The New Buzz: Single-Floral Honeys - Part 1
Honey. It’s nature’s golden miracle—and a culinary trend that’s been in style for thousands of years. Its hype might have gone dormant during last century’s mass production frenzy, but this once-worshipped food is back with a vengeance. But this time, it’s the single varietals that have chefs’ aprons all blown up.
The flower is to the honey as the grape is to wine. “The quality of honey, like wine, is influenced by a variety of important factors, but non more so than the blossom from which the honey is made,” explains Whendi Grad, who, with her husband, Garnett Puett (a fourth-generation beekeeper), own Hawaii’s Big Island Bees. “Each honey has a different floral source, is from a certain vintage, and pairs with some foods better than others.” All the more rare, only certain locations around the world have the ability to produce honeys derived from bees fed off of a sole flower type, according to Eliza Ward at Chefshop.com, an online gourmet food source. Its mission is to hunt down small local artisans who might not otherwise have access to mainstream distribution. At Big Island Bees, the bees forage on brilliant red ‘Ohi’a Lehua, ambrosial Wilelaiki, or Macadamia Nut blossoms. “Nectar from each flower varietal carries straight through to the flavor of the honey,” says Grad. So, no, this isn’t the same as the vat of stuff you
have sitting in the back walk-in. Think of it this way, a jug of Gallo isn’t the same as a vintage bottle of Stag’s Leap Cabernet; honey is no different. One might taste as soft and supple as a Sardinian breeze blowing off the Mediterranean, while another, such as one made from Tasmanian leatherwood blossom, is so strongly aromatic that it practically knocks you off your feet. Beyond taste, their colors and textures vary, too—from pale gold, rich amber, and near black to creamy white, glossy clear, or highly viscous.
The Writing’s on the Wall
Go stare at the 60-foot-long, 6-foot-tall wall of honey at Charles Phan’s new outpost in San Francisco’s Westfield Centre, and you’ll see the stunningly distinct qualities between various honeys. At Out the Door (the sidekick to his famous Slanted Door), a mass of glass cubicles brimming with a Technicolor array of 80 different local honeys hangs luminously over diners. The radiant tones range from opaque white, fine sherry, and translucent tea, to some dark as stout, a few crystallizing, and all
constantly changing over time. Designer Olle Lundberg dreamt up with this unusual structure in order to “add a warm glow that would detract diners from the mall atmosphere.” Phan had heard about ancient honey which had been discovered in an Egyptian tomb perfectly preserved, and thought it to be well suited to serve as restaurant décor. “Honey is timeless food,” he marvels. The delicious substance keeps amazingly well, if kept airtight and free from moisture. Crystals may form over time (a good sign, meaning it’s been less processed). Just warm it up and its fluidity comes right back.
Dishing It Up
“I use a lot of Lehua Blossom honey because of its flat floral scent,” says Neil Murphy, Executive Chef at Hawaii’s Merriman’s Restaurant, who has been using Big Island Bees’ honeys for 12 years. “When combining the two senses of smell and taste, it heightens the experience of the dish.” He infuses the honey itself with flavors such as chili’s, garlic, ginger, or basil. “In the same vehicle, they add natural sweetness to food, along with the newly-infused flavor.”
Daniel Ahern, who cooked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Jean-George’s Vong, moved west to become executive chef of Seattle’s Impromptu Bistro & Wine Bar. “The subtle flavors and textures of single-floral honeys make a difference in my dishes,” says Ahern. He uses it in his Indian-inspired yogurt sundae with rosewater and pistachios, as well as savory duck liver custard. Grad uses her honeys to give salad dressings and marinades a sweet depth that is more three-dimensional than regular sugar. “I also blend the honey together with butter as a sweet spread for biscuits,” she adds. Puett incorporates it with his yeast when making pizza dough. For their chai ice cream, the beekeeping couple went with Wileliaki because “it’s from the flower of a Brazilian pepper tree and the honey’s slight spiciness highlights the chai’s spices.”
A Sticky Situation
Shauna James Ahern, author of Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back, develops gluten-free recipes for a population that’s increasingly allergic to wheat. After discovering her allergy, “I had to investigate every bite of food I ate,” she says. “It made me much more aware of the atrocities committed to processed food. I was surprised to learn that Big Island Bees is the only large U.S. honey company that does not administer antibiotics to their bees.” This practice is an unavoidable reality for giant producers in order to prevent mite infestations. Moreover, some feed their bees sugar solutions—instead of allowing them to forage on real flowers—during winter months to keep production pumping year round. And even when the bees are in the fields, the commercial crops they pollinate are often sprayed with pesticides. “Many large producers also highly filter and heat the honey to extend the shelf life,” remarks Grad. “This kills the natural enzymes and pollens, and strips the antioxidants and unique flavors. These aren’t real honeys. At this point, they’re just sweeteners.”
Just because a honey is from single varietal doesn’t necessarily mean that it escapes these practices. However, many come from small artisans in warm, pristine locales, like Sardinia and Corsica, where the flower season is longer than in colder climates. Like other natural foods, seasonality also applies to honey—when flowers are in bloom, the honey is on. “I love autumn honey,” says James. “There’s a sun-warmed, intensified sweetness about it, like the taste of pale sunlight in early fall.” Grad adds that because of the island’s isolation, the Big Island hasn’t had to deal with mites, which means no antibiotics. In fact, many of these “backyard honeys” have been part of family operations that have passed down old-world knowledge for centuries. They’ve perfected the art of coaxing the most bountiful and beautiful honey from bees before mass production techniques ever existed.
The Bottom Line
Like most things in life, higher quality does come with a heftier price tag. Chefshop.com sells an 8.75-ounce jar of to-die-for Corsican chestnut honey at $10.99 a pop—enough to make a kickin’ salad dressing lasting maybe one busy night. But here’s food for thought: some people are actually willing to pay for it. Even mainstream producers are realizing this. For instance, Haagan-Dazs launched a new Reserve line last year featuring a Hawaiian Lehua Blossom & Sweet Cream flavor at $5 for a small pint, a whole dollar more than the already-hefty $4. “People are being more adventurous with food lately,” says brand manager, Josh Gellert. “We wanted to give foodie consumers more culinary-forward flavors, things they haven’t tasted before, like origin-specific honeys. The response has been enormous so far. People don’t seem to mind paying a higher premium for cutting-edge flavors.”
But let’s be honest. Like wine, if you’re going to use the good stuff, better show off its special flavors as much as possible. Today’s diners are a double-edged sword; they can sniff like bloodhounds and taste like food critics, but they also appreciate innovative and interesting creations. The word “varietal” won’t scare them; in fact, it may intrigue them. Egyptian royalty loved honey enough to want to be buried with it—after one taste of single florals, they might feel the same way. (Read on To Taste the Difference)
Written By: Susan Kim
Susan is the former West Coast Editor of Coastal Living, covering food, travel, and home design stories around the country.
Her other published articles include those in The New York Times, TIME, San Francisco Chronicle, California Home and Design, Sunset Magazine, CNN.com, Where Magazine (San Francisco), California State Visitor’s Guide, AOL Travel Guide, AcuraStyle, and Living 101.
She makes live television appearances on major networks to discuss lifestyle topics, and has also developed and tested recipes for Select Magazine, Culinary Trends Magazine, and the Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook. Health Magazine and The Chicago Tribune recently covered the story of her career switch, from attorney to writer.