What is Honey?

FR: Miel GER: Honig IT: Miele SP: Miel

Honey is the most ancient sweetening substance, and it is only in the last two hundred years that refined sugar has become sufficiently cheap to come into general use. Methods of getting honey vary from the highly organized commercial operations of today to the gathering of wild honey in the forests of the Sunderbans or by the pigmies in the Congo. In primitive societies, bees are often kept in hollowed-out tree trunks, and in some places, such as the forests of northern Persia, the hives must be hung high in trees out of the reach of bears.

What is Honey? Photo Gallery

An average honey would contain thirty-eight per cent fruit sugar, thirty-one per cent glucose, and seven per cent malt sugar as well as others. But percentages vary, and the higher the glucose the more easily it will granulate. However, honey almost always granulates with age – sugar crystals form -and the process can be accelerated by stirring. On the other hand, granulated honey, if kept for half an hour at a temperature just too hot to touch, will become runny and will not easily granulate again. So one can produce commercially the sort of honey the market prefers. Cane sugar, by the way, is not found in honey because although it is in the nectar of flowers, enzymes in the bees’ saliva change it to glucose and fruit sugar.

Honey also contains gummy and fragrant ethereal substances, as well as organic acids and usually pollen grains, and there is enormous variation depending on the flowers it came from. The colour can be anything from white or cream to brown, red, purple, black or even sea-green. Even when fresh, it can be thick or very thin, as is often the case with wild or tropical honeys. But it is the flavour with which we are mainly concerned here, since this varies enormously. There are between two and three hundred sorts of honey in the United States alone. The most common honey comes from fields of clover and its relatives; from white clover and sweet clover, lucerne, alsike and so on. Clover honeys are mild and are the best for all-round cooking purposes; but there are specially flavoured honeys from orange blossom, grapefruit, sage, eucalyptus, raspberry, fireweed. Rosemary honey comes from Mediterranean hillsides, resinous honeys from pine forests, perfumed flower honeys from Grasse and the Italian Riviera, or from Alpine flowers. One can also get buckwheat, acacia, gooseberry, sycamore and, I have read, exotic green honey in red combs from Africa and black honey from Brazil. If you ever use such delicacies in cooking they should not be heated, as this drives off the aromatics.

Honey from some flowers, such as oleander, is poisonous and some narcotic. Heather honey, from the Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is different from other honeys as it is gelatinous, the best full of air bubbles. It does not flow when the comb is cut. Honeys from other heathers are red and fragrant, but flow normally.

When honeys are heated in cooking, not only is the delicate aroma driven off, but the sugars caramelize. In dishes containing honey which are not cooked, the selection of the honey is critical, and there is plenty of scope for individual enterprise.

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