A few years ago, when I started to do some research about honey, I came to realize that there was a lot to learn about this product. At the simplest level, honey is the sweet liquid produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. It is a little bit like saying that wine is fermented grape juice: it does not account for the variety of flavors, colors and in the case of honey textures.
Nineteenth century revisited. Up until the early 1900s in France, just about every farmhouse held a few beehives; most farmers, shepherds, poachers and gamekeepers also kept honeybees out of necessity: before electricity, wax candles were used for light wax happens to be the component of beehive cells and honey was used to sweeten food until beet and cane sugar became prevalent. Beekeeping was a decentralized activity, and a traveler passing through the French regions would be able to taste the striking differences between the local honeys. Beekeeping is now an industry but also an art and a science since so many factors influence the quality of the final product: the design of the beehive, the soil where the plants grow, sun exposure, altitude... Some apiarists make extensive use of "control" beehives that they spread over a targeted area to sample the honey and select the best spots for production.
Honey is divided in two categories:
Miels de Pays (or regional honeys) come from beehives that have been set up in a specific region where the bees gather nectar and pollen from all types of flowers and trees that grow in the area. The aspect and flavor of these regional honeys are affected by plant varieties, weather conditions and season. Among the best known: Miel de Provence (lavender dominant), Miel des Vosges (fir tree and raspberry dominant), Miel de Sologne (heather and oak dominant), Miel du Languedoc (thyme and rosemary dominant).
Miels monofloraux (or monofloral honeys) are made from nectars of a single floral essence. Apiarists practice migratory beekeeping: Gabriel Perroneau's company, for instance, is based in Dijon but the bees are sent "on vacation" all over France. A beehive is set up in a field of lavender for a while; after the lavender honey is harvested from the cells, the same beehive might be set up among raspberry plants. What prevents the bees from flying around and gathering nectar from other plants (after all, they are not kept on a leash)? It seems that bees are very industrious and their focus on productivity leads them to choose the plants that are close by. Honey naturally crystallizes with time but honeys from flowers will do so faster than those from trees. Miel d'Acacia (acacia) is a favorite of cooks because it remains liquid for a long time and has a light aroma. Miel de Lavande (lavender) is very sought after because of its distinctive flavor. Miel de Romarin (rosemary) is a classic that was enjoyed by Greeks and Romans. Miel de Sapin (fir tree) is syrupy, dark in color with a faint scent of resin. Miel de Châtaignier (chestnut) seduces many because of its bittersweet characteristics. Miel de Framboisier (raspberry) is white and has a very subtle flavor. Miel d'Eucalyptus (eucalyptus) is a true original: because of its slightly pharmaceutical after-taste, it is best used to flavor a winter grog...
Using honey in the kitchen. More often than not, honey is used as a sweetener in tea or as a spread on a "tartine". However, honey is full of vitamins and a kitchen staple all over the world: without it, no Greek baklava and no crispy skin on Chinese duck! It marries very well with garlic, mustard, beer, vinegar, lemon and many spices such as cayenne pepper, curry, cinnamon, four-spice and saffron. Here are some tips and recipes to inspire you.
*Honey is sweeter than sugar: if you want to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe, reduce quantities by half (1 oz of honey is equivalent to 2 oz of sugar).
*Pie dough and cake batter containing honey retain good elasticity. They do not "break", are easier to work with and to unmold.
*As indicated earlier, honey has a tendency to crystallize (type, temperature and age are factors). This change of texture does not affect the quality of the product: honey does not "go bad". For easier use, place your jar of crystallized honey in a double bath up to 100ºF and warm it up slowly.
*Keep different types of honey around the kitchen: an assertive honey will impact additional flavor to your pastries. With meat or fish, stick to a lightly flavored honey (such as acacia) so it does not compete with the seasonings of your dish.
*A marinade for fish. Melt 4 tsp honey with 2 Tbsp water and 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar. Add 1 cup white wine. Salt and pepper to taste. Place 4 fish fillets in an oven-proof dish, pour marinade over fish, cover with foil and keep in the refrigerator for 2 hours. Poach the fish fillets, covered, in a 325ºF oven. Serve fish with sauce; if desired, add a little bit of cream or some beurre manié (butter and flour mixed together) to thicken the sauce.
*A crust for pork. Brush a pork roast with a mixture of honey, Dijon mustard and garlic powder. Cook in the oven at medium temperature; cover with foil if crust browns too fast.
*Moist chicken. When roasting a chicken, add a tablespoon of honey to the cooking juices and baste the bird. It will develop a richer taste and stay moister.
*Crispy duck. Prepare a mixture of honey and dry Xeres; brush over a roasting duck during the last 30 minutes of cooking time for a crispy skin.
*With vegetables, too! Honey also complements vegetables very well, particularly peas, carrots, leeks, cabbage, dried beans and onions.
*Salad dressing. Mix 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp lemon juice and 2/3 cup plain yogurt. This dressing is excellent with tomatoes, cucumber, celery root of shredded carrots.
*Dessert anyone? To make a Tarte au Miel, combine 2 Tbsp liquid honey, 1/3 cup sugar and 1 cup crème fraîche. Add 7 oz sliced almonds and mix carefully. Pour into your favorite pie shell and bake 35 minutes in a 400ºF oven until almonds are golden. Of course, honey is widely used in pastry making, especially around the Mediterranean basin. And who can forget pain d'épices, the famous honey bread that is so associated with Dijon, Reims and Pythiviers?
Our recipes with honey:
Chicken with Honey-Poulet au Miel
Turkey Breast with Honey-Médaillons de Dinde au Miel
Glazed Carrots with Coriander-Carottes glacées à la Coriande
Gratin of Apples and Lavender Honey-Gratin de Pommes au Miel de Lavande
Honey and Saffron ice Cream-Glace au Miel et au Saffran
Honey Ice Cream with Berries-Glace au Miel de Sapin aux Fruits des Bois
Honey and Raisin Sauce-Sauce au Miel et aux Raisins