People get awfully buzzed up about honey. Cool people put it in herbal teas, because it is so natural. It might also just be nice enough to make them palatable, but it is doubtful. A few million years before Tate & Lyle came on the scene, bees brought sweetness to the table as honey — as much a gift today as it was 14,000 years ago, when the earliest painters recorded their industry on cave walls in Spain and Africa. In ages past, when people craved sugar as an antidote to the prevalence of salt, the very word honey became synonymous with generosity, abundance and honesty.
This seems a little extreme today, but Biblical writers could not trumpet its cause too loudly. Moses famously promises the Israelites ‘... a land flowing with milk and honey’, while, of Immanuel, Isaiah says: ‘Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.’ In Samuel, Jonathan ‘... dipped (the rod) in an honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes were enlightened.’ Funny, that doesn’t seem to happen when you crack open a pot of Tesco’s best. Honey certainly seized the ancients’ imagination and featured symbolically in various touching ceremonies from birth through marriage to death. Honey and beeswax, for example, were used in Egyptian embalming. Honey’s sweetness inevitably has sexual undertones. Falstaff’s much-fancied pub landlady is ‘a most sweet wench... As the honey of Hybla’ while, to this day, those just married go on a honeymoon.
Salt was always precious for its preservative properties, but honey was adored principally for its taste, though it too played a preservative role for keeping fruit, a precursor to jam. Throughout recorded history, honey has played an important part in cooking, where it featured in savoury dishes as well as puddings until - with the advent of first sugar cane and later sugar refined from beet - towards the end of the sixteenth century sweetness became identified for the first time with the end of a meal. Honey has not, however, been excluded from contemporary savoury dishes — think of honey glazes for hams and duck.
Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations equated sweetness with privilege, as did European culture in the Middle Ages. From earliest times, honey was also an important element in alcoholic drinks like metheglin or mead and was mixed with wine - oenomelites or hydromel - while honey beers are still brewed in Belgium and Germany. Vikings drank honey-fermented mjöd to make them berserk and, having met a triumphant death in battle, they then lounged about drinking it in Valhalla for eternity.
From earliest times man marvelled at the industry of bees, their remarkably organized social structure, the precision of the wax comb and the miracle of transforming the minute quantities of nectar from flowers into honey, for it takes 10,000 individual bee visits to flowers to produce a single drop of honey. After such extraordinary diligence, the principal constituents of honey are fructose, glucose and water — prosaic disaccharides that belie the complex flavours of the end product. The past 20 years have seen a growing popularity for royal jelly and pollen, with extravagant claims made for their medical benefits and longevity-inducing properties. Sadly, these claims do not stand up to scientific investigation, but have been a good way of boosting the income of beekeepers and health-food shops.
Anyway, honey is not about healthy eating but taste, and this always depends on the flowers from which the nectar has been taken. By moving hives, bee-keepers are able to produce the honey of a single flower, allowing a particular fragrance to come through in the taste. This is not achieved by sending the bees to training school, where they learn to be selective. Instead, the keeper fools the bees by transporting the hives to allow them to buzz about in an area during the time a particular blossom holds sway; a practice that carries inevitable costs and accordingly makes single-blossom honeys more expensive. To our palate, these single-source honeys - like lavender, rosemary, thyme, lime, acacia and heather — are overly perfumed, making them ill-suited to most cooking, though they work well enough in ice-cream. The EC regulates honey production and polices claims of organic provenance. Since a bee ranges over an area of several miles, proximity to inorganic fertilization of flowering plants and trees or industrial pollution has to be take into account when labelling pots and jars.
The flavour of honey goes particularly well with nuts and with spices like ginger and cinnamon. It also has an affinity with lemon. In these combinations it is to be found throughout the Mediterranean. Baklava, the ubiquitous filo, honey and nut pastries of the Eastern Mediterranean, are perhaps the best-known in this category, though honey’s distinctive flavour also makes halvah and nougat. Honey can also play a fermenting role, acting rather like a yeast to lift and lighten. French pain d’épices au miel is an ancient example; as is English gingerbread, whose sticky texture came originally from honey and later molasses, making it a perennial childhood favourite. Chaucer referred to ‘royal spicerie and gyngebreed’ and it was one of the sweet treats made into fanciful shapes for children, often gilded to make it look even more special.
Honey today is sold in a clear liquid state, in thick pregranulated form and in pieces of boxed honeycomb. Individual preference is the only key determinant though for obvious reasons clear honey is the form most suitable for cooking. For many of us it is still most delightful for breakfast or tea, on good toasted bread with a little unsalted butter.