Honey-bunch (you know I love you).
Honey is made by bees after gathering nectar from flowers. It’s a beautiful image and a lovely example of the generosity of Mother Nature (or the greed of man, depending on your world view). It’s also a great example of how food can be regional. Much like winemakers talk of the “terroir’ (soil, climate, topography) influencing the characteristics of wine, the characteristics of honey are influenced by the flowers within gathering distance of the hive. Honey ain’t honey, and aficionados will tell you there are as just as many tasting notes in honey as there in wine. But even the least honey-curious will know there are mild honeys and strong honeys, despite many common brands producing a consistent middle-of-the-road flavour profile through blending.
Honey, as they say, is “so hot right now” due to the trend of growing your own food. From the mega-trend of growing veggies and herbs in your backyard or balcony is emerging the DIY apiculture (bee-keeping) movement. There are now services such as Sydney’s Urban Beehive that will install a hive at your place and help keep your buzzing friends healthy, happy and producing your own honey “à la maison”. And there is this book for beginners on the subject. Unfortunately, small scale beekeeping is also encouraged to help save our honey bees, which are under threat from all sides: primarily from colony collapse disorder, but there are other problems as well such as varroa mite and in Australia the risk of Asian bees breeching our borders. Suffice to say we’re all in trouble if the bees disappear because of their pivotal role in pollinating food crops.
From a health perspective, overall honey is no better than table sugar (sucrose) and nutritionally they are very similar. Regular sugar has a glycemic index (GI) or around 65, while the GI of honey can vary quite a bit depending on the proportion of fructose (higher fructose levels means lower GI) and the presence of phytochemicals (including flavonoids) from the flower nectar that appear to slow down absorption and lower the GI. Generally, darker coloured, stronger flavoured honey contains more phytochemicals. Most common blended honeys can have the same or higher GI than cane sugar (sucrose), but some pure wildflower honeys (where bees collect nectar from only one type of flower) have a lower GI, probably due to higher fructose content. For example, Australian eucalyptus honeys such as red gum, yellow box or ironbark have low GI.
The clever thing about honey is that besides tasting wonderful it has all kinds of medicinal uses. It’s great for soothing sore throats (traditionally mixed with lemon juice), more effective than over-the-counter medicines for children’s coughs, and special “active” honeys such as Manuka from New Zealand are used to treat wounds, stomach ulcers, gastroenteritis and fungal infections.
In terms of culinary uses, the options are many and varied, but sometimes the simple things are the best. Fresh wholegrain toast with honey is a reliable classic, as is porridge with a golden drizzle. Personally, I think peanut butter is wonderful with honey on toast. Chinese honey soy chicken is a lovely dalliance between sweet and savoury and exemplifies how honey goes so nicely with meats of all kinds: honey glazed ham is but one famous example (although strangely I can’t come at honey served on bacon as they do in Canada). Naturally honey is gorgeous in baked goods and delicious in hot or cold drinks such as smoothies, cordials, teas and coffee. All this delight from an insect: how wonderful.