Thursday, January 21, 2016

Honey, can you make me a cup of tea?

Do you use honey in your tea? Maybe you use honey in you baking. Honey is one of those ancient foods that we don't always understand. How do those bees do it? They collect pollen and somehow, magically, they bring it home and make it into honey. How does that work?

To begin with, bees originated in Africa and have been around for 100 million years. There is scarcely a culture in the world that doesn't use honey as part of their culinary and medicinal experiences. References to honey can be found in books such as the Talmud, Koran and the Bible, and even in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

And while you may be drinking your tea with honey as you read this, that is the least of all the possible uses of honey. In fact, Hippocrates used honey as a medicine for skin disease and Chinese medicine also includes honey. 

Honey is made from flower nectar. Bees go from flower to flower collecting the nectar and at the same time pollinate the plants. It is a perfect partnership. And bees are an integral part of the food chain. Every plant depends on bees to survive. For example, 80% of cotton plants rely on honeybees. And some plants have a specialized relationship with bees. Squash has bees that only collect from their plant. 

I guess bees have been "busy little bees" for so long, we can hardly imagine. One bee will visit about 1,500 flowers to gather enough nectar to fill her stomach, that's the equivalent in weight of her body. Once she returns to the hive, she will do a dance to indicate to the other bees where she found the flowering plants so others can collect more nectar. A lot of ritual is done as part of the depositing of the nectar. Eventually the nectar is deposited in the honeycomb. Other bees then flap their wings to aid in water evaporation and eventually the honey thickens. Once it is ready, by the bee standard, the honeycomb is sealed with wax. 

The hard working bees literally work themselves to death. Each bee lives about 6 weeks and produces less than one teaspoon of honey. One colony produces about 44 pounds of honey during summer. In order for the colony to survive during the winter, it takes 1 million trips out for nectar. I guess we can easily see that the need for bees is, without question, absolutely necessary. 

The color of honey and its flavor depends completely on where the bees collect the nectar. Each different honey (and in case you were wondering, there are more than 300 types of honey in the US alone) comes from a different source. The color can range from deep brown to almost clear. The flavor can vary from mild to bold; the darker the honey the bolder the taste. And all this depends on what floral plant the bees visit in their hunt for nectar.

Likely the most common honey, even though we may not realize it, is clover honey. But bees done limit their work time to just fields of clover. Plants like eucalyptus, sage, alfalfa, avocado, and blueberry all add their own distinct taste to honey. 

We now know that our hard working bees need the time and environment necessary to play their part in our ecosystem. And once they have made honey for us to enjoy, it falls on us to understand ourselves as consumers. 

I work at the farmers' market all summer and always there is a beekeeper there with honey for sale. And just as often, the jars have a solid looking mass of honey. So what's going on? Why doesn't it look like the honey in the store? Is it bad? NO! It isn't bad. If the honey you keep at home crystallizes, don't panic. It crystallized because honey is made in large part of sucrose and glucose. The more glucose in the honey, the more it tends to crystallize. Over processed honey has been filtered to the point of eliminating all the healthy benefits that are inherent in this tasty addition to our culinary experience. Your best bet is to look for raw, organic honey. That way you will get all the antioxidant and antibacterial benefits you should expect.

Just so you know, honey can be a substitute for sugar in recipes. For example, when I make bread and it calls for maybe 3 tablespoons of sugar, I substitute 1/4 cup of raw honey. Experiment a little and find your own ways to honor the humble honeybee and enhance your culinary experience.

But for today's recipe let's try a simple use of honey to sooth a sore throat. It's that season and you may have everything you already need to make a cup of medicine for your comfort.

What you need:
1 cup hot water
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice **

What you need to do:
Heat your water in a tea pot or microwave. Add honey and lemon juice and stir. Careful! Don't sip it too fast. Allow they honey and lemon to sooth your throat.

** I often include a tea bag of chamomile, which never hurts and is also very soothing.

Make sure you know what you are purchasing next time you go out for honey. And let the beauty of it help you feel good.

Now, go out and make something good.

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