It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.
We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.
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This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.
Adventures in beekeeping
The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.
The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.
The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.
Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.
Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.
Colony Collapse Disorder
These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.
A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.
This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.
Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)
This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”
2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish
All-purpose flour for dusting
Olive oil for frying
1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.
2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.
3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.
4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.
5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.
Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber