Honey: Nature's Sweetener

Honey is probably the most ancient and purest form of sugar ever produced by nature. It's certainly the reason why so many poets, writers, folk singers and crooners have used this "taste of honey" image to qualify either love or the true "sweetness of life"... But rest assured: I'm not going down this romantic path today and will remain on the safe and well traveled road of its history and the cooking possibilities for paddlers with a sweet tooth; although many savory recipes also call for honey...

According to the US Department of Agriculture, honey comes in 7 different hues, depending on the season and the type of flowers bees have been pollenizing: water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber and dark amber. The content of minerals that come from the flowers provides honey its color. It is sold in 5 different forms: comb, cut comb, liquid honey, naturally crystallized or whipped. Most kids love to eat a few honey combs as a candy-like treat from time to time...

300 different varieties 

The most common honey found on the market is clover honey and even if there are 300 different varieties of honey produced in the USA alone, from sources as diverse as eucalyptus, orange, buckwheat, apple blossom or blueberry, many are not very popular. There are constantly new varieties on the market and some have a promising future: lavender, thyme or mint honey have become part of an interesting diversification by apiculturists. In Canada alone, there are 7500 of full-time and hobby beekeepers. But times have been rough in recent years, since a mysterious disease has decimated 35 % of the bee population in North America, and it can be much more in other parts of the world. Researchers don't know yet for sure what is involved; they suspect mites, pollution and climate change to be at least factors in what's known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Bees are essential to humans 

Einstein once said that the day that bees disappear from the face of the Earth, humans will only survive a few more years. He may have been right, since many plants exist thanks to the amazing pollenizing work bees have been doing for millions years. At least a hundred crops depend on pollenization by bees, like citrus fruits, almonds, melons, apples or cucumbers. For instance, in California a tiny mite that feeds on bees’ blood destroyed an important part of the bees' population seriously endangering the State's almond crop (2/3 of the world production). Growers had to rush in apiculturists from Florida in order to have their crops pollenized by bees in time. In the United States alone, bees stimulate 15 billion dollars of the GNP (Gross National Product).

A simple pleasure 

But what is honey exactly? According to the National Honey Board of America, "A bottle of pure honey contains the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or secretions of living parts of plants." It also contains some enzymes, minerals, vitamins and antioxydants in the form of flavonoids. The darker the honey, the richer its content of those precious flavonoids (protection against heart disease and certain cancers, mainly).

80 million years of history 

Since bees are known to have been on the planet for 80 million years, no question that all human civilizations have had a passion for honey: Sumerians and Babylonians used it for their religious rituals and considered bees to be messengers of the Gods. They were sacred to many cultures. Egyptians considered honey sacred nectar and thought that it could add longevity to human life, whereas Ancient Greeks saw it as a magic potion to cure many ailments. The Roman legions used honey as a food preservative and they might have been right about those special properties. Apparently, honey has good antibacterial and antifungal qualities due to its low ph, its high viscosity that does not let oxygen in and its limited concentration of proteins.

Food for thought 

On the culinary front, honey has always been an important part of the Mediterranean diet: in dressings, yogurt served with fruits, as an alcoholic beverage called hydromel, to marinate lamb, as a sauce for flaky pastries called baklavas, or with dates and figs. Italians make a fine cake with cornmeal and honey and a delicious dessert with honey and toasted almonds, not to mention many candies, such as French Nougat de Montelimar, a delicacy made with honey, egg whites and pistachios. In North America, we have learned to bake with honey pound cakes or muffins, but we still have to fully embrace this delicious nectar.

Actually, honey and chicken really go hand in hand; honey is also fantastic to create excellent granola cereals, in hot chocolate as a replacement for white sugar, in shakes and smoothies too. I have an Israeli friend who prepares a delicious couscous salad with chick peas and a honey-lemon dressing. Honey is also quite good as a glaze for root vegetables cooked in the pan with a bit of olive oil or butter. Many Asian recipes make fantastic stir fry sauces by blending soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, fresh ginger, honey, garlic and hot sauce. It is to die for in any fruit salad and in salsa too. And it also has an extremely long shelf life... At least 2 years and probably more!

Recipes for the hungry paddler

Easy Honey Cheese fondue (4 portions - as a meal)

  • 2 packages of commercial cheese fondue
  • 1/2 cup liquid honey
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 6-8 thick slices (1 day old) cubed multigrain bread
  • 1 apple, in wedges
  • 12 baby carrots
  • 12 fresh mushrooms in wedges (or broccoli florets)

In a saucepan, combine cheese fondue with honey, cook over low heat until cheese is melted and honey is nicely blended. Add cracked pepper. Arrange all other ingredients in a nice serving plate and let people help themselves and dip their bites in melted cheese-honey fondue.

Quick honey-chai tea (4 cups)

  • 2 bags black tea
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
  • 2 cups unsweetened soy milk
  • 1/2 cup buckwheat honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add tea, cinnamon stick, ginger, clove. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 10-15 minutes. Remove and discard spices and tea bags from liquid. Add soy milk, honey and vanilla extract and heat again. Do not boil. Serve piping hot with honey-cheese pecan biscuits.

Honey-cheese-pecan biscuits

  • 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 pinch of cayenne powder (optional)
  • 8 tbsp butter, cold, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup old cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/4 cup clover honey
  • 1/4 cup 2% plain yogurt
  • 1 large egg + 1 egg yolk
  • 1 egg white

Preheat oven to 375° F.
In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. In another large bowl, whisk together yogurt, egg and egg yolk, honey. Cut butter into flour until it has coarse crumbs texture. Stir in cheese and chopped pecans. Add the yogurt-egg mixture to the flour and butter, stirring as little as possible. Put the preparation on a lightly floured surface and shape into a circle that is about 1,5 inch thick. Cut into triangles. Place on a greased cookie sheet and brush with egg white. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

This will keep for up to a week in an airtight container. But I bet it won't last more than 1 day!!!

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