pan on the leaves to use as a guide. Cut around pan through stack with a sharp knife. Immediately cover with a damp cloth to prevent them from drying out. Use any trimmings, dry and crumbled, in place of some of the bread crumbs.
4. Carefully peel the first leaf from stack and place it on bottom of buttered pan. With a brush dipped in melted butter, splatter the leaf, then sprinkle with bread crumbs. Repeat with 7 more leaves. The next layers will contain nut mixture and no bread crumbs: Sprinkle the 8th leaf with butter and cover with one-third of nut mixture. Add 3 more buttered leaves and cover with another third of nuts. Build another nut layer by adding 3 more buttered leaves and remaining nuts. Repeat initial stack of 8 buttered leaves sprinkled with bread crumbs. The last leaf has no crumbs. With buttered brush, push edges of all leaves down side of pan to make a neat, rounded trim.
5. Cut the pastry into diamonds by lightly marking the top leaf with parallel lines, 1 1/2 inches apart, lengthwise. Make a diagonal mark from one corner to the other, and lay out parallel lines 1 1/2 inches apart. Make deep cuts with a sharp knife all the way through the pastry, following the lines. Sprinkle the top leaf heavily with one-fourth cup of the water or mist with a spray bottle.
6. Bake the baklava in the center of a 350-degree oven until it rises slightly and has a rich golden color, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
7. While the baklava is baking, make a syrup by combining sugar, the remaining one-half cup water, and corn syrup in saucepan and bringing the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Allow to cool. The syrup should be warm, not hot, to pour over pastry when it comes from the oven.
8. When the baklava is done, remove it from the oven and pour the syrup slowly over it. Allow baklava to mature overnight so syrup permeates all leaves and flavor peaks. Baklava may be stored in a covered container at room temperature for four to five weeks. Wrapped securely in foil or plastic, baked or unbaked, baklava can be frozen. Place frozen and unbaked baklava directly into a 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake for an additional hour, or until pastry is puffed and golden.
Each serving: 377 calories; 5 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 24 mg. cholesterol; 23 mg. sodium.
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