Meeting the bee keepers
Known for both its culinary and health benefits, honey is one of nature’s true gifts. I wanted to find out more about how honey gets from the flower to our toast, so I headed off to a local honey producer in Charente Maritime, SW France where three generations of the same family have been producing honey for more than 50 years. Christian Robert along with his son and grandson were delighted to share their knowledge with me.
‘Preparation begins in the winter’ he told me ‘whilst the bees are dormant’. Bees begin foraging for nectar in early spring as the first flowers begin to appear. They transform the pollen to honey in the combs and then cap it with a layer of wax where it remains until collected by the beekeeper. Once full the combs are removed for processing and replaced by new frames and the cycle continues throughout summer. Once collected the beekeeper removes the outer wax coating revealing the liquid honey beneath. It is filtered in an extraction machine, stored in barrels to separate off the sediment before being heated gently (below 40c) and poured into jars for selling.
So what is honey exactly
It is a highly concentrated sugar solution made up of 70% sugar (fructose and glucose) and less than 20% water plus vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Extracted honey can be liquid, crystalized (set honey) or partially crystalized and this crystallization is a natural occurrence that takes place when the percentage of glucose is higher than that of fructose.
Honey is categorised by the type of flowers from which the nectar is sourced. This is also what gives honey its flavour. The darker the honey the more intense the flavour.
Different honey varieties
Monofloral honey, considered a premium honey, is produced by nectar collected from just one flower source such as acacia, leatherwood, manuka, heather, orange blossom and other single flower varieties. It can be runny or set, light, dark, creamy or crystalline.
Polyfloral honey is made from the nectar of different flowers and is likely to be labelled simply as honey and again the colour and texture varies. Blended honey, also labelled just honey, is made by combining different flavoured honeys together and is usually the cheapest of all the types sold. The flavour of these is milder and I think, inferior. These honeys will have been heat-treated and possibly pasteurised.
Then we have ‘raw’ honey, so called due to the method of processing and must be 100% unprocessed, so once extracted it is warmed only enough to pour into jars and not enough to change it’s structure. Often sold directly from producers ‘raw’ honey is perhaps the most desirable of all honey, especially as there is now a growing demand by consumers for locally sourced honey.
The taste test
The best way to decide which type of honey you prefer is by tasting different ones, see what you like and what you don’t. As well as colour, the texture of honey differs too and is classified as creamy honey, set honey or a thin honey. Set honey is crystalline but this doesn’t mean that the honey is old or has ‘gone off’ it is just that the glucose content is higher than the fructose content. The flavour will remain the same.
In cooking stick to runny honeys for salad dressings and marinades, as they are easier to combine with other ingredients. A thicker, darker honey is great in cake baking as this will add both flavour and moisture.
Over time all honey will set and crystalize, but it can easily be softened by warming it in a water bath or microwave. Honey will remain in the same state for up to 2 years but must be stored in a cool, dark place (not refrigerated) even once its been opened.
The health benefits
Of course honey is not only used in cooking it is also prized for its apparent health benefits. There has been much written and reported over the years to suggest honey can cure or aid everything from the common cold, sore throats, help with digestion, combat ulcers and more recently help prevent hay fever. ‘Raw’ locally produced honey is thought to be beneficial as it will contain minute quantities of the very flowers that give you the sniffles, gradually building up immunity.
It is a fact that ‘raw’ untreated honey retains all it’s original enzymes and antioxidants and has antibiotic and antimicrobial properties and protects against bacteria. Of all honeys, manuka honey is generally accepted as having the most health benefits due to a higher percentage of certain components it contains. In fact medical grade manuka honey is used to help heal wounds.
Because honey contains natural fruit sugars it means that our bodies absorb the energy they provide more quickly than other sugars, making them an ideal quick ‘energy fix’. It is important to remember though that any sugar should be consumed in moderation but if you are only going to eat one type of sugar today, make it honey on your toast.
Honey facts – things you never knew about honey and honeybees
- Honeybees are the only insects that produce food for humans
- They visit anywhere between 50 and 100 flowers on each trip
- Honey is more than 1 to1.5 times sweeter than sugar therefore you need less in order to sweeten something
- Honey is a natural antibiotic used for thousands of years to help soothe burns. The World Health Organisation lists it as a sore throat aid.
- Honeybees communicate with each other by dancing
Honeybees only sting when they are protecting their colony and not when they are foraging for nectar
Rosewater and pistachio baklava pave
100 g shelled pistachio nuts
50 g almonds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
8 sheets filo pastry
50 g unsalted butter
grated zest and juice 1/2 lemon
200 g clear honey
2 tablespoons rose water
1 litre vanilla ice cream, softened
dried rose petals buds, to serve
Make the baklava. Preheat the oven to 180c/fan-forced 160c. Place the pistachio nuts, almonds and cinnamon in a food processor and blend until the nuts are coarsely ground. Stir in the sugar and reserve 4 tablespoons for serving.
Lightly oil 23cm square tin. Cut each pastry sheet in half and trim to fit into the tin. Brush each sheet with butter and press into the prepared tin to make 8 layers. Scatter over the nut mixture and then top with the remaining sheets of pastry, brushing with melted butter each time.
Brush over any remaining butter and bake at for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 160c/fan-forced140c and bake for a further 20-25 minutes until pastry is crisp and golden. Remove from the oven and using a skewer prick the surface all over the pastry.
Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Place the lemon zest, juice, honey and 100ml water in a saucepan and heat gently until boiling. Simmer for 5 minutes, remove from heat and stir in the rose water. Immediately pour three quarters of the honey syrup over the baklava and leave to go cold in the tin.
Assemble the pavé. Turn the pastry out of the tin and cut in half. Spread a third of the ice cream into the base of a lightly oil 12×22 cm loaf tin and place one half of baklava on top. Repeat with the ice cream and remaining baklava and finally the remaining ice cream. Smooth the top and cover with cling film. Freeze overnight. Turn out cut into slices, drizzle over the remaining syrup and decorate with dried rose petals and reserved chopped nut
Coconut sesame prawns with honey sauce
100 g dried thin egg noodles
24 large raw prawns
2 tablespoons clear honey
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
11/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
a few coriander sprigs
vegetable oil, for deep frying
Place the noodles in a bowl and add boiling water to cover. Leave to soak for 20 minutes, drain well and pat dry on kitchen paper. Peel and de-vein the prawns and wrap 8-10 noodles around each. Deep-fry in 5 cm vegetable oil for 3-4 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through. Drain on kitchen paper and transfer to a warmed platter.
Make the sauce. Place honey, rice wine, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 minutes and pour over the prawns. Garnish with sesame seeds and coriander.
Roasted chicken salad with warm honey dressing
2 kg free range chicken, butterflied
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tbsp quatre epices (or mixed ground spice)
a drizzle honey
500 g sweet potatoes, peeled cut into cubes
1/2 red onion
parsley, mint, coriander
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon clear honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon preserved lemon, diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
1small red chilli, seeded and diced
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200c. Place chicken in a large bowl and rub. Combine the oil quatre epices, salt and pepper in a bowl and rub all over the chicken. Cook on a barbecue or grill pan for 20-25 minutes each side until cooked through, brushing over a little honey about 5 minutes before finished cooking (skin side only).
While the chicken is cooking, place the sweet potatoes in a roasting tin with a little oil, salt and pepper and roast for 45 minutes, stirring half way through until charred and tender.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Blitz together the oil, honey, lemon juice, preserved lemon and coriander and stir in the chilli and some salt and pepper to taste.
Cut chicken into pieces and toss with the dressing. Combine the sweet potatoes, spinach leaves, red onion and herbs in a bowl and toss well. Transfer to a platter. Pile the chicken in the middle drizzling any pan juices over the salad. Serve at once.
Herb infused honey pots – to give as gifts, small pots of honey flavoured with herbs such as fennel flowers, lavender, rosemary etc. Simply stir in your favourite flavours, seal and store until required.
All images © Ian Wallace
All recipes © Louise Pickford
Taken from my article first published by Food & Travel Magazine, August/September 2105