Star thistle, buckwheat and blueberry are all honey varietals, individual honeys from particular plants. But how do you choose one? And what makes these different from the honey in the bear on supermarket shelves? The honey's origins, says Marina Marchese, co-author of The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey, With a Guide to More Than 30 Varietals.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is the difference between what is in the honey bear and the jars in the supermarket and the honeys that say they are from a specific flower or have the name of a beekeeper on them?
Marina Marchese: You're talking about single-origin nectar, which is honey that is harvested from a single floral source. You're familiar with clover and orange blossom honey, or possibly blueberry blossom honey.
When we talk about commercial honey, we don't always know what's in there. We don't always know exactly the process that the honey has gone through from the beehive to the bottle. We're finding out that some of this honey might not be 100 percent pure liquid gold.
LRK: What would it be then?
MM: There have been incidents of blending and filtering. They found different kinds of sugars added occasionally -- high-fructose corn syrup.
LRK: Is this related at all to the loss of bees that we have been hearing about?
MM: I think indirectly it is. The demand for honey is so high in this country. What we produce is very little compared to the demand. Some of the producers on a larger scale are actually importing honey and doing different things to extend the product to meet the demand.
LRK: If I add a little bit of sugar syrup, high-fructose corn syrup or glucose to the honey, is that a terrible thing?
MM: You shouldn't really be labeling it as honey. It should be maybe honey blend.
If you're going to be heating it or pasteurizing it, you're going to compromise some of the delicate flavors. The color can be changed by heating. The enzymes and the healthy benefits of honey can be compromised.
Honey is a very fragile product. It's raw. When it comes out of the beehive it has amazing healing properties, and it has an amazing flavor that you will lose by processing.
LRK: What is on the label that we need to know about?
MM: You really want to look for the name of the beekeeper or you want to know the apiary or the region from which it was harvested. There's not a lot of regulation in labeling. Today when we look at honey, a lot of the times on the label we are seeing it is distributed by a larger company.
We're also seeing that sometimes -- if there's honesty -- they're telling us where the commercial honey is from, different countries like China, Mexico, Canada. They're taking this honey from all different places and they're blending it together so that you have this product that is always a medium amber, it's fairly transparent and the flavor profile is consistent every time you get that little plastic bear or jar of honey.
But honey is an agricultural product, it should never be the same. Every harvest will be different depending on the floral source, the seasonality of it and the location or the terroir.
LRK: You do honey tastings. How do we taste honey?
MM: We like to start out by observing the color of the honey. Like I said, the commercially-made honeys sometimes are transparent. Most honey has pollen in it it so you're going to get a honey that is pretty cloudy. It should never really be totally transparent, although there are a few honeys that are. But generally honey should have some pollen in it and it should look a little bit cloudy.
The same way you would taste wine, chocolate or cheeses, you smell it. Take a big whiff. You'll get some aromas of beeswax. Sometimes you'll get some pollen. You'll get definitely the different flavors of the honey depending upon the plant source.
Then when you taste honey, we like to put it on our tongue, let it melt and get to body temperature. Just really pay attention and concentrate on the flavors that you're getting. Honey isn't just sweet, it has layers of flavor. It's amazing when you taste different honeys side by side, you can really taste the difference between different floral sources.