If there is anything that makes our life sweeter, this is certainly honey. I have a very soft spot for this golden delight. It sweetens my breakfast spreads, brightens up my yogurt pots and gives substance to any salad vinaigrette. Let alone all the scrumptious honey-syrup desserts. Honey is the perfect little touch that makes everything taste somewhat better. But how much do you really know about honey?
A short history of honey
Honey is one of the oldest known sweeteners and the only natural sweetener until approximately the 16th century when refined sugar became widely available. It is no exaggeration to say that honey is as old as time. The first cave painting depicting honey seekers dates back to 7000 BC and adorn the Arana Caves in Valencia, Spain.
Ancient civilisations cherished honey and its use was not isolated to one region alone. It has been mentioned in Ayurveda texts of ancient India (4000 BC); the Ancient Mayan civilisation considered their stingless bee as sacred and used its honey not only as nourishment, but also ointment for rashes and burns and a soother to sore throats, pretty much as we do today. In ancient China, there is mention of the art of beekeeping and the importance of the quality of the wooden box for beekeeping that can affect the quality of its honey. (The Golden Rules of Business Success written by Fan Li (or Tao Zhu Gong) during the Spring and Autumn period)
Archaeological studies in ancient Egyptian tombs have recently retrieved sealed honey and found it to be edible too. There is no miracle in this however, as honey, when sealed is known to keep for many years.
Father of apiary is Aristeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene who was abducted by the god and taken to Libya, Africa. Aristeus was born there and was handed to Gaea and the Hours who nursed him with nectar and ambrosia, the foods of the gods, making him immortal. Aristeus was educated by the Muses in medicine and fortune telling and by the nymphs he was taught the art of cultivating the vines, the olive trees and apiary. It was bee keeping that defined him. Aristeus took his art to the people of Kea and he taught them how to create the beehives and smoke them to obtain the honey.
In ancient Greek mythology, the bee had a very special place. Melissa, the Greek word for bee, was used to name the priestesses of many a Greek goddess:Great Mother Cybele, later Artemis, Persephone and Demeter all of them associated with the land and the food, honey being the most precious of all. Perhaps the earliest and most prominent myth is the one associating Melissa with Zeus, linking back to the Minoan civilisation.
Melissa was the daughter of the Cretan king Melisseus. It was to her and goat Amaltheia (daughter of the son) that Rhea entrusted Zeus in order to save him from Cronus’ wrath. They took into hiding in the caves of Mount Diktys; Melissa fed him honey and Amaltheia milk. When Cronus discovered it, he turned Melissa into an earthworm to punish her. Zeus, took pity on her and turned her into a bee. Today we celebrate international bee day on the 20th of May. From myth to modern day much has changed but the importance of bees in our life has never been more prominent. Just turn around and look at your food cupboards, every little grain we enjoy is obtained thanks to their tireless toil.
Types of Greek honey
Every time I taste a spoonful of honey, my mouth fills with sweetness and my memory replays my summer rides on Mykonos. You could smell the fresh thyme flowers nesting on the bushes in every turn of the winding paths that took you down to the beach. It was accompanied by a light buzz of bees, you could just about take a quick glimpse of the timid, hard workers landing from one flower to the next without a second thought.
So, how is honey made?
Honeybees forage wild flowers for their nectar and sap from trees like pines, firs or oaks. They can travel for miles, visiting tens of flowers on their daily trips from the hive to the meadow and back. After every trip, the collected nectar will be regurgitated, enzymes in their saliva will break down sucrose into fructose and glucose and carefully deposit it on the honeycomb. Their buzzing will help dry out any excess water and when ready, it gets sealed. It’s the colonies food reserves for winter.
Honey bees are well looked after by bee keepers, Aristeus must have taught them well. Honey reserves is not simply extracted for human use but enough is kept to maintain the beehives.
In Greece the beehives will travel to the most recently flowered meadows. Some often take them from the mainland to the islands or up on the mountain sides to get a different flavour of honey. Which brings us to the types of honey.
Greek Honey types
Depending on where the bees forage, we get a different honey flavour. There are two types: floral honey, anthomelo that comes from the nectar of the flowers and honeydew honey or forest honey, known in Greek as dasomelo, that comes from the sap of the trees.
If the bees mainly visit the flowers of the thyme bushes, it will give thyme flavoured honey. Foraging on wild flowers, such as heather, it will give a rich colour blossom honey. Similarly, if the beehive is close to lavender fields this will yield lavender honey, in orangeades, orange blossom honey with citrusy tints and so on and so forth.
Forest honeys are a little different, distinctly darker than flower blossom honeys. The bees suck at the sap of the trees instead of nectar. It is normally conifers, such as pines or firs and often oaks. The most common varieties is pine honey or a blend of pine and fir tree honey.
Which is my favourite honey?
It’s hard to make a choice. I grew up with thyme honey, Attica’s best and possibly the most well-known of all Greek honeys. I am very fond of forest honeys however. Oak tree honey is somewhat of a favourite as it is not overtly sweet and gives a very balanced aftertaste especially when combined with savoury snacks like smoked yellow cheeses and perhaps a tiny bit of quince.
When it comes to quality, raw comes first! Unfiltered honey has minimal processing which means it will keep it high anti-oxidant levels and it also stores indefinitely. If you ever see it crystalise, fear not, it’s a sign that you have a very good quality honey in your hands. To revert crystalisation, simply warm it up gently in a bain-marie to break the crystals and enjoy!
I hope you enjoyed this sweet little post. Do you like honey? Let me know your favourite recipes and honey in the comments below.
from London with love,
There was quite a bit of reading for this post, for more interesting honey information you can check out the links below:
Νίκος Τσιφόρος, Ελληνική Μυθολογία
PS: Photos were styled and shot for odysea.comby