Honey might be the most miraculous food, and also the most poetic. It’s certainly one of the oldest. Bees fossilized in Baltic amber date from fifty million years ago, when the first primates appeared in Africa and South America. These insects differ less from present-day honeybees than those first primates do from us humans. In fact, the earliest bees likely produced a sweet ambrosia very similar to the amazing stuff we call honey.
The journey from nectar to honey is a long, expert, intricate dance in three movements — between bee and flower, then between bee and nectar, and finally between bee and hive. As bees gather nectar, they pollinate the flowers, which is essential for the development of fruits and vegetables. Nectar is 75 percent water, with trace minerals; in the bee’s honey sac, as the bee flies back to the hive, this substance begins to interact with the insect’s enzymes to become a still-liquid mixture of invert sugars. Once back at the hive, the bee regurgitates this into a wax cell of the comb. Other worker bees in turn ingest and regurgitate it, fan it with their wings for twenty minutes to evaporate more of the water, then seal the new honey in the cell with wax secreted from their abdomens.
If all that isn’t impressive enough, consider this: The average worker bee only makes a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey over the course of its life. One pound of honey, the amount in the squeeze bottle on my counter, represents the nectar of two million flowers and a flown distance of 55,000 miles, the equivalent of more than three times around the world. This is orchestrated, sophisticated teamwork on a colossal scale.
Honey has easily as many taste varietals as wine or cheese. In the United States alone, there are over three hundred different strains. The Honey Connoisseur, a beautifully illustrated and lucid new guide to honey, gives detailed descriptions of thirty distinct varietals of American honey, including sourwood (“warm, vegetal, floral”), white kiawe (“warm, fruit, fresh”), and chestnut (“woody, warm, animal”). Cheese and honey is a perfect food match: In particular, the authors’ suggestion of chestnut honey with goat cheese, prosciutto, and figs made me drool internally.
But our once-robust honeybee population is being mysteriously decimated in some areas of the country. One theory that’s gaining traction attributes this to our ever more ubiquitous genetically modified crops, which could be toxic to honeybees. If this is true, it’s a potential calamity: The nectar gathering of bees provides crucial pollination for many, if not most, of the plants we grow for food. If the honeybees get wiped out, so too might we.
For early humans, stumbling on a beehive must have been like finding a treasure chest full of liquid gold. Cave paintings in Spain, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from as far back as 15,000 years ago show people being stung by bees as they plunge their hands into hives to steal honey. Egyptian documents from 5500 B.C. refer to the sweet amber stuff. And, of course, biblical Israel was “the land of milk and honey.” Mead, or honey wine, was “the nectar of the gods,” the earliest alcoholic drink, the mother of all booze. Honey was used as money throughout history. In 1300 B.C., 110 pots of honey could buy an ox or an ass. In the Middle Ages, European peasants had to pay their feudal lords in honey and beeswax, among other things.
In China, beekeeping goes back thousands of years, so far into the past that its origins are unknown. It was practiced in a rudimentary fashion by the Egyptians, who chopped down the hollowed trees the honeybees had built their hives in, carried them home, and smoked out the bees periodically to steal their honey. These purloined trunk hollows provided the model for later artificial hives, early versions of which were made of cork or wicker. Finally, in the eighteenth century, the moveable-comb hive was invented in Europe.
Columbus brought the European honeybee, of the family Apidae, to the Americas, where the creepy native bees, Meliponinae, also known as stingless bees, feasted on carrion as well as plants and produced a runny, sometimes toxic, very sweet, very dark honey the Mayans believed had aphrodisiac powers. Chateaubriand called the European honeybees in the New World “peaceful conquerors”; since their arrival, the Apidae have all but annihilated the natives.
The honey of Apidae is rich and thick and almost never toxic, except to human babies, whose immune systems haven’t developed enough to resist the botulism spores present in some strains. It never spoils or rots; it’s been found in ancient tombs, including that of King Tut, sealed in burial jars, unchanged for thousands of years. In olden times, before sugar became a nutritional villain, sweetness was equated with goodness and health. Because of that, as well as honey’s almost magical antibacterial properties, it has been used in medicines by almost every culture throughout human history. (As a cough suppressant and sore-throat soother, it’s unparalleled.)
Honey has also always been used in cooking by everyone, everywhere — as a luxury condiment, a sweetener, a primary ingredient. For Greek banquets, slaughtered animals were stuffed before roasting with hyma, an interesting-sounding paste of honey, chopped cheese, offal, vinegar, and onions. Canadian Mohawks baked small pumpkins in embers, the gourds’ cavities filled with honey, cider, and fat. In ancient Rome, honey sauce was eaten with fish. A second-century book by the Greco-Egyptian rhetorician Julius Pollox contains a recipe for fig leaves packed with a mixture of wheat flour, lard, eggs, and brains. These wrapped leaves were cooked first in kid broth and then in boiling honey. A fifteenth-century English recipe for Tartes de Chare, or pork pies, calls for minced pork combined with eggs, honey, currants, dates, raisins, pine nuts, and spices.
Honey’s primary place, though, is naturally in desserts. In the Middle East, baklava pastries ooze with sticky sweetness. Honey cakes go as far back as tenth-century China; in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Sir Topas was regaled with gingerbread, the English name for honey cake. Called pain d’epice au miel, French honey cake is addictive and fantastic, with a rich, chewy denseness. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews welcome a sweet New Year with honey cake and apples, or just apples dipped in honey, which, like cheese and honey, is another one of those unbeatable food duos.
Another is honey and pork, whether it’s Chinese honey-marinated pork chops, Southern baked ham with a honey glaze (with or without mustard), or pork shoulder with honey and rosemary.
Unfortunately, cooking honey destroys its complex, delicate flavors and many of its enzymes. So the best way to eat it is raw, in both senses: unpasteurized and unheated, at room temperature — with apples, nuts, figs, cheese, or even grilled pineapple.
On a cold winter night, there’s nothing better than a hot toddy made with bourbon, honey, and lemon juice. But my favorite use of honey has always been my grandmother’s. Every night, she laid out her breakfast tray and put steel-cut oats to soak in a pot. In the morning, early, she put her creamy, hot oatmeal in a bowl with turbinado sugar and a bit of cream on top, soft-boiled her egg and put it into an egg cup, spread her fine, whole-grain toast with good-quality butter, set her pot of English breakfast tea to steep, then hauled her tray back to bed with her.
Over the next hour or so, she enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, listening to NPR, playing solitaire. She sat with a shawl over her shoulders, leaning against a corduroy “husband” pillow. With her last cup of tea, she savored her second piece of buttered toast, which she always slathered with creamy raw honey, frothy and crystallized, out of a jar from a local beekeeper.
She nibbled that toast slowly, voluptuously, as if it were a rare delight, which, of course, it was.