Honey

Honey

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

While the possession of a sweet tooth is far from being solely a twenty-first century phenomenon, it has never before been as easy to satisfy. These days, confectionery is no longer confined to lolly-shops. In fact, it seems that wherever we go we are faced with sweet temptations – at petrol stations and video stores, supermarket checkouts and newsagents. It is easy to forget that these simple pleasures which we take so much for granted have only been readily available since the commercial cultivation of sugar cane and sugar beet during the last few hundred years.

The secret of extracting and concentrating the juice from sugar cane was known in India as early as 3000 BC, but didn’t reach Europe until the Arabs took it to Spain in the eighth century. However, it was not until Spanish colonists took sugar cane to the West Indies in the fifteenth century that the sugar-refining industry really began in earnest.

Before refined sugar, people’s taste for sweetness was satisfied by the concentrated natural sugars found in ripe and sun-dried fruits, and most of all by honey. Honey was one of the very first sweeteners known to our ancestors – prehistoric cave paintings in Spain depict a stone-age man carefully stealing honey from a nest of bees. By 2500 BC, the Egyptians had learned to avoid some of the danger involved in collecting honey from wild bees by taming them with smoke and forcing them to build their honeycombs in tall, cylindrical hives.

To ancient civilisations honey was a kind of miracle, a food given to us by the gods, rich in energy and delicious to taste. It was used for sweetening and flavouring foods, for making primitive fruit preserves and for coating all kinds of flowers, nuts and fruit to make sweetmeats. It must also be said that another of honey’s key attractions was its propensity to ferment quickly when mixed with water – especially in hot climates – turning it into mead, one of the very first intoxicating drinks.

In the West, honey is no longer a key ingredient in most kitchens, as it is unable to compete with cheap white sugars in either cost or availability. For most of us, honey is merely a delicious spread to be enjoyed with lashings of butter on good hot toast. In the Middle East, however, honey is still an important basic ingredient in cooking and confectionery making. A spoonful of honey is often added to syrups for pouring over nut-stuffed pastries. Then there are all sorts of honey biscuits and puffs, like the Greek loukoumathes, honey pies and even honey-cheese cakes. Honey works well in nutty-earthy sweets, like nougat or halvah, and marries perfectly with several sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger and cloves. All around the Mediterranean gingerbreads and spice cakes are still made with honey. Honey’s affinity with lemon is also well known, not just in throat-soothing winter drinks, but in syrups and marinades for roasts and grills. Honey even adds a warming, sweet base note to all kinds of savoury tagines and meat casseroles.

Selecting and storing honey

One of the very best things about a weekend in the country is the opportunity it provides for visiting country markets. There always seems to be at least one stall boasting endless varieties of local honeys, and we find it almost impossible to go home without buying at least one jar. As a result we have a cupboard full of different honeys ranging from a mild-flavoured cheap supermarket variety, to several different intensely fragrant single-flower honeys.

Every honey is different. The flavour, strength and smell of each one is determined by the flowers visited by the bees, as their fragrance is retained in the honey. The cheap commercial brands always taste pretty much the same because they are blended from lots of different honeys. As a result they are consistent, reliable and a little dull, lacking the complexity and subtlety of the finest single-flower honeys. Honeys from small producers tend to be costlier. Like the finest boutique olive oils or wines, the flavour of these honeys is also dependent on the local climate, terrain, fauna and flora that the bees visit.

In Australia we are lucky enough to enjoy some of the best floral honeys in the world from a wide range of native plants. Some of the best include the distinctive and world-renowned Tasmanian leatherwood honey, as well as milder flavoured honeys from red gum, blue gum or yellow box. Some are strongly floral, like orange blossom and apple flower, or more aromatic, like lavender and clover. Some have strong herbal qualities, like rosemary, fennel and thyme.

Honey should not be kept in the fridge, and should always be stored in a cool cupboard, well away from light. All honeys start off fairly runny and clear, though some are darker and stronger smelling. Over time, and more quickly if exposed to light, they slowly crystallise, becoming thicker and cloudier, until they eventually set solid. (Don’t confuse them with creamed honeys, though, which are whipped to a creamy opaque consistency). This is an inevitable process which affects neither the flavour or quality of the honey and is easy to reverse by submerging the entire jar in a pan of very hot water. Leave it for half an hour or so, until the honey becomes runny again.

Using honey

Everyone knows that honey is delicious on hot, buttered crumpets or drizzled over a bowl of thick, creamy yoghurt with the lightest dusting of cinnamon. If you want to use it in cooked dishes though, use it with discretion – honey is not simply interchangeable with sugar, and some very strongly flavoured honeys are not suited for cooking at all. Furthermore, heat destroys the more complex and distinctive flavours of the most interesting single-flower honeys, so in many cooked dishes it is better to use a milder flavoured supermarket brand.

Recipes in this Chapter

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