Not a honey fan? Perhaps you just haven’t found your flavour yet. From the rich and complex clover and blackberry of meadow honey to soothing eucalyptus notes in ivy honey, meet the beekeepers whose honeys are an elegant reflection of their environment and why they’re the best expression of local flavour you can get.
Terroir – that lovely French word used to describe how the environment influences a food or drink’s flavour – is commonly associated wine. But when traceability and transparency is such a big part of food these days, are we obliged to liberally apply the term to cheese, lamb, apples, et al?
Certainly that could be a point to make with honey – a food wrongly construed as a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. A case in point: Dr Ivor Davis, former president of the British Beekeeping Association, admits he originally wasn’t a fan of honey at all. ‘Off the supermarket shelf, it tastes sweet,’ says Ivor. ‘And that’s about it. But when I came across artisan honey – something which has not been overheated, where the flavours have been preserved, it really is an interesting thing.’
No flower is a challenge for the honey bee
It wasn’t until Ivor was introduced to these multifarious flavours and textures that he became hooked. After collecting honeys from different parts of the UK, the next logical step was beekeeping, which Ivor took up some 30 years ago. Now, he notes why the fruits of his – and his bees – efforts in Somerset keep bringing people back. ‘Where I am in Bristol, I’m surrounded by fields of cattle, where not much grain is grown. So my honey is a lot of clover and a lot of blackberry. It’s considered a rich flavour, and quite complex.’
These influences take place anywhere and everywhere up and down the country – from the South East, where bees visiting lime trees produce a pale green and aromatic honey with an almost lemony flavour, all the way up to the Scottish moors, where colonies make a strong and acerbic honey from the heather abundant there. ‘Horse chestnut makes a really dark honey,’ says beekeeper and founder of Hive & Keeper Emily Abbot. ‘There’s ivy honey, which is still [at the time of writing] just out. It’s the last thing the bees can get before they hunker down for winter. That produces a medicinal eucalyptus-y honey that feels like it’s doing you good.’
In fact, no flower is a challenge to the honey bee – when one learns how to get nectar out of a particular plant, it’ll then relate that information on to its colleagues. ‘Pure oilseed rape honeys, for instance, come from that plant only,’ says Ivor. ‘They tend to be creamy in colour and quite a hard honey. Borage is another one which people do as a pure honey, because the flower produces lots of nectar. It’s a very clear honey with a delicate flavour.’
Country honey vs. city honey
While these so-called pure honeys Ivor talks about are more common in the countryside, you’ll find those made in urban environments such as London can have hybridised and unpredictable – but no less attractive – profiles. When she started beekeeping, Emily’s garden hives were a few feet apart, yet both were producing honeys contrasting from each other in appearance, viscosity, and flavour. ‘Each time you take honey from a hive,’ she says, ‘you see it change to reflect what flowers are available, the bees’ needs, and the time of year.’
Pure or not, each honey becomes a snapshot of its environment. Dale Gibson, of Bermondsey Street Bees, tells me how colonies can stumble across a vast array of flora within a 3-mile radius in the capital. ‘Three miles is the furthest a bee can fly to obtain food and still have energy on returning from her foraging trip,’ he says. ‘London honey has a multitude of flavour points from the diverse forage offered by parks, trees, municipal plantings and private gardens.’
Beyond British honey
So cities can produce a honey with highly complex flavours. But these distinctions happen not just from county to county, but from country to country, too. Josh Owen of Hilltop Honey, who sell several honeys from around the world, expounds on raw Acacia from Romania. ‘It’s an incredibly light and mild honey by taste,’ says Josh. ‘And it stays runny for a very long time, which is different to any honey you can get in the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, thyme honey from Greece is powerful in flavour – something also you [typically] cannot get in the UK.’
Even so, Britain can still hold its own: From the light, sweet, and floral flavours of clover honey, to the pungency and bitterness of heather. And with the news that the UK will back a total ban on bee-harming pesticides, the future is looking brighter for bees. Honey is a food which is ripe for exploration. ‘I used to collect honey from various parts of the country, and take them to show people the variety of flavour you can get,’ says Ivor. ‘You can almost revel in it.’