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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Sweet on honey

• Honey million-dollar endeavor in Hawai'i
• A taste of honey on pecans and chicken

By Emily Green
Los Angeles Times

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser
Lots of foods are good. Only one is the product of nature aiming for irresistibility. Honey is food as seduction, nourishment and variety. There are, quite simply, almost as many types of honey as there are flowers.

Put bees on lavender, and the piercing perfume will permeate the honey. Meanwhile, avocado blossoms produce honey that's mysterious, musky and strong. Chestnut honey is almost savory, so much so that it's better served with paté and cheese than spooned into cream. Almond honey is just plain bitter, and farmers leave it to the bees.

Then there are the delicate surprises. California black sage, perhaps the most aromatic plant of the West, produces the subtlest honey imaginable. Meanwhile, honey melted off beeswax casings is so strong it could pass as molasses, and is perfect for beef marinades. One thing is clear: Honey is not so much a food as a school of foods. There is no one texture, color or taste.

But perhaps the most striking thing is how little humans have interfered with it. Although our animal breeders have changed the shape of cows, our agronomists have bred corn to the point where we can't be sure of its wild ancestry, and our food processors have turned cheese into something that can be sprayed from a can, the main change in honey is that, thanks to an 1850 invention of a retractable bee frame, we can extract it from hives without killing the bees.

If you bought a jar of standardized Sue Bee clover honey, put it in a time machine and beamed it back to a cave man, the only thing that would confound him would be the vacuum packing and screw top lid. The honey he would recognize.

It is one of the last truly wild foods that pass the lips of most Americans. Even the most common supermarket blends still have a distinct gamy tang, a complex register of flavors and a host of nutrients nowhere to be found in sugar.

Think about it, and of course honey would have to be more interesting, more resilient than almost any other food. Ever since plant life extended beyond swamps and conifers, our diet has depended on it. We owe our existence to flowering plants. They owe theirs to honey.

Plants that need bees to pollinate them developed nectar as bait. They not only came up with the most compelling concoction possible for bees to drink, the plants also devised signage to direct them to it. The colored stripes on the corollas of, say, a violet, might look like decoration to us, but the botanical term for them is "honey guide" and the setting the "honey pad."

The arrangement was so successful that lots of fruits and nuts began to grow, followed by warmblooded mammals like us. Today, apiarists at Cornell University estimate that one-third of the food we consume comes from crops pollinated by bees.

Exactly when we moved from eating plants pollinated by bees to raiding beehives for honey isn't clear. But somewhere along the line, we figured out that bees consume enough nectar and protein-rich pollen to keep airborne, but their main purpose is to ferry it back to their hives to store for intemperate months, and to feed their young.

At the hive, the nectar is whisked inside and fanned by bees with their wings until enough water evaporates so that it won't ferment or spoil. The bees then promptly seal the concentrated nectar, now honey, in protective wax combs. The finished product is imperishable. It might darken with age, or crystallize around a speck of dust or pollen, in which case a moment in the microwave will reliquefy it. But unless it's watered down, it won't spoil. The only safety concern is for infants, who should not be given honey until after they are a year old, when their immune systems are complete.

In her galloping read, "Food in History," Reay Tannahill suspects that humans began beekeeping in Central Asia. The universality of the Eurasian words for honey — Sanskrit "madhu," Chinese "myit," Slavic "medhu," English "mead," French "miel" — all say pastoral herders to her. From thence, it's a respectable guess that Turkish traders spread throughout the Middle East, where honey and fruit connoisseurship had been well established since antiquity.

Beginning in the 16th century, just as Europeans brought honey bees to America, trade in Caribbean sugar cane and a swelling slave trade introduced the world to another sweetener: sugar.

This set the scene for an uneasy relationship with honey and a defection of gourmands to sugar.

While refined sugar became the choice of the elite in Europe and the developing American colonies, wild honey was dismissed as folksy, at best to be spread across a slice of hot buttered toast. At its worst, it became the emblem of the health food movement. It had such image problems that the current editor of Gourmet magazine once wrote about how much she loathed it.

Science now confirms that honey is better nutritionally than sugar. Phyto nutrients, antioxidants, much of human evolution behind it ... one would have thought this obvious. The trick for cooks with palates trained on sugar and its one-dimensional sweetness is learning to handle the gamy complexity of the timeless food. For example, consider how well honey's spice sits in tea but how it's objectionable in coffee.

Even when honey is exactly what you want, there can be an unpredictable range of flavors within certain honey varietals. Expect them and taste for them. When Edon Waycott, a superb cook and for years the jam maker for Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, devised an orange-blossom baklava for us, we found orange-blossom honey could be intensely floral, a veritable grove in a jar, or so mild it almost was indistinguishable from clover honey.

This is because, under federal standards, you need only 51 percent. The milder honeys are blends; the more perfumed ones the more pure.

The tradition of blending honey isn't to deceive, explains University of California-Davis apiarist Eric Mussen. It's to create a consistent product. Unblended varietals vary dramatically from batch to batch. Supermarkets and many customers won't accept this.

To find pure varietal honey, replete with its ups and downs, one must look elsewhere. Go to www.honeylocator.com, and you'll be directed to sources for honey made from apple blossoms, Hawaiian Christmas berries, huckleberries, Tupelo and thyme.

Or better yet, visit a local farmers market where homegrown honey ranges in color from golden to mahogany, and flavors from lavender to lehua and the bottles are often recycled from store-bought products.

Whatever the color, flavor or packaging, honey itself hasn't changed much. You take bees to the blossoms, and they do the rest.

• • •

Honey million-dollar endeavor in Hawai'i

Hawai'i beekeepers harvest more than 950,000 pounds of honey from more than 7,000 hives — and those are just the larger commercial operations. No one knows how many back garden beekeepers there are.

Most Islanders don't realize that honey is a Hawai'i "crop," although it's a million-dollar-a-year business, according to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.

Unless you happen to notice a few wooden boxes set out in an orchard or dotting an empty field, the industry is all but invisible except for one widely known and well-marketed brand: Volcano Island Co., makers of Rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey. Owner Richard Spiegel said the honey is selling more briskly than ever this year and keeping up with orders is becoming a concern.

Spiegel said what's "rare" about his honey — which is exceptionally smooth, delicately flavored and creamy colored — is the circumstances that surround its creation.

The bees harvest the nectar from a small forest of kiawe trees near Puako on the Big Island. The grove is surrounded by desert but fed by a freshwater underground aquifer that causes the trees to grow extraordinarily tall, he said.

In 30 years in the business, Spiegel has learned to time the harvest so that the honey naturally crystallizes in the jar. "There is a very very small window: If you take the honey too soon, before it's ripened, it will ferment; if you take it too late, it crystallizes in the comb and the only way to get it out is to heat it. And if you heat kiawe honey, you ruin it," he said.

Most Island honey comes from the Big Island. However, another brand that is making itself known is Manoa Honey Co., blended honeys collected from hives in locations around O'ahu. And you can find handmade honeys at farmer's markets on all the islands.

George Hudes and his partner Charles Rappun care for hives on the Windward side and at the University of Hawai'i in Manoa (the bees are used by scientists in behavioral research; Hudes and Rappun get the honey in return for caring for the hives). They sell their honey for $8 a quart at Kokua Market and on Saturday mornings at Kaumakapili Church.

Hudes said several common Hawaiian plants — 'ohia lehua, coffee, kiawe — produce nectar that results in premium honeys. And Island bees have so far not been subject to some of the health problems that have plagued beekeepers elsewhere; nor are the aggressive African bees found here.

The industry here is subject to many challenges: land use issues, production and shipping costs (even in plastic jars, honey is heavy), weather quirks, uneven supply (flowers are seasonal, so the bees' activity in making the honey is seasonal, too).

Both Spiegel and Hudes caution that it's difficult to know what you're getting when you buy a specialty honey. There's little regulation or policing of labeling.

Terms to understand and ask about when buying honey:

  • "Raw" is generally taken to mean that the honey has not been heated; some say the honey should also be unfiltered, though most honeys are at least sieved to remove traces of wax or other impurities.
  • "Organic" means the honey-making operation must meet rigid standards: The bees must forage only on land where no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or sludge have been used and their "houses" and environment must be free of these things, too.
  • "Single source" honey is that produced from the nectar of a single type of flower. Ethical beekeepers use single-source labeling only when they are very sure of the aerial territory their bees occupy. Hudes and Rappun label their products "wildflower" honey because their bees roam among different flowers.

Hudes likens single-source labeling to that used in winemaking: A wine labeled cabernet sauvignon may have a small percentage of another varietal blended in but retains the characteristics of its primary ingredient. Ideally, a honey labeled lehua honey comes from bees who do their honey-making in an 'ohia lehua forest and have little opportunity to forage elsewhere.

Blended honeys are just that — mixtures of honey from different sources. Supermarket honey, and some specialty honeys, too, are blended to create a reliable flavor profile (single-source honeys can vary widely in flavor from hive to hive and year to year).

— Wanda A. Adams, Advertiser Food Editor

• • •

A taste of honey on pecans and chicken

You might think of honeyed nuts as dessert fare, but try these to top a salad of bitter greens and a tangy vinaigrette.

This recipe is from "Covered in Honey," by Mani Niall (Rodale, $19.95).

Honeyed Pecans

  • 1 egg white
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1 pound pecan pieces (about 4 cups)

Whisk the egg white in a large bowl until very foamy. Add the honey and continue whisking for 5 to 10 seconds. Add the cinnamon, ginger, cumin, salt, pepper, cayenne and pecans. Mix until the pecans are well coated, and spread the mixture evenly on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray.

Bake in a 300-degree oven until toasted, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven every 10 minutes and stir to ensure even baking. Cool and store in a covered container at room temperature for up to one week. Makes 4 cups of glazed nuts.

The Web site honey.com is a trove of honey recipes and techniques. Among them is this two-fer recipe. The first night, you make a tangy-sweet baked chicken, the next night, you shred the leftovers for a Thai-inspired salad.

Honey-glazed Lime Chicken Breast

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced jalapeno pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 6 chicken breast halves (about 3 pounds)

In a small bowl, mix all ingredients except chicken until well blended. Pour half of marinade over chicken; cover and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight. Reserve remaining marinade. Grill chicken over medium-hot coals, 4 inches from heat. Cook, turning and basting with reserved honey marinade, until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. (Reserve 2 chicken breasts for Thai-style salad, if desired.)

Thai-style Salad with Glazed Chicken

  • 1 medium head napa cabbage or romaine lettuce, shredded (about 6 cups)
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced (about 1¥ cups)
  • 2 medium carrots, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
  • 2 small oranges, peeled and segmented
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 honey-lime glazed chicken breasts (recipe above), bones removed and meat shredded
  • 3/4 cup dry roasted peanuts, chopped
  • Honey-lime dressing (below)

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except dressing and peanuts; toss until well blended. Toss with dressing. Sprinkle each salad with peanuts just before serving.

Honey-lime Dressing

  • 6 tablespoons honey
  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 3 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon minced jalapeno pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 3/4 teaspoon grated lime peel

In a small bowl, whisk together until well blended.

This updated baklava by Los Angeles pastry chef Edon Waycott uses panko for crispness and phyllo dough from the freezer case.

Edon Waycott's Baklava

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and clarified, plus 1 tablespoon unmelted butter
  • 3 cups finely ground walnuts, almonds or a combination of both
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 pound phyllo leaves, thawed overnight in refrigerator
  • 1 1/4cups panko crumbs
  • 1/4 cup water, divided
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 cup orange blossom honey

To clarify butter, melt slowly in a saucepan over low heat. Remove pan from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Then tilt pan to skim off foam; discard. Spoon butter into a small bowl, discarding the milky residue.

Butter the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with the tablespoon of unmelted butter. Mix the finely ground nuts and cinnamon in a bowl.

Do not open the package of filo until it is completely thawed and ready to use. When it is opened and the leaves unfolded, invert a 9-by-13-inch baking pan on the leaves to use as a guide. Cut around pan through stack with a sharp knife. Immediately cover with a damp cloth to prevent them from drying out. Use any trimmings, dry and crumbled, in place of some of the bread crumbs.

Carefully peel the first leaf from stack and place it on bottom of buttered pan. With a brush dipped in melted butter, splatter the leaf, then sprinkle with bread crumbs. Repeat with 7 more leaves. The next layers will contain nut mixture and no bread crumbs: Sprinkle the 8th leaf with butter and cover with one-third of nut mixture. Add three more buttered leaves and cover with another third of nuts. Build another nut layer by adding 3 more buttered leaves and remaining nuts. Repeat initial stack of 8 buttered leaves sprinkled with bread crumbs. The last leaf has no crumbs.

With buttered brush, push edges of all leaves down side of pan to make a neat, rounded trim.

Cut the pastry into diamonds by lightly marking the top leaf with parallel lines, 1 1/2 inches apart, lengthwise. Make a diagonal mark from one corner to the other, and lay out parallel lines 1 1/2 inches apart. Make deep cuts with a sharp knife all the way through the pastry, following the lines. Sprinkle the top leaf heavily with one-fourth cup of the water or mist with a spray bottle.

Bake the baklava in the center of a 350-degree oven until it rises slightly and has a rich golden color, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

While the baklava is baking, make a syrup by combining sugar, the remaining 1/2 cup water, and corn syrup in saucepan and bringing the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Allow to cool. The syrup should be warm, not hot, to pour over pastry when it comes from the oven.

When the baklava is done, remove it from the oven and pour the syrup slowly over it. Allow baklava to mature overnight so syrup permeates all leaves and flavor peaks. Baklava may be stored in a covered container at room temperature for four to five weeks. Wrapped securely in foil or plastic, baked or unbaked, baklava can be frozen.

Place frozen and unbaked baklava directly into a 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake for an additional hour, or until pastry is puffed and golden.

Makes 22 pieces. Per serving: 377 calories; 5 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 24 mg cholesterol; 23 mg sodium.

The recipes for honeyed nuts and baklava came from the Los Angeles Times. The chicken and salad recipes were adapted from honey.com by Advertiser staff.

— Advertiser Staff and News Services