Honey Abuzz with Variety
(Published by Tribune Media Syndicates, July 2008)
by Francine Segan
Tupelo, lavender, sourwood, Linden tree, sage, buckwheat, eucalyptus, and Bradford pear are just a sweet drop in the honey pot. There are over 300 distinctive types of honey produced in the United States.
"Each region of America grows different plants and therefore has different honey," explains Mark Brady, President of the American Honey Producers Association. "Texas, for example, produces honey from white brush, cat claw, and mesquite plants; Nebraska is famed for its clover and alfalfa honey; South Carolina and Florida for tupelo," adds Brady. California produces several unique honeys like John Gipson's Golden avocado honey, which has a deeply rich dried plum flavor. In addition the must-try wildly flavorful avocado honey, Gipson's Golden also produces lavender honey from the fields of a private California vineyard, wild blackberry honey from bushes growing near the Santa Rosa and Eel Rivers, as well as native Meyer lemon honeys. "You can even get honey from cactus," explain Erika Wain and Klaus Koepfli, of California's Klausesbees honey company, who sell, a candy-sweet distinctly thick cactus honey from the Nojave Desert of California.
"Not many of us realize that which plants bees visit drastically affects the flavor of their honey," says Brian Frederickson, owner of Ames Farm, which sells several types of single source honeys from Minnesota. "If bees hives are placed near a field of Linden tree the honey will have a delightfully light mint taste, which tastes completely different from honey the bees make when they gather nectar from buckwheat blossoms, which tastes of molasses and brown sugar" Frederickson continues.
Despite this wide range of choices, most Americans have only tasted honey blends, not single source varieties. "Companies that supply supermarkets mix honey from many different beekeepers. Supermarket honey is just as good and nutritious as any honey. However, unique and unusual flavors may be lost in the intermingling of many flavors," explains Troy Fore, Executive Director of the American Beekeeping Federation. "Honey from small beekeepers is more likely to come from a single floral source and will have that source's flavor. The different flavors are distinctive, and it's a treat to experience the variety," continues Fore.
ALFALFA – Produced from the purple alfalfa blossoms, this light honey has a pleasingly mild flavor and the lovely aroma of beeswax.
AVOCADO – Dark amber in color, with a rich molasses, buttery taste and spicy aroma.
BASSWOOD – Also known as Linden tree, basswood honey is light in color with a lovely lingering flavor of green ripening fruit with herbal notes.
BLUEBERRY – Taken from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush, the nectar makes a honey that is typically light amber in color with a full, well-rounded fruit flavor and flowery, lemon aroma.
BUCKWHEAT – Dark and full-bodied with an aroma reminiscent of the best single malt Scotch. Buckwheat honey has been found to contain more antioxidant compounds than some lighter honeys.
CLOVER – Has a pleasing, mild taste that depending on the location and type of source clover, varies in color from water white to light amber to amber. Clovers contribute more to honey production in the United States than any other group of plants.
FIREWEED – Light in color and mild in flavor, this honey comes from a perennial herb with pinkish blossoms, fireweed, which grows in the open woodlands.
ORANGE BLOSSOM – Often a combination of citrus sources, this light and mild honey has a fresh scent and light citrus taste.
SAGE – Light in color yet 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.
STAR THISTLE – Bright yellow flowers ringed with long, sharp spines, creates this white or extra-light amber honey whose delicate flavor has hints of cinnamon and summer fruit.
TUPELO – Light golden color with a greenish cast and a lovely spices and mint taste. Because of the high fructose content in Tupelo honey, it granulates very slowly.
"The best way to appreciate the wide range of tastes is to try a honey you've never had before," advises Bruce Wolk, director of marketing for The National Honey Board. "Log onto our website, honeylocator.com, to discover honey's varied flavors from delectably mild to distinctively bold," adds Wolk. The honeylocator site yields not just hundreds of types of honeys each with detailed descriptions of the plant that produced it, but also lists the beekeepers who sell that particular honey. Pure Mountain Honey (www.MtnHoney.com), is just one of the many artisanal producers featured on the National Honey Board's site. Owners Carl and Virginia Webb, who humorously say they employ 7 million workers, make an indescribably delicious sourwood honey, from sourwood trees indigenous to Georgia. Their sourwood honey won top prize for the "Best Honey in the World" at the 2005 World Honey Show, in Dublin, Ireland that included 400 entries representing 21 different countries.
"You can approach tasting honey like you would wine," suggests Alexandre Brard, sommelier for the Michelin 3 star Joel Robuchon Restaurant in Las Vegas's MGM Grand, "Each of the 300 varieties has its own flavor and, just like no two Burgundy wines are the same, there is variety even within one type of honey." Brard instructs us to first look at the honey's color, which can range from almost clear to deep amber. Second take in the aroma. Does the honey have a floral bouquet, fruit fragrance, or spice scent? Blueberry honey has a lemony aroma; dandelion and tupelo honey smell of summer flowers; clover honey has hints of spicy cinnamon and sourwood honey has a sweet anise aroma. Next, and best, take a tiny taste. Roll the honey in your mouth, letting it softly melt first on the front of your tongue, which has mainly sweet taste buds then toward the sides and back to reach the sour, salty, and bitter taste receptors.
Brard who selects and oversees a formidable list of 100 champagnes and over 750 wines, and recently served a bottle of vintage wine costing $12,000 to special guests at the MGM Grand's Joel Robuchon Resataurant, is an expert at flavor nuances. He lent his gifted nose and palate to conduct a tasting of two American, "Clover honey's nose (wine experts refer to a wine's aroma as "nose") is light, flowery, buttery, with hints of cream and vanilla, while the wild flower honey's nose is heavy, muscular, peppery, leathery, with tones of wood, moisture, and mushroom."
Sara Moulton, host of the new Public Television series Sara's Weeknight Meals and bestselling author of Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals (Broadway Books), loves honey, "What's so great about it is not only its luscious sweetness, but also its thick viscous quality. That's what makes it such an absolute perfect accompaniment to a cheese plate. The silky smooth texture of honey balanced the graininess of hard cheeses and counters the slight chalkiness of some goat cheeses." Besides enjoying honey with cheese, Moulton, who grew up enjoying afternoon tea with a spoonful of honey, adds, "Another of my favorite ways to taste honey is drizzled over thick tart Greek yogurt. Honey is also beautiful with fruit, or in place of maple syrup, slathered on scones or warm biscuits, or drizzled on waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, or, of course, as the sweet component in a homemade batch of granola."
Moulton, who is also Gourmet Magazine's executive chef and the food editor of ABC's Good Morning America, uses honey when preparing spicy foods, "Honey's sweetness tames and balances the heat of recipes heavy on cayenne, chilies, or black pepper. Honey always has a place in spicy recipes, because besides countering the dish's heat, it adds body and depth of flavor. Honey, with its wonderful thick texture and sweet ability to balance heat, is an ideal ingredient in barbeque sauce."
There are many tantalizing ways to cook with and use honey. "Honey is a terrific replacement for granulated sugar in baking," advises Moulton, "Begin by substituting honey for half of the sugar called for in a recipe. With experimentation you will discover ways to substitute honey for all the sugar in a recipe. When you substitute honey in a recipe remember that honey is very moist, so reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey used. Honey is thick so you'll need a little extra dash of baking soda, about 1/2 teaspoon extra for each cup of honey. Honey can also speed up cooking, so reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to avoid over-browning."
Sara Moulton's Nectarine and Plum Upside-down Cake
Courtesy of Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals (Broadway Books)
This is a variation of the basic yellow cake that makes lovely use of honey's sweetness. You can use all nectarines, all plums, or throw peaches into the mix.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 small nectarines, cut into 1/3-inch slices
2 small plums, cut into 1/3-inch slices
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup milk
Vanilla ice cream as an accompaniment
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Combine 2 tablespoons of the softened butter, 3 tablespoons honey, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a small bowl. Lightly spray the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square cake pan with vegetable oil; spread the honey mixture on the bottom of the pan (don't worry if it isn't completely even). Arrange the nectarine and plum slices in alternating rows over the honey mixture.
2. Combine the granulated sugar, 1/3 cup honey, and the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Process until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and 1 tablespoon vanilla and process until combined. Add the flour mixed with the cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg; pour the milk over all. Pulse two or three times, just until the mixture comes together. The batter doesn't have to be smooth.
3. Spoon the batter evenly over the fruit in the pan and bake until the center springs back when gently pressed, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack in the pan for 5 minutes, then loosen the edges and invert onto a serving plate. Cut into squares and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
National Honey Board Honey-Curry Vegetable Dip
Courtesy of The National Honey Board (www.Honey.com)
Makes 1 cup
1 cup low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Assorted fresh vegetables such as celery, carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli
Combine mayonnaise, honey, curry and vinegar; mix well. Refrigerate about 1 hour to allow flavors to blend.
Serve with vegetables.