Glancing back a few years in my journal, I come upon a notation of sadness, marking the day I used the last drop of honey from a pint mason jar labeled simply, “Jim Moore – 2001”. Jim is a friend of mine who lives in Chittenden, Vermont, where he keeps a half dozen hives of bees. In the spring of 2001, one colony of his workers apparently stumbled upon a grove of lilacs in generous bloom, and filled their combs with some of the most tantalizingly aromatic honey I have ever touched with my tongue; an amalgam of nectareous flavors marking it as a true accident of birth. One could relish the unmistakable perfume of lilacs even before tasting it.
On my own pantry shelf sits a small jar containing a sample of the last batch of alpine wildflower honey I took from my own hives in 1983, the year of my last effort as a hobby apiarist. It is crystallized and has darkened in color, but is still as good as the day I harvested it, 27 years ago, testifying to the long shelf-life of a commodity blessed with its own compliment of natural antibiotics.
I thought of all of this a few days ago as I met with Richard Patten, of Rockaway Beach, Oregon, a retiree who builds unique birdhouses, and . . . is a keeper of bees. He introduced me to a honey which he gathers from a stand of poplar trees (probably the tulip poplar I am guessing; a tree which exudes a honeydew for a few weeks in the fall), and which is dark, rich and woodsy in flavor, unlike any other honey I know. (The only thing similar to it in my memory was a sample of honey from a wild rose tree which grows in a remote area of Cuba’s San Cristobal River valley.)
I also brought back from Oregon a pint of Blackberry Blossom honey, for which that state’s apiaries are rightly famous. It ranks near the top of the list of favorites among honey connoisseurs and especially with devoted tea-drinkers.
If I had to pick one honey as a personal favorite – the one I would wish to own if limited to only one choice – it would be Tupelo Blossom honey from the deep South. Harvested from hives on elevated platforms in the swamp country near the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers in northwest Florida, it is light amber in color, and flowery in flavor. Because it is high in levulose and lower in dextrose, it will not granulate, and is more diabetic-friendly than other honeys.
When it comes to “gourmet” honeys, I like Kiawe honey from Hawaii’s Big Island, hand-harvested from a single grove of trees by one family, during a very brief window of time (it will crystallize in the hive if the timing is not just right). Kiawe honey is silky smooth, white and naturally creamy. It is rare and expensive. Somewhat similar is White Himalayan, a multi-floral honey, hand-harvested in the Gangotri region of India. Extremely rare and very expensive, I am cherishing the end-of-the-jar remnants of my only sample still on the shelf.
A number of unusual and exciting honeys come from New Zealand, among which I like Tawari, a creamy “butterscotch-like” product from flowering tree blossoms found on the east coast of the North Island, and Manuka blossom honey which lays claim to active antioxidant constituents which set it apart from all other natural sweeteners as an aid to good health.
My “everyday” “must have on hand” honeys are Orange Blossom (number one by far!), Desert wildflower, and of course the abundant and ever-present Red Clover honey. And pancakes would not be the same without a drizzle or two of Buckwheat blossom honey.
The lowly honeybee is nature’s work horse, providing pollination for more than 120 food crops on which we depend, with the average worker visiting between 50 and 100 blossoms on each collection flight. To make one pound of honey, they must tap two million flowers, flying 55,000 miles in the process. The bad news is that honeybees are on the decline. In the U.S., we have only 40% of the colonies we had in 1947.
The highest quality raw honey is harvested without being heated and is best stored at room temperature. Depending on the source of the nectar, color, taste and fragrance can vary like that of fine wines.
Caption for Photo above:
No human activity or ingenuity could replace the work of honeybees, their numbers now under assault by unidentified viruses around the world.