Begin the year on a sweet note … with honey!

Honey (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

“When the leaves are off the trees and the honey from the bees sweetens up your morning cup of tea. You watch its steam arise like the fog into the skies. Grab your hat and coat and walk with me …”

— Dan Bergren, “Mountain Air”

Pure, unadulterated honey is a real treat. Some like to put it in tea; others spread it on toast. It is used in recipes from baked goods to dressings and sauces.

In many cultures, honey symbolizes riches and the good life. It is traditionally served for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

This thick, sweet syrup is made by bees who suck sweet nectar from flowers. The nectar combines with enzymes in the bees’ saliva, and is deposited in the cells of the hive’s walls. The moisture content is further reduced by the fluttering of the bees’ wings. It takes a lot of bees to make honey — and one million flowers to generate a pound of the amber syrup.

Bees have encountered problems in the last ten years due to pesticide use, loss of habitat, changes in climate, disease. Colony collapse disorder is the term for the demise of bee colonies. Bees succumb to pesticides like nicotinoids. They also have poor nutrition which makes them more susceptible to pathogens and parasites. These issues affect both wild bees and beehives. Because bees pollinate so many of our crops – as well as wild plants — the impact is serious.

Honey comes in a myriad of flavors and hues – from light to dark, mild to strong tasting – because the color and flavor of honey comes from the flowers used to make it. Depending on the source of the nectar, it can be mild (like clover honey), spicy (like alfalfa honey), or fruity (like blueberry or orange blossom honey). Other honeys are herbal, buttery or woodsy; there are hundreds of distinct types. As a general rule, the darker hues have the boldest flavors.

Commercial honey is often a blend of honeys from many sources. It is also filtered and pasteurized; processing removes important phytonutrients.

Organic raw honey purchased from local beekeepers is the most eco-friendly sweetener. The saturated liquid is extracted from the honeycomb by centrifugal force. It’s not cooked; it doesn’t require any processing; it is minimally packaged: and it doesn’t waste fossil fuel to get to you. Although honey stores well, the freshest honey is found in late summer and early fall.

Once a rare treat found and gathered from wild beehives, honey was prized for thousands of years as both food and medicine. It was the primary sweetener until the industrialization of sugarcane in the 19th century. It was regarded as sacred and used in religious ceremonies in cultures from China to the Middle East to Europe.

Honey was widely used in folk medicine and prized for its healing benefits. The Chinese, Indians, ancient Greeks, Romans, and Arabs used honey in combination with other herbs and on its own, to treat wounds, burns, respiratory ailments and various other diseases.

Stone Age cave paintings in Spain show women climbing to gather honey from a wild hive. It was mentioned in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings, the Hittite code, and in sacred writings of India and Egypt — all before 2100 B.C.

The art of beekeeping (apiculture) probably started in Egypt or Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have found hives in Israel dating to 900 B.C.

Greek and Roman writers like Homer and Plato mention honey. Aristotle and Virgil describe beekeeping practices. When Europeans came to the New World, they found that beekeeping was already developed in native Central American cultures.

Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC), the father of medicine, said: “I eat honey and use it in the treatment of many diseases because honey offers good food and good health.” Modern clinical studies have substantiated these ancient claims. Honey’s antimicrobial properties come from its acidity, osmotic effect, hydrogen peroxide, and other antibacterial substances. Even though it tastes sweet, honey is moderately acidic. Hydrogen peroxide, the major antibacterial compound in honey, is created when enzymes convert glucose into glucoronic acid and hydrogen peroxide.

Medical studies confirm honey contains many different nutrients, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and enzymes. Of special interest are the flavonoids and phenolic acids which act as antioxidants. Other phytonutrients in honey have cancer-preventing and anti-tumor properties.

Today we know that raw honey is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. Honey also boosts immunity, and has been shown to be an effective cough suppressant. It may even promote better blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity due to its composition (the combination of glucose and fructose with antioxidants).

As with any other product, know where your honey comes from and how it is harvested. Buy local, organic honey labeled “100 percent pure” that has not been pasteurized, clarified or filtered.

Store honey in a cool, dry place. An airtight container will prevent absorption of moisture from the air. Honey’s acidic pH helps inhibit growth of harmful microorganisms. Warm temperatures will cause the honey to darken and may alter its flavor.

When substituting honey for sugar in recipes, use less, because it is 40 percent sweeter than sugar, and omit some of the liquid. Baked goods made with honey are moist and dense, because honey is hygroscopic – that is, it attracts moisture from the air, keeping baked products from drying out. When baking, use 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey to replace 1 cup of sugar, and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons. Lower the oven temperature by 25°F because honey causes foods to brown faster than sugar.

Honey Lemon Tea

This is especially good for a cold or sore throat.

Ingredients:

1 cup boiling water

1 teabag of your choice

pinch of cinnamon

2 teaspoons honey

juice of half a lemon

Directions:

Pour water over teabag. Allow to steep three to five minutes. Add a pinch of cinnamon and the honey and stir to dissolve. Squeeze in the juice from half of a fresh lemon. If too tart, add additional honey to your taste.

Honey Butter

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)

1/4 cup honey

Directions:

Soften butter in warm place. Whip butter and honey with a beater to combine. Serve with bagels, rolls, or toast.

Honey Mustard Salad Dressing

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoons mayonnaise

2 Tablespoons plain yogurt

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 Tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Directions:

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Stir into potato salad, use as a dressing for tossed salad, or serve as a dip for chicken tenders.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as

Author

Yvona Fast.

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