Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Taste of Honey

My cousin Patti married her honey Paul Crosby in Middlebury, Vermont during the Christmas holidays.

You might think I’m being an incurable romantic by using such a term. It was, indeed, an enchanted winter’s eve wedding, but the description is no exaggeration when it comes to Paul. Among his many interests, this Renaissance man makes cheese, keeps bees and collects his own honey.

We are standing in Patti and Paul’s warm and inviting country kitchen at the day-after-wedding brunch. Paul hands me a jar of honey labeled “Pure Honey by Crosby’s Bees.”

Paul pursues the production of a culinary ingredient that is legendary. In ancient days, honey was considered “the food of the gods.” While we may think of it as a common sweetener, it is technically water, glucose, fructose, pollen and wax, produced by bees from nectar and stored for food in hives. Honey bees are important to the ecosystem. Their process of pollination is responsible for a significant percent of the food that U.S. consumers eat, but the bee population is declining, which has alarmed some scientists.

I sense a story, and begin to pump Paul for details. How did he get interested in bees and honey? “When I was young, I was afraid of bees,” he admits, but now he spends hours tending the hives. He owns two hives that are the dwelling to approximately 40,000 bees each. The hives sit on his wooded property near Fern Lake in Vermont.

Paul is buzzing with facts about bees and honey. “It takes 2 million visits to flowers to produce one teaspoon of honey,” he tells me. Paul collected 70 pounds of honey last year, and my math-deficient brain can’t begin to calculate the number of floral visits that amount of honey required. He tells me the end product could have come from more than 200 different varieties of flowers.

According to Paul, glass packaging is preferred to show off the true color of the product.
He explains that store-bought honey is blended from many sources, but he simply scrapes the residue off a frame that is built into the hive, and strains the honey into a bucket.

We talk about the flavors in home-grown honey. Paul explains that honey will reflect regional flavors depending on what types of vegetation the bees visit. Honey from California might taste of almonds and orange blossoms. Paul describes his honey as characteristic of the flora of Vermont with notes of apples and clover.

Of course, as a baker and chef, I’m curious about the culinary applications. What’s Paul’s favorite recipe using honey and how does one best enjoy the flavors of honey collected at home? “Use it in its natural state,” Paul recommends. “That way, you can savor the flavor.”

He tells me that heat and baking can actually alter the chemistry of honey. In order to best experience the flavor, he suggests using it in salad dressings, honey butter, or tossed with cooked baby carrots.

Back home in New York, I look at the jar of “Pure Honey by Crosby’s Bees” and I’m still thinking about Paul’s evocative description of the flavor of his honey. I’m usually not one for eating straight out of the jar, but I indulge in a first. I get myself a tablespoon and drizzle a sunny-yellow liquid pool into the bowl at the end of the long handle. The honey is a luminescent gold, almost transparent. I pour it onto my tongue. It is smooth and silky -- barely sticky -- with a mellow sweetness that is not at all cloying. There are complex layers of flavors. I taste fresh-cut grass and clover, delicate floral blossoms and the crisp, clean taste of green apples. I lick the spoon. It’s like taking a taste of a warm, breezy Vermont summer afternoon.

It will take you just a few minutes to whip up a batch of Honey Butter, which tastes luscious on nutty whole wheat bread.

Honey Butter

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tablespoon honey

Place butter and honey in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until just combined.

Pack the honey butter into a crock and refrigerate, or transfer to a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Roll into a one-inch log and refrigerate.

I think it is fitting to celebrate honey at the start of 2008 and to think of its many practical applications in the kitchen and in life. As Ben Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Tart words make no friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar.”

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Amie said...

Thank you Tom for such a wonderful story. I am proud to say that Paul is my father and brought me up on enjoying the simple things in life like his tasty honey. It was nice meeting you at the wedding!

Lydia said...

Beekeeping is definitely gaining in popularity in our part of Rhode Island, and I am the lucky beneficiary, as several jars of honey make their way to my kitchen each season. It seems that honey is a natural immune system booster, or so it's reputed, and that has attracted a number of our friends and neighbors to beekeeping as a hobby.

Kathy said...

Honey is one item that's readily available locally for us. And in good old-fashioned glass jars at that. Nice story.

Veron said...

Oh another wonderful story. I wonder if the scientist figured out what happened to the bee population? We take so much for granted. Bees are so important to our entire food chain. I agree with Lydia, honey is an immune booster too. I usually put it in tea.

Splint said...

Here's another delight to savor in 2008: red pepper jelly. I just recently discovered a jar in the mountains of North Carolina. I've since ordered a case.

My holiday gift to you, TW, and to your readers is this simple recipe:

* Sesame bagel, toasted well.
* "Foundation" of cream cheese on each half.
* A healthy dollop of hot pepper jelly.

You will thank me later.

Maryann said...

Nice post TW. My favorite way to eat honey is to pop a piece of the honeycomb right into my mouth. After the little chambers give up their ambrosia I spit out the wax. It's fun too :)

T.W. Barritt said...

Amie - it was delightful to meet you and your family for such a happy occasion! Paul's honey is amazing! Hope your trip home went well.

Lydia - I wonder if there are beekeepers on Long Island? I will have to investigate. If honey is a natural immune system booster, I'm in good shape since I had four tablespoons-full!

Kathy - I am pretty sure that on the East end of Long Island, I should be able to get natural honey.

Thanks, Veron! The decline in the bee population is still a mystery, but some speculate that it has to do with environmental pollution.

Splint - Happy New Year, man! I can always count on you for trendsetting recipes! Where can I get a case of red pepper jelly? You know my birthday is coming up ...

Maryann - I remember the last day I was in Florence on a visit in 2006. I went to a wine bar, and had pecorino with orange zest and honey along with my wine. The waiter scraped the honey right from the comb - it was one of the most fantastic things I'd ever tasted!

Dennis said...

I packed three pounds of that Delicious liquid gold honey in my suitcase and brought it home with me. I wish I had enough to make a 5gallon batch of Mead. Oh well I guess I’m stuck enjoying the honey one spoonful at a time!

T.W. Barritt said...

Dennis - I'd like to get that recipe for Mead!