Being a food blogger makes you rather thick-skinned. You get used to the worried looks when you tell people you’re a blogger. You get used to the reactions that range from puzzlement to disdain to outright banning from waiters in fancy restaurants when you whip out your camera. And you get used to your friends’ sniggers when you say you are attending a butter/salt/honey/rice tasting this afternoon and can’t make their BBQ. Although food bloggers see these as perfectly normal and even exciting events, the rest of the population just looks on with bemusement. Vive la difference!
So our happy band of bloggers, oblivious to the rest of the world’s curious stares, got together at Chez Cooksister a couple of weeks ago for a honey tasting. We had been planning this for, oh, about a year. Things just kept getting in the way! In fact, when Pille visited before the summer, we were so sure the honey tasting was iminent that she actually brought us some Estonian honey to taste. Little did she knows that the wheels of progress can sometimes grind very sowly. Bt at least they do grind, which is how I recently found myself at my sunny dining table surrounded by 6 other people (Johanna, Inge, Bill, Jenni, Andrew and Sarah, our “food blog groupie”) finally ready to taste some honey!
A quick word on honey before we begin. Honey is created when bees collect plant nectar from flowers and mix it with enzymes from their own bodies. To convert the nectar into honey, bees drop their load of nectar into the cells of a honeycomb and fan it with their wings to evaporate moisture and reduce it to the sticky substance we know and love. The colour and flavour of honey is influenced by many factors, including the location of the hive, the types of flowers visited, and climatic conditions, meaning that almost endless variations on a sweet theme are possible. Honey is also one of the oldest foods and was common in ancient Egypt as well as being mentioned in the Bible and Qur’an. It also almost never spoils: an edible jar of honey was found in an Egyptian Pharo’s tomb. Honey also contains vitamins and antioxidants, but is fat, cholesterol and sodium free. Lately, new research into its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties have made honey very popolar in health stores – particularly manuka honey.
So how does one taste honey? Well, it’s not exactly a wine tasting with long-established conventions and routines, is it! So we kind of had to feel our way. Although I did think about blind tasting all the honeys by decanting them into numbered bowls, I quickly abandoned this idea as faaaaaar too much washing up ;-) My first thought was to use wooden lollipop sticks for dipping into the jars, but in the end it turned out ot be more practical to buy a hundred plastic teaspoons so that everyone could have a fresh teaspoon for each tasting. Less sticky, dripping mess too ;-) To clear the palate between honeys we had lots of water and warm crumpets cut into strips, which worked beautifully. And especially for the truffled honey, I had a chunk of pecorino cheese which makes the perfect partner.
The other problem we encountered was the appropriate lexicon for tasting. With wine, it’s easy – woody, fruity, minerally, jammy etc – we’v all heard them and it’s relatively simple to apply them to wines. But like our butter tasting where we struggled to describe the samples as anything other than “creamy”, honey requires you to come up with a new lexicon, and hopefully something more interesting than “sweet”! Plus there is the additional element of texture which is not really a significant factor in wine tasting. We ended up with a broad distinction between floral and herbaceous flavours, although there were some interesting notes on scent. “Cat’s pee”. “Wet leather”. “I’m telling you, it does smell of camels!”. Wish we’d recorded the conversation…!
And of course, man cannot live by honey alone. Once the formalities of the tasting were over, we quickly switched to afternoon tea mode and indulged in all manner of sweet and savoury treats:
And from left to right we have Bill’s palmiers (home-made!!), Inge’s cheesy poppyseed muffins (served with a lovely chunk of chevre from Wiltshire), and Johanna’s fig, Brie and Parma ham piegata sandwiches. For an album of these and a couple more pictures, have a look at my Flickr set of the day. And below, you will find my tasting notes.
My only regret is that I did not take down more complete notes as to the maker of each honey – maybe I will ask around the other attendees and update with more info as I get it. We had a ball and I can highly recommend trying something like this with a few friends – you’ll be surprised at the wide variation in taste!
And even more surprised to learn that your friends know what camels and wet leather smell like…
Austrian creamed honey
Appearance is pale yellow and creamy, almost like lemon curd. Very smooth and creamy mouthfeel. Intensely sweet flavour with floral notes – almost tickles the throat it’s so intense. Long and intense aftertaste.
Goosens Belgian creamed spring honey
Quite a dull yellow colour. Very hard, not much scent and extremely grainy in the mouth. Very strong rosewater/Turkish delight flavour!
Spanish 1000 flower Basilipo honey
Medium hardness, rich marmalade colour – lovely. Quite grainy in the mouth with non-specific floral flavours.
Estonian Meveda Mesi dandelion, wild raspberry and linden honey
Medium hardness. Grainy in the mouth with a subtle liquorice flavour. Far less overtly floral than the others we’ve tried but not much of an aftertaste.
German dandelion honey
Very smooth for crystallised honey, almost runny. Flavours of tropical fruit in the mouth – dates! Also musky undertones. Complex.
Wiltshire unfiltered honey
Very runny for a crystalised honey, with some tiny dark specks, possibly from the lack of filtering? Very slight crunch on the palate, floral notes.
Austrian creamed spring honey
Quite soft and runny, only very slightly grainy. Very interesting palate – herbaceous and almost savoury at first, tailing off to a long finish.
Austrian acacia honey
Extremely pale, almost no colour. Almost no smell and tastes caramelly, not unlike golden syrup.
Moroccan orange blossom honey
Pretty pale amber colour. Very odd nose – cat’s pee and over-ripe citrus fruits! Flavour is nothing like that though – more like Turkish delight but not flavoured with rosewater. Ginger perhaps?
Estonian clear honey
Lovely amber colour, like apricot jam. Nose is also quite jammy. On the palate it’s rather like peach jam but with some herbaceous and caramelly notes.
Austrian forest honey
Lovely amber colour. Also smells like cat pee and overripe citrus. Tastes like naartjie (clementine) peel and caramel. One of my favourites.
Austrian subflower honey
Quite thick for a runny honey, the colour of sunflowers. Very little scent, very slight graininess. Quite bland on the palate with no defined flavours coming through. Slightly nutty on the finish.
Scottish heather honey
Dark amber colour. Smells exactly like alyssum flowers! Also tastes like alyssum flowers – quite intensely sweet and floral, but with some herbaceous notes to balance.
Provencal lavender honey
Beautiful bright yellow colour – the colour and consistency of runny lemon curd. Smells of lavender. Heavenly taste – has a definte dusky lavender flavour – the dusky herbaceous notes balance the sweetness. Delicious!
Waitrose Italian chestnut honey
Very dark amber, striking colour. Quite viscuous, smell has a hint of molasses. Very strident flavour on palate – chestnuts, leather, maybe even tobacco? Quite delicious.
Estonian comb honey
Amber colour, rich and caramelly taste, quite intense.
Italian honey with balsamic vinegar
Dark colour due to the balsamic vinegar. Viscuous consistency. Fantastic balance between the sweetness of the honey and the tartness of the balsamico. Would be wonderful as a meat glaze.
Italian truffle honey
Pale, clear honey with a surprisingly intense truffle smell. Taste is not immediately apparent, but as the sweetness dies away, the pungent truffle flavour comes through. Delicious with pecorino cheese.