Hero ingredient: honey

by Matt Bielby

15 August 2018

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Whether it’s giving a glorious glaze to pork or adding a buzz to your brekkie, heavenly honey keeps on giving. a nectar that’s sweeter than sugar yet heaving with health benefits, it can’t help but turn meals into masterpieces.

Thick and gooey, golden and fragrant, and sweet – above all, sweet – honey always seems indulgent. Perhaps because of that, it feels like it should be a health horror story of epic proportions. But wait! Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this stuff is somehow, amazingly, good for us too – a fact sweet-toothed humans have known for centuries, wrestling prehistoric bears for it back in the Stone Age and creating Spanish cave paintings to celebrate it 8,000 years ago.

Back then we’d eat the stuff, make it central to our medicine, and even use the leftover beeswax to waterproof our pots and bowls. As it resists microorganisms so effectively, sealed honey won’t spoil – not for thousands of years, anyway, and other foods immersed in it get preserved for centuries too.

The ancient Egyptians offered honey to the gods and used it both to embalm the dead and sweeten their biscuits; the Greeks and Romans knew it worked wonders on fevers and wounds; and its spiritual applications were legion in ancient India and China. The Bible and Qur’an are full of references to honey, while – in the Jewish tradition – honey is considered kosher even though it’s produced by flying insects, distinctly non-kosher creatures.

Why? Tradition, mainly – it’s been part of Jewish life since at least the 10th century BC – and because it’s so blooming delicious, of course.

But where does honey come from? Part of the joy of it is that it’s specifically designed to be food; a sweet, viscous gloop created by bees and their near relatives (including, yes, some wasps) using floral nectar, that sugary secretion of plants, and stored in wax structures called honeycombs. Each bee will make about half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, though the way they do this isn’t always pretty (regurgitation features heavily).

Almost all the honey we eat is created by the small, not particularly exciting-looking honey bee (or Apis mellifera) – the fatter, prettier bumblebee doesn’t bother making any, because they’re resigned to dying each winter, while honey bee colonies live on, and so require winter stores. Each hive will have a single female queen bee, plenty of male drones to fertilise her, and up to 40,000 female worker bees. And yes, that means every bee you see flying around is a girl.

The honey we eat is either collected from wild colonies, or from the hives of domesticated bees. Basically, we make them a nice home, with the deal being that we’ll steal loads of the food they make in return, leaving them just enough to live on. It didn’t always used to be this way, though, and before the invention of removable frames, bee colonies were often decimated each harvest, then replaced from scratch next spring. (Rude, quite frankly.)

Honey predates refined sugar, so for centuries was a vital sweetening agent. And even today, honey lovers treat it with the same reverence as Winnie the Pooh once did, claiming miraculous healing properties for the runny stuff ranging from keeping a lid on cancer and heart disease to reducing ulcers, easing digestive problems, sorting out tickly coughs, healing wounds, and even making us better athletes. It’s an almost miraculous list, but how many of these qualities are verifiable? Amazingly, it seems like quite a lot.

Of course, not all honey is equal – we sometimes worry about pesticides contaminating it, for instance – but even the lesser stuff is heavy in vitamins and minerals (vitamins A and C, calcium and iron being the big ones), and its antibacterial properties are undisputed.

Indeed, honey has been proven effective against everything from E. coli to salmonella; thank the fact that it’s naturally acidic, and that bees leave it full of hydrogen peroxide as they synthesise flower pollen. This may be how honey helps speed up wound healing too, and study after study has shown how well it copes with ulcers, burns and the like – even those that shrug off antibiotics. It can be used on everything from diabetic foot ulcers to haemorrhoids, while its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties mean it’s been used with success to treat dandruff – and even, some claim, hair loss.

What else? Well, honey helps digest the fat stored in your body, aiding weight loss. And athletes love the way it helps maintain blood sugar levels and restores glycogen after a workout, as well as regulates the amount of insulin in the body.

Of course, what we’re really interested in is honey’s use as food, mostly in baking, though it has savoury applications too, and makes a great sweetener in teas and sauces, and as a spread for toast. Because it’s almost twice as sweet as sugar, you generally need to use less of it in any given recipe, too. Honey mustard chicken is a classic, and it also loves making a sticky marinade for pork, sausages, or root veggies like parsnips. It goes well with robust fish like salmon or mackerel, too. Honey makes a great dressing for salads, adores milk products like cheeses, and chums up with berries and yoghurt in breakfast fare, whether that involves pancakes and crumpets or fruit salads and granola.

And then, of course, there are the desserts – flapjacks and muffins, pastries and cakes – perhaps to be washed down with the honey wine known as mead, one of the world’s oldest fermented beverages, dating back maybe 9,000 years.

What sort of honey should you buy? Regular jars come in various types. There’s blended supermarket honey, often a mixture of whatever is cheapest from several countries, and probably either heat-processed and finely filtered to help it stay liquid, or deliberately crystallised and sold as ‘set honey’, the kind that you spread with a knife.

Then there are the specialist honeys, which come from bees that have harvested nectar of a particular type, which is then simply warmed and gently filtered, allowing more of the taste and nutritional goodness to stay in the jar. Wildflower honey is made from the nectar of many types of flower; monofloral honey is mostly one type of flower; and then there’s the rarer honeydew honey, which is dark, not as sweet, and generally a specialist taste. (It’s made from tree sap as opposed to nectar, which is eaten by small insects called aphids – greenflies and the like – then pooed out on the bark of the tree; bees then collect this, instead of their favoured nectar, and turn it into honey.)

Some of our favourites include English clover honey, Scottish heather honey, French lavender honey and American orange blossom honey, but there are dozens more – some swear by the strongly flavoured honey from the flowers of New Zealand’s manuka tree, for instance.

Mostly, we choose by flavour and consistency, but keep in mind that heating honey changes its chemical composition and greatly reduces its benefits, meaning unprocessed raw honey – which hasn’t been heated, pasteurised, clarified or filtered – is best. Much of what’s good about honey is down to the pollen present within, so beware the cheap stuff that looks too transparent and clear, as it probably been ultra-filtered to the point where there’s little left but a boring glucose-fructose solution.

Basically, there are various ways manufacturers can ruin this glorious food – so it’s always worth studying the small print on the jar.