Honey is as old as written history, dating back to 2100 B.C. where it was mentioned in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings, the Hittite code, and the sacred writings of India and Egypt. It is presumably even older than that. It is not entirely clear but about 4000 BC, the Egyptians started keeping bees in a cylinder of unbaked hardened mud pots, stacking them in rows to form a bank. Some beekeepers in Egypt moved their hives on rafts down the Nile, following the blossoms. The Greeks modified the Egyptian design by baking the mud into a sturdier terra cotta. (1450 BC). Another design using hollow logs hung from trees and is still used in Africa today. Others include woven cylinders, woven skeps and rectangular boxes made from wood. The theme is all the same, a long low cavity with a small entrance hole at one end and a door at the other. One of the earliest evidence of honey harvesting is on a rock painting dating back 8000 years, this one found in Valencia, Spain shows a honey seeker robbing a wild bee colony. The bees were subdued with smoke and the tree or rocks opened resulting in destruction of the colony.
Honey is an organic, natural sugar with no additives that is easy on the stomach, adapts to all cooking processes, and has an indefinite shelf-life. Its name comes from the English hunig, and it was the first and most widespread sweetener used by man. Legend has it that Cupid dipped his love arrows in honey before aiming at unsuspecting lovers.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, Israel was often referred to as “the land of milk and honey”. Mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey was called “nectar of the gods” . The Romans used honey to heal their wounds after battles. Hannibal, a great warrior, gave his army honey and vinegar as they crossed the Alps on elephants to battle Rome. Honey was valued highly and often used as a form of currency, tribute, or offering. In the 11th. century A.D., German peasants paid their feudal lords in honey and beeswax.
Although experts argue whether the honey bee is native to the Americas, conquering Spaniards in 1600 A.D. found native Mexicans and Central Americans had already developed beekeeping methods to produce honey. Honey has been used not only in food and beverages, but also to make cement, furniture polishes and varnishes, and for medicinal purposes.
It was in Europe where apiculture made its greatest advances in development and bee biology. Even further advancements were made in 1851, when Rev. Langstroth from Philadelphia designed the Langstroth movable bee frame. The ability of the honey bee to survive has been remarkable. It has been able to adapt to the harsh environments of the world living in regions where man lives, from the equator to beyond the Arctic Circle. Most of the domestic honey bees have descended from a small number of queens from their original countries – that is Europe and Africa – and in these regions the honey bee has survived through natural selection processes. If honey bees were to disappear from the planet, man would have just 4 years until serious food shortages would result. The pollination services that bees provide are numerous. Think about the fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes we eat. Most of these are pollinated by the bee.
• Honeybees must tap over two million flowers to make one pound of honey, flying a distance equal to more than three times around the world.
• The average worker bee will make only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime.
• The famous Scottish liqueur, Drambuie, is made with honey.
Italian Bee – Apis Mellifera var. Ligustica Spinola
Originally from the Apennine Peninsula in Italy, the true Italian breed is the Ligustica. There are 3 yellow bands on the abdomen of the Ligustica and 4 or 5 bands on the Italian. These bees are usually gentle to manage, winter well and build up their numbers quickly in spring. Their proficient breeding ability during periods of little or no honey flow often results in depletion of their honey stores and, as a result, they have a tendency toward swarming.
Today, in Italian cuisine, honey is mostly used in sweets, from pastries to torrone, and in traditional sweets like panforte and fritters. Honey is a favored ingredient in southern Italian cuisine due to the strong influence of the Arabs in this area, whose palates have a preference for sweet and sour combinations. A spoonful of honey can sweeten a glass of tea, turn a plain piece of bread into a treat, glaze barbecued spareribs, or serve as the basis for a salad dressing.
Types of Italian Honey
Orange Blossom Honey of Sicily
Orange blossom honey crystallizes a few months after having been gathered and is very light, almost white in color. The intense fragrance is reminiscent of orange blossoms, while the flavor is a fusion of aromas recalling both the flower and the fruit. Excellent in sweets or mixed with yogurt, it is just as good spread on bread or used to sweeten tea.
Chestnut Honey from Calabria
Chestnut honey is rich in fructose and crystallizes only after a long time. Dark in color, ranging from brown to black, it has a strong, intense smell, woody and slightly tannic (due to the tannin in the tree). Grains of chestnut pollen, can be found in the honey. The flavor is not very sweet and, with an almost bitter aftertaste, highly appreciated by those who are not fond of sweets. It is a perfect honey for delicious contrasts, splendid with aged cheeses or hearty meat dishes.
Acacia Honey from the Prealps (the foothills of the Italian Alps)
Acacia honey, one of the clearest in color, remains liquid regardless of the temperature or its freshness (it very rarely crystallizes). The fragrance is light, the flavor delicate and very sweet, with a hint of vanilla. A honey universally liked, it is particularly suitable for use as sweetener since it does not change the taste of the substances it is added to.
Eucalyptus Honey from Sardinia
Eucalyptus honey has a color that ranges from light amber to beige with grayish tones. Its fragrance is intense, distinctive and recognizable, and the flavor recalls the taste of caramel, but is more refined. This is a special honey, excellent as a table honey for those who like its taste.
Millefiori Honey from Tuscany
Millefiori honey from Tuscany has as many subtle tones of taste. Each millefiori honey has a special taste, fragrance, and color. A lover of this honey can become a true connoisseur of it, and learn to recognize the variations it takes on from one season to another, because a millefiori honey is a summary of all of the different components of a landscape. The more varied is its nature, encompassing a range of plants and flowers, the more complex and rich will be its overall aroma.
There are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the United States, each originating from a different plant source. I am listing some of the more common ones in this post due to space limitations. As a general rule, the flavor of lighter colored honeys is milder and the flavor of darker colored honeys is stronger.
Alfalfa honey, produced extensively throughout Canada and the United States from the purple blossoms, is light in color with a pleasingly mild flavor and aroma.
Avocado honey is gathered from California avocado blossoms. Avocado honey is dark in color, with a rich, buttery taste.
Taken from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush, the nectar makes a honey which is typically light amber in color and with a full, well-rounded flavor. Blueberry honey is produced in New England and in Michigan.
Buckwheat honey is dark and full-bodied. It is produced in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as well as in eastern Canada. Buckwheat honey has been found to contain more antioxidant compounds than some lighter honeys.
Clover honey has a pleasing, mild taste. Clovers contribute more to honey production in the United States than any other group of plants. Red clover, Alsike clover and the white and yellow sweet clovers are most important for honey production. Depending on the location and type of source of clover, clover honey varies in color from water white to light amber to amber.
Eucalyptus honey comes from over 500 distinct species and many hybrids. As may be expected with a diverse group of plants, eucalyptus honey varies greatly in color and flavor but tends to be a stronger flavored honey with a slight medicinal scent. It is produced in California.
Fireweed honey is light in color and comes from a perennial herb from the Northern and Pacific states and Canada. Fireweed grows in the open woods, reaching a height of three to five feet and spikes pinkish flowers.
Orange blossom honey, often a combination of citrus sources, is usually light in color and mild in flavor with a fresh scent and light citrus taste. Orange blossom honey is produced in Florida, Southern California and parts of Texas.
Sage honey, primarily produced in California, is light in color, heavy bodied and has a mld flavor. It is extremely slow to granulate, making it a favorite among honey packers for blending with other honeys to slow down granulation.
Tupelo honey is a premium honey produced in northwest Florida. It is heavy bodied and is usually light golden amber with a greenish cast and has a mild, distinctive taste. Because of the high fructose content in Tupelo honey, it granulates very slowly.
Wildflower honey is often used to describe honey from miscellaneous and undefined flower sources.
Read Kathy Siler’s (a Michigan beekeeper) description of the process of harvesting honey and reaping its benefits: http://blog.mlive.com/freshfood/2012/12/the_bees_are_in_their_huddles.html
Recipes Using Honey
Honey Pizza Dough or Focaccia Bread
- 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast ( or 1 package)
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 cup warm water, 105 to 115 degrees
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup white whole wheat flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Sauce and toppings of choice
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and honey in ¼ cup warm water (100-110 degrees).
In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour and the salt.
Add the oil, the yeast mixture, and the remaining 3/4 cup water, mix on low speed until dough comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes.
If the dough is still sticky, then simply add a bit more flour until it pulls cleanly away from the bowl.
Switch to the dough hook and knead for 2 or 3 minutes.The dough should be smooth and firm.
Place in lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
Let rise for about 30-45 minutes. (When ready, the dough will stretch as it is lightly pulled).
Take dough out of bowl and divide into either 1 or 2 balls, depending on whether you want 1 large pizza or 2 small.
Work each ball by pulling down the sides and tucking under the bottom of the ball. Repeat 4 or 5 times.
Cover the dough with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rest 15 to 20 minutes.
At this point, the dough can be used or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
To make pizzas, stretch the dough out onto a greased pizza pan, top with sauce and toppings, and bake at 450 degrees F. for 20 minutes, until done. (Smaller pizzas will take less time).
For Focaccia Bread
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Sea salt — 2 teaspoons
- Fresh rosemary — 1 tablespoon
- chopped garlic to taste, optional
Preheat oven to 450°F. Oil a medium-sized baking dish and place the dough in the pan. Use your hands to push the dough out to the sides of the pan so that it fully and evenly covers the bottom. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Use your fingers to press dimpled indentations all over the dough. Brush the dough all over with 1/4 cup of olive oil. Sprinkle with the sea salt, the rosemary and garlic if using.
Set the baking pan in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 400° F and bake for another 15-20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes. Cut into squares and serve immediately.
Italian Honey Salad Dressing
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped (about one small bunch)
- 10 big leaves fresh basil
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar, good quality
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, good quality
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoons honey
Combine all dressing ingredients in a food processor and process to blend completely.
Italian Honey Orange Chicken
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 chickens, 3 lbs each, cut up (or 6 lbs chicken pieces)
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger, or 3/4 tsp ground ginger, or to taste
- Fresh orange wedges for garnish (optional)
Grease a large roasting pan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper
Whisk together hot water, orange juice, honey and ginger in a bowl.
Place the chicken in the greased roasting pan and cover the chicken evenly with the honey orange liquid.
Cover the pan with foil and let it roast in the oven for 45 minutes, basting occasionally.
Uncover the dish after 45 minutes and increase oven temperature to 425 degrees F. Let the chicken continue to roast for 10-20 minutes longer, basting every few minutes, until the skin is brown.
Serve on a platter garnished with fresh orange wedges, if desired.
Mascarpone Tart with Honey, Oranges, and Pistachios
Makes 8 servings
- Whole Wheat Pie Crust, recipe below
- 2 large navel oranges
- 1- 8 to 8.8-ounce container chilled mascarpone cheese*
- 1/2 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 cup honey, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Grease a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom.
Make pie crust according to baked crust instructions below. Bake according to instructions.
Cool completely on rack.
Meanwhile, grate enough orange peel to measure 1 1/4 teaspoons. Cut off remaining peel and pith from oranges. Slice oranges into thin rounds, then cut rounds crosswise in half. Place orange slices on paper towels to drain slightly.
Combine mascarpone, cream, sugar, 3 tablespoons honey, cardamom, and orange peel in medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat just until blended and peaks form (do not overbeat or mixture will curdle). Spread filling evenly in cooled crust. Arrange orange slices on top tart in concentric circles; sprinkle with pistachios. Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon honey and serve.
*Italian cream cheese; available at many supermarkets and Italian markets.
Whole Wheat Pie Crust
- ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- ½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 5 tablespoon trans-free vegetable shortening
In a mixing bowl, combine the white and whole wheat flours, honey and the salt. Add the shortening and with a pastry blender cut the shortening into the flour. You can also quickly use your fingers to break up the shortening and form a coarse dough. Sprinkle with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork until a moist dough forms. You’ll use 5 to 6 tablespoons water.
For a filled crust: Roll the dough into an 1/8-inch-thick round on a floured piece of wax paper or a pastry cloth. Roll the dough onto a rolling pin and then unroll it onto the pie pan. Crimp the edge with the tines of a fork. Freeze for 10 minutes before baking.
For a baked crust: Prepare the dough as for a filled crust. Prick the sides and bottom with a fork and bake in a 450ºF. oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned.
- Fall Bee Honey Harvest (giantveggiegardener.com)
- Honey for the Holidays: Honey’s hidden benefits (fldpi.wordpress.com)
- Honey bees’ genetic code unlocked (bbc.co.uk)
- Honey Bee (danroberson.wordpress.com)
- Honey Bees (magnifique100.wordpress.com)
- Our European Dark Honey Bee Breeding Programme (pythonessandbee.wordpress.com)
Kathleen Ann Siler
January 4, 2013 at 9:11 am
I was reading along this morning enjoying this wonderful history of honey! What a delightful surprise to find a link to my own little blog post about harvesting Michigan honey. Thanks so much, Jovina for sharing it with your readers! The recipes in this article look wonderful, as always, and the Mascarpone tart is calling my name!
January 4, 2013 at 11:25 am
Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Your blog got me thinking about how honey is used in Italian and American cooking, so I developed the post from your inspiration. Let me know if you like the tart.
January 6, 2013 at 4:26 am
Very interesting post and the recipes sound delicious!
January 6, 2013 at 12:18 pm
Thank you for commenting and I hope you try one of the recipes.
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