Wednesday, September 20, 2023
It’s National Honey Month and I’ve been waiting to write about honey until I had a minute to do a little research, because there are so many cool things about honey that I wanted to have a few up my sleeve.
“A minute” is not something I seem to be able to find one of, let alone enough of them to do research. And then yesterday I started my whole “write on paper and don’t pick up your phone” project, which means unless it’s 1985 and I can walk to the neighbor’s house to borrow the H encyclopedia, I’m not going to learn anything about honey by watching my own handwriting.
So I compromised with myself. I wrote in my notebook, and left some question marks where I wanted to know something that required research.
The dilemma turned out to be almost as interesting as the topic itself. Without immediately giving in to googling “how many types of honey are there?” I could form actual thoughts in my brain and write full sentences before falling into a rabbit hole.
Over three hundred.
That’s how many types of honey there are.
All that means is that there are a few I have never tried. I don’t know how this can be.
The first honey that really blew my mind was radish honey. It took me upwards of 50 years to put the pieces together, but not long ago we had radish mead from the meadery we love in Point Reyes. It was delicious. It was then that I finally figured out that if someone was using radish honey to make radish mead, then by the transitive property of deliciousness, radish honey must exist.
And it does. And it is equally delicious.
That’s when I really started going on a honey adventure. Since then, between my forays online and my parents ferreting out obscurities in specialty markets, I’ve had sunflower, carrot, holly, avocado, blackberry, scotch broom, fireweed, and probably a bunch I’m forgetting.
They’re endlessly unique and interesting.
To date, radish has come out on top as one of my faves, along with New Jersey Pine Barren. Both taste like honey the way you think honey should taste. I’m also partial to chestnut. Then again, it depends on what you’re doing with it.
Is it going on your toast or your peanut butter sandwich? In your Earl Gray or your spiced holiday tea? Are you eating it off a spoon out of the jar? These are important questions.
Here is another duh-moment for you. I read recently that honey tastes different depending on the season in which it was produced. Why? Because there are different flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Duh. Right?
It’s one of those things you don’t think about until you do. And then it’s so obvious, which somehow doesn’t make it any less surprising.
Spring honeys tend to be lighter and milder. Fall honey is, generally speaking, darker and richer. Clover honey is a spring honey. It is not high on my list. Pumpkin honey happens during fall and I love it.
Kind of honey I don’t particularly care for? Tennessee. I don’t know what it comes from but I imagine it’s a mashup of whatever flowers are there whenever the bees are. It’s fairly nondescript.
Kind of honey I will never ever buy? Anything commercially produced on a supermarket shelf. There is no way to know whether it’s actually honey. It could be cut with corn syrup or any number of adulterating ingredients and as much as you’d like to think that a label that says “pure honey” is true, there is a good chance it is not. Adulterated honey is a major scandal that never seems to go away.
So buy local, where local means “anything you can source to the hive.”
As I wrote about honey in my notebook this evening, I wondered if you could have squash blossom honey. Why not? They have those big blooms you can fry and eat, I imagine they’d make honey too. So I looked it up and….
Seems like pumpkin is the only gourd that gifts us honey. No zucchini honey. No acorn squash honey.
Which begs the question, if macadamia nuts and chestnuts yield honey, why don’t walnuts or cashews?
I did discover that while there is such a thing as almond honey, it is bitter and unpleasant, so it’s unlikely it’ll make it into anyone’s pantry anytime soon.
There is also such a thing as Tupelo honey. And baobab. And Pitcairn, which is supposed to be the most rare honey in the world which means I must now acquire it.
And while I’ve had blueberry, blackberry and raspberry honey, nary a bottle of strawberry honey is to be found.
I feel like there may be some things about honey that aren’t in the H encyclopedia.
While this was mostly an analog adventure with only a few minutes of googling to answer these burning questions, I did come across this astonishing fact: a particular region in North Carolina produces purple honey.
And yet there it is, this sort of grape-jelly/burgundy-red honey. It is not something anyone can do on purpose and it doesn’t happen all the time. Nobody seems to be able to determine why it happens but theories abound.
It fascinated me so I sneaked in a few more minutes of googling and while there was no definitive answer to the purple honey mystery, I learned the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Sometime in 2012, some beekeepers in France discovered a few multi-colored bees in their hives, producing multicolored honey in bright blue and green. They discovered exactly why: the bees were eating sugar from a nearby M&M factory and the dyes in the candy were dying the honey they produced.
A similar thing happened in Brooklyn a few years earlier. A bright candy-apple-red honey was traced to bees that visited a Maraschino cherry factory nearby.
In other more rare cases, bees have even made red and blue honey tinted from the dye of Sno-Cones.
Moral of the story: bees really are industrious little things. In the absence of enough nectar they will find their sugar fix somewhere else.
Needless to say nobody is selling any of this accidentally adulterated honey, least of all the French who are not known for tolerating such affronts to their culinary sensibilities.
Honey has had a spot in my heart since my earliest memories of my grandmother making warm milk and honey to drink before bed. These days it mostly goes into tea… sometimes with a nut butter on fresh bread… and ok, fine, fine, I eat it out of the jar.
It’s a magical golden gift that the universe offers, perhaps as a counterpoint to all the mischief it incites.
One day, along with my chickens, I want beehives in my back yard. Note to self: do not buy a house near an M&M factory or a Sno-Cone stand.
Photo: some teeny tiny honeys I bought to sample from a bee ranch in Oregon. I also decided that honey in little bear containers is cute but stupid. It’s impossible to get the honey out of all those nooks and crannies. Stick with the nice wide-mouth jars and never waste a drop.