This article is part of a series on Uncommon Connoisseurships. See also:
We were ushered into a wood-paneled second-floor room, leaving the cobbled alley behind us. A warm breeze drifted in through a row of open windows, and the dark blue and brown of Florence’s night could be seen below. Dish after dish of cured meats, cheese, and carbonara and bolognese began to crowd our long, dimly lit wooden table. Where were we? “Don’t worry, I have connections,” grinned Rosetta, the lively, middle-aged leader of our group of twinkling-eyed eighteen-year-olds, and around me, the wine flowed and the voices swelled.
Rosetta welcomed one final platter onto the table. Next to spoons, there resided three thick liquids, and in that dark room, they seemed to glow different colors, yellow and green and blue. “Honey,” Rosetta observed. “Try to taste their differences.”
The new platter intrigued me. I tried the honeys. I was captivated by their tastes, their colors, their subtleties. “They’re so different!” I told Rosetta dumbly.
This was my initiation into the world of honey.
My experience, today, has expanded to include the Millefiori of Italy, the Grechishniy of Russia, and the Meadowfoam of Oregon’s farmers. The world of honey is rich and varied.
This is a tasting field guide for this most underappreciated object of connoisseurship.
Honey should be tasted carefully — and by itself. Spoon a small amount onto your tongue, and spread it so that it coats the tongue evenly; all parts should be covered, including the back. Don’t swallow right away. Let the honey dissolve; let yourself discover its taste. Perceive texture and flavors – and their intensities and durations – as well as the honey’s aftertaste. Patience is important!
Good honey comes from farmers’ markets, or from specialized vendors. Don’t buy honey from grocery stores.
While it’s certainly not all there is to honey, flavor is a good place to start. The five honeys in the image above were acquired by my mother in Rome’s farmer’s market; they were produced by the Apicoltura D’Angelis di Ripepa Fortunata farm about two hours southeast of Rome. Though they share similar textures and processing styles, they feature nuanced, diverse flavors. They’ll make a good beginning case study.
- Acacia. The lightest of the group. Acacia has a low viscosity, almost like “thick water”, and it features a beautiful light-golden color, almost clear. The first taste is clear and sweet, like a fruit – peach, perhaps. The aftertaste tastes distinctly of wheat.
- Arancia. A darker orange color. Arancia features a sharp, prominent taste of orange peel. The taste is pleasant, though it seems to lack subtlety. (Arancia means orange in Italian.)
- Millefiori. The most classical of the five honeys. Millefiori tastes clear, subtle, and sophisticated, with a flavor evoking lavender.
- Eucalipto. Eucalipto features a bright, radiant taste which fills the mouth. Though I’m not sure what eucalyptus tastes like, I’ve been told that this honey’s taste evokes it.
- Millefiori di Bosco. The darkest and thickest of the group, Millefiori di Bosco’s taste is lasting and thorough. It’s hard to detect particular flavors from this one.
The five api feature delicate, fruit-like flavors. Expanding our purview, though, we’ll encounter more diversity. The Oregon honeys, for example, depart from sophistication and instead present powerful sweet or fruity flavors.
- Meadowfoam, Portland, OR. This honey, dark yet transparent, smells of burnt sugar – think of burnt marshmallows – and tastes powerfully of sweetness and cream, like sweet cream soda. There are additional hints of apple cider. Very strong flavor, no aftertaste.
- Unknown, Pasco, WA. A clear, amber-colored honey; tastes strongly of strawberries or sweet grapes.
- Unknown, Portland, OR. Sharp, overwhelming taste of orange.
Going yet further, we experience stranger tastes.
- Head’s Honey, Pittsboro, NC. This very dark, almost black honey, though superficially sweet, also features a bitter, alcohol-like taste evoking rum or cherry liquor.
Texture too soon begins to change. The honeys we’ve seen so far have been subjected to pasteurization, a heating process which – unlike the identically named process used in milk, which is used to kill bacteria (bacteria can’t grow in honey) – is used on honey to liquefy crystals and destroy yeast cells. The resulting honeys are liquidy and clear.
The so-called raw honeys constitute a different bunch. These feature – along with somewhat different, often milder, flavors – quite different textures.
- Wild Rata Honey, New Zealand. This honey’s flavor evokes cream or butter; its sweetness is subtle and mild. The honey is opaque, with a light-yellow color, moreover, and its texture resembles that of cream or paste.
- Grechishniy Honey, Moscow, Russia. I’ve been told that this honey is made using buckwheat groats, a grain widely eaten in Russia (and called by the informal term grechka). I’m not familiar with how (or whether) the grains are used its production, nor do I notice similarities in taste – Grechishniy features a very sweet, caramel-like flavor – but its color, like the grain, is an opaque brownish-tan. Like the Wild Rata, Greshichniy has a consistency and texture like thick cream.
- Fiori delle Alpi (La Bottega di Sappada), Sappada, Italy. This raw honey features an opaque, darker color suggesting tan candle wax. Its taste is strong and sweet, like apple sauce.
Everyone’s heard of wine’s “tannins” and “terroir”, and I’ve read of self-proclaimed connoisseurs in specialties ranging from coffee to chocolate and whiskey to marijuana. What makes something a worthy object of connoisseurship?
It should be pure, for one – a commodity. It would be strange to comment on the subtle flavors of a dish of Chinese food: Why don’t you just talk to the chef? This role is better suited to a food critic. A connoisseur’s knowledge is valuable only for something irreducible.
These objects of connoisseurs’ intrigue should also feature complexity. Tangerines, to name an arbitrary example, are irreducible, perhaps lack the complexity of, say, tomatoes (for which I’ve heard critics exist).
The most popular objects of connoiseurship, however, seem to be intoxicants. Why? I can’t help but suspect a drive to rationalize — a drive to legitimize. Habit could also play a role.
Honey, meanwhile — hearkening from the world’s farthest corners, its beautiful farms, their flowers and bees — is delicious, pure, subtle, delicate, and — though perhaps not physically healthy (in large amounts at least) — mentally wholesome. I can imagine no better object of interest for the budding connoisseur.