I am a California girl and literally grew up in a land of milk and honey. My mom was conscientious in her grocery shopping from the local co-op and we ate a lot of local products including some of the finest honey that our little bee friends produce.
(Photo courtesy of the National Honey Board)
Most of our honey was orange blossom or clover and occasionally we would be treated to honey in the comb, to be chewed on slowly like gum until little pellets of beeswax were left behind to be genteelly spit out (or not so genteelly, like when my sister and I fought like little animals, bee wax pellets were the perfect sticky projectiles).
As an adult doing my own grocery shopping I became a regular customer at the Marshall’s honey stand at the farmer’s market. There were so many different varieties of honey to sample, including my childhood favorites, and new ones very local to San Francisco, such as star thistle (we knew they had to be good for some purpose), eucalyptus and cappings honey. Cappings honey is the honey cut from the end of the combs which has a naturally thick and creamy texture. I began to use bee propolis which is the royal jelly and pollen, to help my allergies.
Honey is an ancient food,l and a natural preservative. Archeologists have found preserved honey in Egyptian tombs that albeit rather petrified was still edible after thousands of years. Honey in its natural state stays perfectly well for a long time, and if it crystalizes one can re-melt it and it will be no worse for the wear. In itself honey is a perfect food.
(Photo courtesy of the National Honey Board)
I was so delighted to be invited to a cooking demonstration and honey tasting party by the National Honey Board. The amazing New Orleans born pastry chef David Guas has his own cafe and bakery in Virginia, the Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery. He is on a tour for the National Honey Board to share the versatility and varieties of honey and a few local writers, media and bloggers were treated to a lovely event at the fabulous Ketchum test kitchens. Chef David is honey collector and advocate and is so impassioned and enthusiastic about honey that despite my inherent love for honey I was motivated to expand my honey collection even more.
Isn’t he a honey?
It was an intimate, casual event, and Chef David visited with us as we sampled some of his signature recipes prepared for the National Honey Board, such as a Tropical Honey Coconut Water Cooler made with tropical fruits, coconut water and toasted coconut on top. We had little bites of walnut bread topped with slim slices of blue cheese and drizzled with buckwheat honey, and Chef David’s “Crunchy” Honey Toasted Almond Spread on celery sticks.
After catching up with our friends and getting to know Chef David we proceeded into the Ketchum test kitchen, my how I wish I could just move right into that glorious room!
Chef David had six pots of honey laid out on a counter and we were given a chance to sample each type of honey in a blind tasting. What a challenge this was to apply a wine tasting lexicon to the subtleties of honey, but it turned out to be a revelatory experience. The range of flavors, textures and aromas in each honey sample was so different, and between sips of water we tried to guess the varietal of the source pollen based on the flavor profiles. Very few of us had accurate guesses and it was fascinating to hear how each of us interpreted the flavors of the honey.
(Photo courtesy of National Honey Board)
Here are some more unusual varietals of honeys from the United States, some of which I had never tried before:
Primarily produced in California, avocado honey is gathered from avocado blossoms. It is a well-rounded honey with a rich, buttery flavor and a flowery aftertaste.
Basswood honey has a fresh taste suggestive of green, ripening fruit. It is often characterized by its distinctive lingering flavor.
Taken from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush, the nectar makes a light, amber-colored honey with a moderate fruity flavor and the aroma of green leaves. It is produced in New England and Michigan.
Typically produced in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as Eastern Canada, buckwheat honey is dark and full-bodied. It has been found to contain more antioxidant compounds than some lighter honeys.
Clovers contribute more to honey production in the United States than any other group of plants, with Red clover, Alsike clover, and the white and yellow sweet clovers the most important for honey production. Clover honey varies in color from clear to light amber and has a sweet, flowery flavor and a pleasing, mild taste.
There are over 500 varieties of eucalyptus plants with the majority found in Australia and Canada. Eucalyptus honey varies greatly in color and flavor but tends to be a stronger flavored honey. Some eucalyptus honeys have a slight menthol flavor and scent.
Fireweed honey is light in color and comes from fireweed, a perennial herb that grows immediately following a forest fire. Primarily produced in the Northern Pacific states and Canada, fireweed honey is a delicate, sweet honey with subtle, tea-like notes.
Orange Blossom honey, often from a combination of citrus sources, is usually light in color and mild in flavor with a fresh scent and light citrus taste. Orange blossom honey is produced in Florida, Southern California and parts of Texas.
Sage honey, primarily produced in California, is light in color and heavy-bodied, with a mild but delightful flavor. It is extremely slow to granulate, making it a favorite among honey packers for blending with other honeys to slow down granulation.
Sourwood trees can be found in the Appalachian Mountains from Southern Pennsylvania to Northern Georgia. Sourwood honey has a sweet, spicy, anise aroma and flavor with a pleasant lingering aftertaste.
Tupelo honey is a premium honey produced in northwest Florida. It is heavy-bodied with a mild, distinctive taste, and is usually light golden amber with a greenish cast. Because of the high fructose content in Tupelo honey, it granulates very slowly.
Wildflower honey is often used to describe honey from undefined sources.
Chef David fired up the glorious Viking range and started his cooking demonstration to illustrate the incredible diversity honey has in the kitchen, beyond spreading on hot buttered biscuits or stirring into tea.
We perched convivially on stools around the capacious islands in the test kitchen, our attention rapt as Chef David toasted slivered almonds and then whirred them into a creamy almond butter spread. He used copious amounts of honey to caramelize more toasted almonds in a saute pan with a little butter then mixed quickly with corn flakes for a super crunchy tasty almond crunch to sprinkle on top of the almond butter filled celery boats.
He confessed the almond and cornflake crunch doesn’t last for very long in his house because of his voracious little boys, but it would keep quite well and crunchily for over a week.
Chef David then whisked together a quick creamy salad dressing with honey and tossed this with halved flame grapes and slivered almonds and peppery baby rocket for a refreshing and delicious salad. I imagined adding chunks of leftover roasted chicken or turkey for a faux Waldorf salad for a fast summer supper.
His next demonstration made me feel he was near and dear to my heart. Chef David honey glazed bacon slices in the oven, and turned them into crispy-chewy honey glazed BLTs. Holy cow, was this ever fantastic. The honey flavor really showed well against the smoked bacon flavor and I mentally kicked myself for not trying this sooner with my pig candy experiments.
Chef David then showed us his simple yet scrumptious honey brined pork chop with a honey whole-grain mustard sauce. Brining pork chops is a standard for many, including myself, but brining chops using honey instead of sugar imparts all the complexities of the honey into the pork and obviates the need to add additional flavorings such as fruits, herbs and aromatics.
The brined chop was seared in a pan and finished in the oven and removed to a platter to rest. The pan drippings, or fond, were dissolved in water and dollops of honey and whole grained mustard were added to reduce for a quick pan sauce. I don’t think even Wordsworth could describe the sweet, savory and meaty nuances this pork had in each juice bite. Pure heaven.
Honey has been used largely for desserts and Chef David gave us his favorite and show stopping honey lemon cheesecake dessert pops. Imagine an eggless cheesecake with Meyer lemon zest but in a popsicle form, resting on a huge platter of buttery crispy honey graham cracker crumb crunch. One picks up the creamy, glistening pop half coated in crunchy crumbs and nibbles this confection slowly off the popsicle stick. His sentiment, “Everything tastes better on a stick” is something I have said for years and it was such a playful and friendly dessert, so very charming in its simplicity and the flavor of honey was perfectly highlighted. I may never eat regular cheesecake again.
The combination of honey and almonds in the demonstration recipes is not a coincidence. Besides producing honey the honey bee has an enormous role in California and the world’s agriculture by pollination. Almond trees, for example, are solely pollinated by bees, so if the bees did not exist we would never have an almond.
The news has been filled with the collapse of bee hives throughout the world and the scientists are still trying to figure out the cause and how to prevent this tragedy from continuing, for the sake of our bees and for the future of agriculture. Some speculate is it due to a mite infection in the hive, others blame pesticides and genetically modified crops (GMO) such as those created by Monsanto. There is an interesting article about Monsanto buying the world’s largest bee research firm here, one wonders what this means about their future veracity.
This is an important issue to stay informed on and I hope as you enjoy your next bite of something in the kitchen with honey, or try some honey in the comb you think about the magic that our bees produce and what we as responsible consumers need to do to help preserve our bee population. Please support your local honey producers and buy directly from them whenever possible.
Chef David Guas’s Recipes:
For more information about honey, honey bees and recipes, please visit the National Honey Board
To learn more about the different varieties of honey and what is harvested near you, visit the Honey Locator