From the nectar of bees comes the original sweetener. Ranging from light to dark, there are hundreds of varieties of honey. In Italy, honey has been preserved since Roman times, when it was cooked into cake, made into wine and even used to pay taxes.
by Cameron Kane
A little honey history
As one of the oldest natural sweeteners, few cultures have developed without honey. Cave paintings in Spain and Africa depict prehistoric honey hunters using ladders to reach hives. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs reserved honey for the upper echelon, and jars of it often accompanied them to their tombs. Not only did the early Greeks know it as ambrosia, nectar of the gods, enjoying a cheesecake steeped in honey, they also used it as an anti-septic to treat wounds. Its history is as old as any ingredient and its storied past is pan-cultural because, after all, where there are bees there is honey.
How bees make honey
The production of honey is a complicated team effort performed by a hive of bees. Honey is a hive’s main source of food and is crucial to its survival. The young worker bees produce wax honeycombs where the honey will be stored, while the older generation travels up to several miles to gather nectar. Back at the hive, the carbohydrate-rich nectar is broken down into simple sugars, fructose and glucose, by the bees’ digestive enzymes, then deposited into the comb. As the water from the nectar evaporates, the honey that will sweeten our recipes begins to form.
Different blossoms produce widely varied colors and flavors
Few Italian households are without a jar of millefiori, or thousand-flower honey, and it finds its way into nearly everything—it’s the sweet base for the nougat candy torrone, and it plays counterpoint in sea bass with pickled shallots. The diverse regions of Italy also produce a wide array of distinctive mono-floral honeys. Made from a single flower type, these complex honeys taste richly of their source, from the bright citrus of orange blossoms to the medicinal tint of eucalyptus.
Acacia honey, a favorite in the Italian kitchen, comes from the pollen of the acacia tree that flourishes in Veneto and Tuscany. Its delicate, flowery texture pairs well with rich, gamey meats like duck, and its fluid texture makes it an excellent glaze for succulent pork loin. The dark, slightly bitter taste of Piedmont’s chestnut honey is delicious drizzled on cheese or baked into a moist cake. There are at least 300 varieties of honey to experiment with, but there’s one you shouldn’t miss: miele amaro, or bitter honey, an ancient Sardinian treat. Popular throughout Italy, it comes from the winter blossom of the strawberry tree. Elusively sweet with a bitter aftertaste, it is often paired with cheeses and works perfectly with the natural sweetness of onions.
Where to find good quality honey
Look for Italian or mono-floral honeys at farmers markets, specialty stores and online retailers. Mass-produced supermarket honey is pasteurized with high heat, which makes for a clear, smooth honey but destroys the flavor. Instead, seek out raw or filtered honey. Raw honey, as the name indicates, has gone straight from comb to kitchen. Filtered honey, meanwhile, has some of the wax bits and pollen removed, yet like raw honey it is full-flavored and retains the beneficial enzymes, vitamins and amino acids destroyed by pasteurization.
Storing and serving
Honey can be stored at room temperature, but raw honey has a tendency to crystallize, which can be remedied by heating it gently in a pan of water. With such a variety of honey available, take a cue from the Italians and pair different types with sweet and savory foods as you would with olive oil or cheese.
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