Did you know that there are more than 300 types of honey produced in the United States alone? Amazing, I know. Honeybees are fascinating creatures, and while working my way through the wonderful world of varietal (a.k.a. monofloral) honeys that they produce, it occurred to me that there are some striking similarities between the sweet stuff and that box of 107 Haydn symphonies that I am absolutely positive you have somewhere on your record shelf. I choose Haydn because, like honey, his music exudes a certain playful, often rustic freshness not found anywhere else in precisely the same way. He was one of the first composers who consistently evoked the natural world in tones–including the buzzing flight of insects–from the sunrise of his early “Morning” Symphony all the way through to the late oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.
Admittedly, you can get even closer to the “major honey number” of 300 if you consider alternatives such as the Bach cantatas, for example, but if you’re looking for a food analogy to those estimable works I’d probably go with vinegar, of which there are also hundreds of varieties. The bottom line, for me anyway, is this: Haydn symphonies are fun. Honey is fun. Bach cantatas though, for all their beauty—not exactly fun. So work with me here.
As with your Haydn symphonies, no two kinds of honey are exactly alike, but they are all recognizably honey—an absolutely unique product with its own special character. And just as the same work of Haydn can sound very different from one performance to the next, depending on the interpretation, so too the same honey can vary from year to year depending on a host of environmental factors: temperature, weather, the abundance of nectar sources, and so forth. Both offer an entire world of sensory experience: constantly changing, always new, and often surprising. Both represent a moment of frozen time, a snapshot of local circumstances and conditions captured and packaged for later consumption. For those with the curiosity and patience to get to know them well, Haydn’s symphonies offer a tactile, almost gustatory satisfaction, just as a great varietal honey features a poetic, almost musical harmony of flavors.
Haydn’s symphonies cover a huge expressive range despite their outward similarities, and as a composer he never ceased evolving. If the only honey you’ve ever had consists primarily of that homogenized sugar syrup sold in little plastic bear-shaped jars, you’ll be amazed at the complex flavor sensations available from the true artisanal product. Like the symphonies, these run from the relatively sweet and simple (traditional Clover and Alfalfa), to richly fruity and full (Sourwood), to earthy and dense (Buckwheat), to amusingly delightful (the marshmallow and vanilla flavors of Meadowfoam), to amazingly layered (Tasmanian Leatherwood), to almost bitter, salty, and savory (Italian Chestnut, Mexican Oaxaca, or Malaysian Tualang). In musical terms, you might pair these flavors with the charming early works for Count Morzin, then the Paris Symphonies, the slightly later Nos. 88, 90, and the “Oxford” (earthy and dense works if ever there were some), the wacky No. 60 (“Il distratto”), the more experimental “Sturm und Drang” pieces, and finally a late masterpiece such as Symphony No. 102, with its wonderful harmonic shading.
Like the classics, honey is supposed to be “good for you”, and both industries have latched onto the product’s theoretical health benefits, backed by a host of “scientific” studies of often-dubious methodology and rigor. Shall we not kid ourselves? The reason to listen to classical music, any music really, is for entertainment, and the reason to eat varietal honey is because it tastes fabulous. You don’t play Haydn to make your baby smarter or cure your neurosis, and if you’re eating honey to send your cancer into remission, lower your risks from diabetes (it’s still sugar for heaven’s sake!), never mind alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux or heart disease, then you’re probably not long for this world.
There are in fact varieties of honey noted for their medicinal or anti-microbial qualities in wound healing (Manuka from New Zealand, Buckwheat, or the lovely Chilean Ulmo), and you can probably find medicinal honey salves in your local pharmacy; but heck, if it tastes like dirt–and some honeys do–you’re not going to want to give it much time and attention, or come back for a second encounter. Right? Like Haydn’s symphonies, varietal honeys are best savored individually, for their unique qualities, in small doses. You don’t have to mix them with something else (like tea) or dilute their character with a host of other ingredients. Enjoy them, and savor them, for what they are.
Oh, and one more thing. Properly harvested and stored, honey never spoils. It’s a classic in that respect too.
Your best bet for a complete Haydn cycle is still Antal Dorati’s classic set on Decca. A worthy alternative, on the same label, is the period-instrument box containing performances by Frans Brüggen and Christopher Hogwood (primarily). There are, of course, innumerable discs of individual works.
Varietal honeys, like classical recordings, are best purchased online, especially if you want to try something not generally available at your local farmer’s market. Here are some first-rate honey producers/suppliers (among many) that I have found reliable, with superior products and service. We have no financial incentive for making these recommendations. They are just good folks who deserve your patronage.
Offering an extensive array of varietal honey, including Buckwheat, Maine Wild Raspberry, Colorado Star Thistle, Orange Blossom, Sweat Clover, and many others, all safely packed and shipped, and often naturally crystallized (I enjoy the textural differences between them—each honey will crystallize in a slightly different way, depending mostly on the ratio of glucose to fructose that it contains).
This first class collection of both American and exotic honey includes varietals from Italy, and an amazing product from Oaxaca, Mexico. They’re a bit on the pricey side, in keeping with the mystique and pretentions of the “brand”, which is the creation of bee aficionado, marketing guru, author, and “Honey Sommelier” Carla Marina Marchese; but there’s no question that you get what you pay for in terms of quality. If you live in or near Fairfield County, Connecticut you can also tour the facilities and participate in honey tastings.
A splendid source of artisanal honey from the Pacific Northwest, including Meadowfoam (you’ve got to try it), Bigleaf Maple, Wild Blackberry, Coriander, Arugula, Wildflower from different regions, and even Poison-Oak (complete with medical disclaimer). Each jar comes labeled with the date and location of harvest.
Based in Minnesota, Ames provides an excellent source of some characteristic American flavors, including Basswood (Linden), Locust, Dandelion, Buckthorn, Buckwheat, and Purple Loosestrife (an invasive weed, one of many that produces fine honey). They also offer a great selection of sample packs at reasonable prices so you can experiment at leisure.
Here’s an excellent, domestic (USA) source for exotic Chilean Ulmo and other honey produced in that country’s pristine rain forests. They take their honey seriously in Chile, and with good reason. It’s excellent, and as packaged and presented here the love and attention really tells. A first-rate, three-variety sampler is also available. In short, like your first experience of a Haydn symphony, you’re in for an adventure, only in this case it comes in a jar.
The website says “Best Honey in the World”, and they aren’t kidding. Their Sourwood honey has won four top awards at the Apimondia World Honey Show taste-a-thon. That must be some event. And I thought classical music gatherings were frightening! If you haven’t tried Sourwood, which is only produced along the mid-Atlantic coast from North Carolina through Georgia, you don’t know honey. Fruity, velvety, rich, and luscious, it’s in a league of its own.
Another award-winning producer of Sourwood honey from North Carolina, Mikell’s is a small operation (artisan honey producers tend to be) with a passionate dedication to superior quality and service. Their honey is pollen-tested at an offsite independent lab to ensure that the Sourwood actually is primarily Sourwood (you can’t tell the bees where to go, after all), so you can be certain that you’re getting the real deal. Mikell’s offers their product in a variety of sizes, from samplers to corked Muth jars that will look great on your counter, except the honey inside probably won’t stay there for long.
One of the great annual agricultural events is the yearly migration of beehives—thousands upon thousands—used to pollinate crops all over the country. Beekeepers get paid to truck the bees from states such as North Dakota, the honey capital of the USA, to farms from Maine (for the blueberries) to California, and everywhere in between. They profit from both pollination fees and the honey created in the process. California’s agribusiness, as we all know, is huge, and so is the range of honey that it creates. In addition to territory-specific Wildflower, Sage, and Buckwheat (very different, lighter and simpler than the dark, molasses-like Buckwheat from Oregon or the Northeast), you can find honey from the flowers of oranges, eucalyptus, cotton, and most interesting of all, avocados—dark and syrupy, with a touch of smoke and chocolate. Honey Pacifica offers many of these, all cold packed (you never want honey that has been heated much above the temperature needed to pour it into jars) and raw.
Z Specialty Foods of Woodland, CA, offers two separate lines of varietal honey, including some real rarities: Mexican Coffee Blossom, Arizona Cactus, Pomegranate, Purple Vetch, Coriander, Mesquite, Fireweed, and a sampling of honey from Hawaii. Certified Kosher (most honey is Kosher by default, but not all of it is certified), you can purchase most varieties in sample sizes as well as in larger quantities.