Food of the Week - Honey
sponsored by Coleman Farms
In a world so rich in sugar that sweet foods have come to be seen as a health hazard*, it takes some effort to imagine a world in which Honey was the only concentrated sweetener; yet until about three hundred years ago, when the cane sugar industry was established in the Americas, this was true for most of the world. Indeed, the Americas would not have had even honey, as we know it, since native American bees are not the social, hive-bound creatures that European honeybees are.
Honey has a long history in Europe, though, with known archaeological evidence of the collection of wild honey dating back around ten millenia, and bee keeping was well-established by the advent of the Roman Empire. Honey was valued not only as a very special foodstuff, but also had medical uses. It was used as an adjunct in the oral administration of distasteful medicines, commonly enough so that the practice was used in a metaphor by Lucretius (and was doubtless a commonplace in his time), as it is by Mary Poppins, if memory serves. There are more technical medical uses, too. Honey has a very low osmotic pressure, or 'water activity', low enough that it will prevent most microbes from growing or multiplying. In addition, it contains the necessary chemical bits to rearrange some of this water into hydrogen peroxide, in appropriate circumstances. One such circumstance is when it comes into contact with a wound,
where it slowly releases hydrogen peroxide, providing a long-term disinfectant effect. These same properties make it useful as a preservative, the extreme case being as an embalming medium, though this takes a lot of honey, and a correspondingly important corpse.
However attractive the notion of smearing Honey on an abrasion, we usually think of it as a foodstuff, and, still, as something special, special enough to generally be reserved for uses where its own flavor remains prominent: on bread or rolls, in a custard, in a mild-flavored tea, or just off a spoon. This isolation is well repaid by good varietal honeys. Honey is like wine, in that its source - the main variety of nectar-laden flower, or the blend, and its 'terroir' are strongly reflected in the final product, in the case of honey, affecting both flavor and texture. Sampling such honeys is one of the better justifications of white bread - unsalted if you can get it, something like a milk roll or good bagel. The blandness of the bread doesn't interfere with the flavor of the honey, but keeps the sweetness from cloying. A bit of good unsalted butter or some cheese won't hurt.
Not all honeys are really worthy of this kind of treatment, though. 'Clover' honey, for example, might be considered 'varietal', but often it's intensely sweet but without much complexity of flavor, the product of bees having worked over square miles of alfalfa. 'Orange' honey, perhaps surprisingly, can be much the same. This kind of honey can be found in larger packages, often in cans, relatively cheap. It still has its uses, being a nice substitute for jam in sandwiches, for example, and particularly in baking, where something about the sugars in honey can contribute a distinctive texture, an oxymoronic crisp crumbliness especially useful in cakes and cookies. It can be used more liberally in a dish like baklava, where its sticky moistness cooperates with the pastry and the flavor enhances the nuts. You might also use it to make some mead.
There's a lot of discussion about the relative nutritional qualities of various sweeteners, and you'll often here brown sugar and 'juice' put in a separate and nutritionally superior category from (white) sugar. But the sweetness in 'juice' is simply fructose, and generic 'juice' (the kind in those environment-unfriendly 'boxes') and brown sugar have next to no nutritive value compared to honey, which has useful amounts of iron and some other minerals as well as a host of 'micronutrients', in suitably micro quantities.
Although not a fruit or vegetable, honey is in a sense a vegetable product. If you get comb honey, it's pretty much unprocessed by humans, but it's still a processed crop, one processed by bees. Roughly speaking, honey is concentrated flower nectar: the bees gather the nectar and 'process' it to remove much of the water it contains, making it self-preserving and more compact, and thus easier to store. So the bees have harvested the flowers and processed it, and humans come along and 'harvest' the honey comb. It's as if some animal, milk snakes or possums maybe, had milked cows, condensed the milk and put it in nice little containers for their own use, but we came along and collected it, labelled it, and put it on the shelf. It can get stranger than this: apart from nectar, honeybees sometimes collect 'honeydew', the product of aphids or other similar insects, and make honey of it, as they would from nectar.
In this case, the bees are collecting the result of the aphid's processing of raw plant matter, and further processing it, so that it's been twice processed by the time we get it.
Honeybees are prodigious pollinators, and their services are essential for obtaining high yields in large scale farming of many crops, particularly of fruit, nuts and alfalfa. For several millenia the European honeybee has enjoyed a sort of symbiosis with humans, providing them with honey in return for a nice place to live, maintenance and medical care included. As large scale monocropping has developed in Western farming, the honey bee, originally kept only as a source of honey, has become more important as a pollinator, so that today providing bees for pollination has become an international business of which honey is something of a byproduct. This business has recently come under threat from Colony Collapse Disorder, sort of the BSE or Avian Flu of the honeybee world.
Apart from the effects on the honeybee, loss of large scale pollination services could have severe effects on the human food supply. Indigenous insect pollinators are solitary and don't seem to be much used commercially. An imported solitary bee, the Alfalfa Leafcutter, is used commercially with great success on some crops. Perhaps similar techniques could be developed to use solitary pollinators on other crops.
*These two references discuss one aspect of this with obviously different biases and prejudices