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
Not quite straight, yet not quite curly.
Without wishing to offend churros oficianados, here is my version of this delightfully light, fluffy and totally divine Spanish doughnut. Traditionally Spanish churros are piped, in an almost figure of eight shaped whirl, directly into hot fat and deep-fried before being coated in cinnamon sugar. They can be served as simply as that or they can be served alongside a steaming cup of real hot chocolate. For a slightly more wicked treat I like to dunk them or drizzle them with melted chocolate flavoured with Pedro Ximenez, an intensely dark, sweet dessert sherry.
Having always been a lover of doughnuts (not that surprising really – deep-fried batter, crispy on the outside, light and fluffy in the centre and then dipped in spiced sugar – who wouldn’t) but actually not that crazy about the jam filled ones, I was wowed when I first came across churros on a holiday in Majorca, one of Spain’s Balearic islands – the fact that they were served with chocolate was the icing on the cake.
Developed centuries ago by Spanish shepherds in the hills, where cooking was limited to cooking over a log fire, a cake-like batter was dropped into hot fat until crisp and then serve dusted with cinnamon sugar. Naturally enough the idea caught on and today this wonderful snack food is popular all over the world, in one form or another.
And now that I live in SW France, the Spanish border is a short drive away, so I get to enjoy one of my favourite dishes much more often with regular trips to Spain’s Basque region. Luckily they have also caught on here in France and you often find a churros van at the local markets and fetes. Normally in France they tend to be served either completely straight or more like these ones, but really the shape is completely up to you – whether you a curly fan or a straight fan – they still taste the same!!
So let’s get cooking.
You will need water, butter – salted or unsalted, is your choice – plain flour, a pinch of salt, 3 medium eggs, caster sugar and cinnamon for the churros. Then for the sauce you need dark chocolate, single or pouring cream and a small glass (or two) of Pedro Ximenez sherry.
Pour the water into a medium saucepan, adding the butter. Place over a low heat until the butter melts. – you are literally warming it enough to melt the butter and there is no need to boil the mixture.
Remove the pan from the heat and tip in the flour and salt in one go. Then beat well with a wooden spoon until it becomes thick and sticky and the mixture comes away from the pan edges.
At this stage you need to allow the batter to cool slightly, so that when the eggs are whisked in, the heat is not so high that it starts to cook the eggs – they will cook once the batter is piped and fried – so using either a balloon whisk or electric beaters, whisk in them in one at a time until you have a smooth batter.
Spoon the glossy batter into a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm star nozzle. Make sure you scrape in as much of the batter as you can, don’t waste any! Meanwhile, heat a good amount of vegetable oil in a wok or heavy-based pan, to a depth of about 7 cm, until it reaches 180c on a sugar thermometer (or until a small amount of the dough sizzles as soon as it is dropped into the oil).
Carefully pipe 15 cm lengths of the dough straight into the oil, using a knife to cut the dough off right by the nozzle. Fry 3-4 churros at a time for 2-3 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through using metal tongs. As soon as the churros are cooked, remove them using a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen towel. You can keep them warm in a moderate oven heated to 180C/325F/Gas Mark 4 if you like, whilst cooking some more.
Whilst the churros are cooking, you should have time to mixc the sugar with some cinnamon. Place the mixture on a plate and as soon as the churros are ready roll them in the sugar until they are evenly coated.
Meanwhile, heat the chocolate and cream together in a small pan over a low heat until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth, then add the sherry. If you prefer you can do this ahead and warm the sauce through just before serving.
Arrange the churros on a platter and serve with the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce for dipping or if you like drizzle it all over the churros.
Churros with chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce
250 ml water
120 g butter
180 g plain flour, twice sifted
3 medium eggs (size 3)
75 g caster sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
100 g chocolate
150 ml single cream, plus extra to drizzle
a small glass Pedro Ximenez sherry
vegetable oil for frying
Heat the water and butter in a saucepan over low heat until the butter melts.
Tip in the flour and salt and beat well with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes away from the pan edges.
Cool for 5 minutes, then whisk in the eggs one at a time, using electric beaters or a balloon whisk, until you have a smooth batter.
Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm star nozzle.
Heat vegetable oil in a large heavy-based pan to a depth of 7 cm until it reaches 180c on a sugar thermometer (or until a small amount of the dough sizzles as soon as it is dropped into the oil).
Carefully pipe 15 cm lengths of the dough straight into the oil, using a knife to cut the dough. Fry 3 at a time for 2-3 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through using metal tongs. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen towel.
Combine the sugar and cinnamon on a plate and roll the doughnuts in the mixture until coated.
Meanwhile, heat the chocolate and cream together in a small pan over a low heat until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth, then add the sherry.
Arrange the churros on a platter and serve with the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce for dipping.
Warm honey roasted carrots and toasted quinoa salad
Not to be overlooked for some of the more trendy vegetables of the moment, carrots are an age old but nevertheless delightful and versatile root vegetable. Here they are paired with red and white quinoa that is first roasted before being cooked, adding an extra nutty flavour to the dish.
This dish makes a great lunch on it’s own or as an accompanying vegetable to both meat and fish dishes.
200g red and white quinoa
2 teaspoon honey
grated zest and juice 1 orange
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
50 g pistachio nuts, toasted and roughly chopped
75 g dried pitted dates, sliced
2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons mint
1 tablespoon dukkhah*
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan-forced. Place the quinoa in a sieve and wash under cold running water, stirring the grains for about 1 minute. Shake as dry as possible. Heat a frying pan until hot, add the wet quinoa and stir over a high heat, firstly until dry and then continue for a further 1-2 minutes until lightly toasted and starting to crackle.
Place the toasted quinoa in a saucepan and add 250 ml cold water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer over a very low heat for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat but leave undisturbed for a further 10 minutes. If there is any liquid remaining drain through a sieve and leave to cool. Pat dry.
Meanwhile, trim the carrots and place in a large roasting tin. Combine half the orange juice, the orange zest, 2 tablespoons of the oil, the honey and salt and pepper. Drizzle over the carrots and toss well. Roast for 30 minutes or until tender.
Mix the remaining oil and the remaining orange juice with the vinegar and season to taste.
Place the quinoa in a large bowl and stir in the spring onions, pistachio nuts, dates and herbs. Stir through the roasted carrots and any pan juices and serve scattered with the dukkhah.
- Dukkhah is an Egyptian nut and spice mix commonly served along side flat breads with olive oil, to serve as a dip. It adds great texture to dishes as well as a lovely hint of Middle Eastern spices. It is available online, from deli and specialist food stores and some larger supermarkets online or
© recipe Louise Pickford
© photo Ian Wallace
Recipe and photo first published in Sainsbury’s magazine 2018
Eggs have a very special place in French gastronomy as both a staple food and as a much loved cooking ingredient. Perhaps one of the most underrated egg dishes is ouefs en cocotte, which translates literally as egg casserole! although I always call it simply ‘baked eggs with …..’ and this one happens to be with mushrooms and sage butter in cream and Parmesan.
According to Elizabeth David this traditional dish is a cross between oeufs sur la plat, where an egg is cooked in a covered enamel or earthenware dish with a little butter, and a poached egg where the eggs are cooked in a ceramic cocotte or ramekin dish. Both can be cooked on top of the stove or in an oven. Originally I imagine this would depend on whether you had an oven as many people would have cooked over an open fire or taken their dishes to be cooked in a communal oven.
In their simplest form, the eggs are carefully broken into a small dish with a little butter, salt and pepper. These are then cooked in a water bath (where the dishes are half submerged in boiling water, so they do not cook too quickly) until the white is set and the yolk cooked but still soft.
When cream is added it becomes oeufs en cocotte a la crème and can be enhanced with a range of flavourings from just a simple herb, to spinach lightly sautéed in butter, smoked salmon or shredded ham or to my favourite of wild mushrooms and truffles or even foie gras. Some people like to add a topping of grated cheese whilst others prefer none. Allow the seasons to determine just what to add, like the mushrooms in this version.
Baked eggs with mushrooms and sage
50g butter, plus extra for greasing
small bunch fresh sage
250g mushrooms, wiped clean
250ml double cream
4 free range eggs
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180c/160c fan-forced and lightly butter 4 x 300ml capacity ramekin dishes. Boil the kettle and get a roasting tin ready that will hold the ramekins.
Reserving a handful of small sage leaves, finely chop the rest. Melt the butter in a frying pan and as soon as it stops foaming add the whole sage leaves and fry over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes until the leaves are crisp. Do not allow the mixture to burn. Remove the leaves with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Return the frying pan to the heat. Fry the mushrooms, chopped sage and a little salt and pepper over a high heat for 3-4 minutes until golden. Divide the mushrooms between the prepared ramekin dishes and pour over the cream. Break an egg into each one and top with the grated Parmesan.
Place the ramekins in the roasting tin. Pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the dishes. Bake for 10 minutes until the egg yolks are just set. Scatter over the crispy sage leaves and serve with some wholemeal bread.
Risotto purists will be screaming abuse no doubt at this bastardised version of such a classic Italian dish, but I make no apology for taking it’s name in vain. I am a lover of a classic risotto, but this more nutty version is good too. Less creamy, yes, but I think the nuttiness and robust flavour and texture of spelt grains more than makes up for this. Widely recognised for it’s health benefits, this ancient grain is hardier and more nutritional than it’s more familiar cousin, wheat. If you aren’t so sure, give this delicious version a go.
Beetroot and Spelt Risotto with Camembert
A nutty and wholesome alternative to a more traditional risotto using pearled spelt berries
300g pearled spelt grains
750ml-1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
350g raw beetroot, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, plus a few leaves to garnish
125g Camembert, sliced
25g grated Parmesan
55g pecan nuts
1 red whitlof, shredded
salt and pepper
Soak the spelt grains in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain and shake dry.
Place the stock in a saucepan and heat gently until it just starts to simmer.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion, garlic, thyme and some salt and pepper for 5 minutes until softened. Add the beetroot and fry for a further 5 minutes.
Add the spelt and stir-fry for 1 minute until all the grains are glossy. Add the wine and simmer until reduced, about 3 minutes.
Then add half the stock and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add the remaining stock and cook, stirring until the spelt is tender and most of the stock absorbed, about 10 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in half the Camembert and all the Parmesan, cover pan and leave to sit for 5 minutes.
Heat a small frying pan and fry the pecans for 3-4 minutes until lightly browned.
Spoon the risotto onto plates and serve topped with the remaining cheese, pecans, the shredded whitlof and a few thyme leaves.
Beef with salt roasted celeriac and walnut Gorgonzola pesto
1 large celeriac, trimmed (about 1kg)
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1kg piece beef filet
100g walnut pieces
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
2 tbs green olives
2 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
55g gorgonzola cheese
2 cups Autumn salad leaves, such as radicchio, red oak leaf, red chicory
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 200c/180c fan-forced and line a baking tray with baking parchment. Make the pesto. Place the walnuts, parsley, olives, anchovies and some pepper in a food processor and blend until smooth. Blend in the oil, half the balsamic vinegar and then stir in the gorgonzola. Season to taste and set aside.
Peel the celeriac and cut in half, then cut each half into 1 cm thick slices. Combine the oil and salt and rub all over the celeriac pieces. Arrange on the prepared tray and roast for 30 minutes until charred and softened.
Meanwhile, season the beef fillet. Heat an oven-proof frying pan over a high heat and when hot add the beef. Sear for 5 minutes until browned all over. Transfer to the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and rest for 5 minutes.
Cut the beef into 6 thick steaks and arrange on a second baking tray. Spoon the pesto onto each steak and return to the oven for 5 minutes until the beef is cooked perfectly and the pesto golden.
Divide the celeriac between plates and top with the beef steaks. Spoon over any pan juices and serve with some mixed salad leaves.
© photo Ian Wallace
© recipe Louise Pickford
First published by Taste.com.au