Honey is one of the staples we always have around the kitchen. We use it frequently in our baking and our boys really enjoy the sweetness and the many flavours honey has to offer. It is part of our lives as friends and family have hives and often treat us with this sweet natural syrup. The harvest season is in full effect and local markets and autumnal festivals show an abundance of colours, flavours and textures. It has been a pleasure sampling all the different local raw honeys and we thought this was the perfect time to learn and find out more about this delicious natural treat.
A few interesting facts show that people have been eating and collecting honey for at least 10,000 years and we have been domesticating honey bees for at least 4,000, according to ancient hieroglyphs. Honey has had countless mentions in literature and songs throughout the years. It was one of the first sweet and luxurious foods before the discovery of sugar cane so it is not surprising that it was referred to as ‘a little piece of heaven fallen to earth’.
To understand what honey is we first had to learn a little bit about sugars. There are 3 main types of sugars: glucose, fructose and sucrose. Glucose is one of the simplest and most common sugars and it is what plants use to make starch chains. Fructose is also found in plants, particularly fruits, it is almost exactly the same as glucose in terms of chemical make up but the atoms are just arranged differently. Fructose is the sweetest of all sugars. Sucrose is what we commonly call sugar, it is one molecule of fructose and one molecule of glucose joined together. Plants naturally produce sucrose in photosynthesis.
Honey is made from sucrose in the form of nectar that the bees collect, they then use enzymes to separate the sucrose into its component glucose and fructose elements. This is what is known as an invert sugar and can be highly concentrated without crystallizing, which is why honey is runny in it’s natural state. Once they have split up the sugars, the bees will spend several weeks fanning the honey with their wings to reduce the water content and get it as concentrated as possible before storing it away in the waxy comb.
From a nutritional point of view, honey is really not very different from standard table sugar, it has the same amount of calories as sugar and so if you are dieting or diabetic it shouldn’t be used as an alternative. Raw unfiltered honey does have some vitamins, minerals and enzymes but these are negligible compared to the amount of sugar you would need to eat. Mass produced honey is pasteurized and filtered which kills any enzymes and strips it of its minerals, so buying unfiltered raw honey is a must. For us one of the best things about honey is it’s flavour, each honey is unique to it’s location and the flowers and fruits that are grown in the area. The colour of the honey is determined by the source of the nectar and the mineral content of the flowers. Generally the lighter the colour the milder the flavour.
There is however another food made by bees which is very nutritious; bee pollen. Bee pollen is commonly referred to as nature’s most complete food. It has everything a human needs for survival. It is high in complete proteins, half of which are in the form of amino acids which can be absorbed directly into the body. In addition, bee pollen provides more than a dozen vitamins, 28 minerals, 11 enzymes or co-enzymes, 14 beneficial fatty acids, 11 carbohydrates and it is low in calories. This is truly a superfood, but it is also food for the bees so, like with honey, beekeepers must be very careful as to how much pollen they take. Eating bee pollen regularly has many benefits, it aids digestion, boosts energy and can also stimulates ovarian function thus can help with infertility problems. Bee pollen is best eaten at mealtimes especially with fruit as it helps to cleanse the intestinal flora.
Royal jelly is another food found in the hive which is also very nutritious. Royal Jelly is released from the top of a bee’s head and is used in the nutrition of larva as well as adult queens. In fact, queen larvae are put into these special queen cells and are surrounded by royal jelly. This is what helps them to develop their “queen morphology”, including the fully developed ovaries needed to lay eggs. A queen bee lays over 1,000 eggs a day. Like bee pollen, royal jelly contains a rich variety of nutrients and essential amino acids. Royal jelly has been proven to lower cholesterol, is good for blood pressure and like bee pollen has been proven to increase fertility among many other things.
All these products made by bees can also reduce seasonal allergies like hay fever. In laboratory tests, honey has been proven to have strong antibacterial properties particularly Manuka honey. It is one of the best thing in treating wounds because of its ability to absorb water. Honey also has anti-inflammatory qualities and is known to soothe coughs and sore throats (especially buckwheat honey).
Honey is truly an amazing food and it is even more marvelous when we consider the way it’s made. While its sugar content is high and should be used in moderation, the minerals, vitamins and amino acids make honey a unique produce. It is a treat and a joy, ‘a little slice of heaven.’
In the UK, we only produce 15% of the honey we consume, so most commercial honeys are imported. However, there is a thriving community of small scale beekeepers in the UK. There are 24,000 registered members of the British Beekeeping Society with most of them just owning one or two hives. Organic honey is very hard to certify as the bees can get their nectar from such a large area. With most commercial honeys, it’s highly likely the bees are feeding off flowers with pesticides on them and the hives are being given veterinary medications. This is another reason why you should find locally produced honey and get to know your local beekeeper .
Have a look at this video we made of our friend Darren Hougham and his son Leo collecting their first honey harvest.
Also here is a video we made of us making Dutch honey cake while visiting Badj’s mum in Devon using honey she collected from the bee hives in her garden
- 1 1/2 cups plain white flour
- 1 1/2 cups rye flour
- 1/2 cup raw sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup runny honey
- 1 cup milk
- 3 tblsp yoghurt
Set the oven to 170º F. Combine all the dry ingredients on a large mixing bowl. The spices are just guides and you can really add whatever spices you like and have to hand. Add all the wet ingredients and beat well. Line a 5″ x 9″ bread loaf tin with baking parchment. Pour in the batter and bake in the oven for 1 hour. You may want to check it before the hour depending on your oven. If you can put a knife in and it comes out clean, your cake is ready. It will keep fine for several days but by far is best while warm from the oven with lashings of butter. Enjoy
RESOURCES: Here’s where we got our information from and some useful links:
McGee on Food & Cooking – Harold McGee
Healing With Whole Foods – Paul Pitchford