My husband, the beekeeper, likes to point out that not only is honey an ancient Slow Food, it is also the original luxury product. We have rather a lot of it in our kitchen: a quick assay of the cupboard yielded 26 different raw honeys. That’s a lot of luxury: From the uncomplicated liquid gold of Italian acacia to an intimidatingly molasses-like Brazilian from wild rainforest bees; a briefly abrasive nose suspiciously like burnt tires belies its warm, soft, rich flavor, a perfect counterpoint to coffee. There’s an entirelunfiltered Cretan honey, set rock hard and tawny in its jar, an astonishingly spicy, black, almost chilli-hot Bajan, gathered from fierce Africanised bees, and a Lebanese honey which sweetly begs to be married with flaky pastry.
And then there’s the English honeys, often undervalued in the face of more showy foreign competition. But there’s little to beat the quiet dignity of our native flavours, lime, borage, hawthorn, chestnut, elderflower …and if you want spicy, try the brassica tingle of rape honey or, for a thwack of caramel toffee and botanicals, Yorkshire heather.
The collection started when Dale installed the first hives on our Bermondsey Street rooftop, overlooking Tower Bridge and The Shard. Suddenly I was a beekeeper’s wife and equally suddenly visitors to our super-scenic apiary began bringing sticky jars of artisanal honeys they’d tracked down on their travels or bought over farm gates. From California to darkest Dorset, they all poured in.
Clearly, consuming this much honey on toast or in porridge was never going to work. Some of them weren’t even especially nice on toast. I had to start finding other ways to use them all. A resourceful cook, but with a definite tendency to get bored with recipes half way through and finish the dish on a wing and a prayer, I started experimenting with cooking with honey. I even bought a book. It was called, rather promisingly, ‘Cooking with Honey. ’
But the book disappointed, seeming to miss a vital difference between using honey as a commodity, an alternative to sweetening with sugar, and using it as a grown up ingredient, to add the actual taste of honey. You have to be respectful of that taste, because unlike, say, maple syrup, the essence of which will endure through many cooking processes, honey has a tendency to lose its delicate characteristics when cooked.
So, as with other ingredients (think olive oil) which can be either staples or luxurious additions, it’s all about matching the right one to the dish. Having hit on this thought, it will take you a long way to differentiating between good ‘cooking honey’ and sublime ‘finishing honey’ and having both in your store cupboard.
Starting from cooking basics, here’s a humble illustration. Our allotment produces an annual Damson glut, much of which we eat simply poached. In later autumn, we’ll stew Bramley apples with warming spices such as nutmeg and cloves. Once I would have cooked both fruits with a generous tablespoonful of any good quality honey, no trace of which was evident in the final taste although it did give a certain silkiness to the juice. Now, I cook the fruit unsweetened, let it cool slightly and then stir the honey through. Ta-da! Gently sweetened fruit, with the top notes of the honey all present and correct. So if I want delicate flower flavours for the plums, I might use borage or a multifloral. If I want depth and warmth for the apples, I’ll choose an altogether darker, richer honey with caramel undertones. The crazy Brazilian might not be a bad choice.
That same dark, rich honey might also have the notes I’m looking for to give substance to a glaze or a marinade packed with other robust flavours such as soy and garlic which partner honey so well. Mustard and honey are also great partners; used raw in a dressing or perhaps cooked together in a crust for chicken or fish. Honey and oriental fish sauce is another particular pleasure of mine and the addition of sesame oil will add yet another dimension, sending you diving for the star anise.
Back to puddings again, no cuisine uses honey to better effect than Middle Eastern food, where honey is drizzled freely or allowed to entirely permeate a delicately spiced cake or pastry, releasing a great burst of flavours onto the palate. I would look for a deep golden, runny, flower or tree honey to make the most of the encounter. Even better, I would go searching for that honey in a Middle Eastern, Turkish or Greek Supermarket, a culinary treat in its own right.
And finally, another sublime pairing to explore. Cheese and honey. Honey and cheese. The combinations are endless. A tart, tongue-drying goats cheese with dark brown chestnut honey in the Italian tradition or thyme honey in the Greek way. Fresh cream cheese, eaten as a pudding with a pale, delicate floral varietal. A cheesecake made with a robust English farm honey. A small spoonful of honey stirred into the sauce for a macaroni cheese….perfectly counterpointing a robust cheddar. On the sauce topic, honey also makes, I think, a better alternative to the touch of sugar which some recipes encourage adding to tomato-based sauces; it’s smoother, richer and noticeably more unctuous.
My honey exploration is still very much a work in progress. I’m probably only now discovering things which every Chef has known from the cradle, but the real point is that I am so much enjoying discovering them, slowly, for myself….experimenting with a wide range of honeys, diving into new tastes … and cooking some pretty good food along the way. What could be better?
Sarah Wyndham Lewis and her husband Dale Gibson run Bermondsey Street Bees. They work with leading chefs, setting up apiaries to supply their kitchens and sourcing artisan English honeys for restaurants. Their own award-winning honey is produced on their London rooftop.