Life & Culture

We asked a beekeeper how to get the best from your honey

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we found out how to have the sweetest new year


Great honey cake needs high-quality honey. “You’ve got to start with something really good if you want the end result to be brilliant,” says Amy Newsome, author of Honey: Recipes from a Beekeeper’s Kitchen, which was published this summer.

It’s all about the flavour says Newsome, a beekeeper and garden designer. “Cheaper blended honey will have been produced using a mixture of honey from all over the world by manufacturers aiming for one consistent flavour.” Avoid honey with labels that don’t say where they are from or are from a blend of EU and non-EU honey, she says.

Heat degrades the golden nectar’s flavours — ultimately reducing it to something akin to golden syrup. If honey is heated above a certain temperature during processing, it cannot be labelled as honey.

Her advice is to buy the best honey you can afford — a decent jar made from one type of flower such as orange blossom or lavender that tells you exactly where it’s from. This honey starts out with character and a range of floral aromas. “When you use that good honey in cooking, you’re much more likely to end up with something that still has that floral flavour.”

Like olive oil, wine and coffee, honey varies with terroir — the landscape and climate of the area in which it’s from and where the bees have foraged. And wouldn’t you want your New Year’s bake to be as full of flavour as possible?

Which honeys are best for apple dipping? Seek out artisan producers says Newsome: “Find whatever honey is local to you and start from there. Everyone has a local beekeeper, even in the centre of London.

“Go for a blossom honey as opposed to a tree or forest honey as they tend to be pretty mild and heavy on the floral aromas. Almost all honey is blossom honey in the sense that bees are feeding on nectar from flowers to make it.

“Look out for those labelled orange or apple blossom, wildflower or just blossom honey. This means the bees have been feeding on a whole range of plants in the landscape in that local area. These have a nice perfume to them, which, when you’re eating them with chunks of apple, tend to go really well with the tart, fruitiness of apple.” Heritage varieties such as clover honey — which has a creamed, soft-set consistency — are also good. “We used to use clover as a great nitrogen-fixing ground cover and animal crop. Intensive farming and the invention of chemical fertilisers post-war meant we used it less. Now we’re moving to using less chemicals and natural methods to add nutrients to the soil, clover is coming back in as a cover crop. It’s really bee-friendly if allowed to flower.

“Bees will forage over an area between one and three miles from their hive, but less if possible. If you’ve got quite a large farm and (for example) several fields of borage, that’s a large enough area for the bees not to be feeding on anything else. You just give them a large enough area of one flower type, to know they’re feeding on that.”

To make wildflower honeys, producers take their hives up to those areas when there’s nothing else flowering on those hills. If you want to really nail it down, you can even check the pollen grains from honey, which will be unique to specific flowers. That confirms what the bee has been feeding on.

Newsome recommends borage honey — “runny, clear and mild” — and a lovely UK-grown alternative to the more ubiquitous acacia honey. “It’s a good entry-level honey for people who find the taste of honey a bit strong.” She suggests drizzling it over salad or young cheeses.

Back to baking and Newsome has a few more tips for honey cake perfection, explaining that because it’s essentially a sugar and water solution made up of fructose and glucose (and not simple sucrose like sugar) honey behaves a bit differently in bakes. “It can tend to overbrown. You may see your cake in the oven, and it has got to a good level of browning you may think it’s done, but not realise the inside is still raw. The slightly browned outside will have an incredible flavour.” Just pop foil your cake once it has got a nice colour on the outside or keep the foil on loosely until it is baked then allow it to brown with the foil off.
And even though there’s been a longstanding whisper among Jewish bakers that the “wrong honey” is to blame for honey cake fails, Newsome is sceptical. “Honey is a super-saturated solution, so it never has above a certain percentage of water in it. You might get some that have a little more than others, but I don’t think it’s enough to determine whether a cake cooks thoroughly or not.”

Nonetheless, she admits to retaining at least some sugar as well as the honey in her bakes as, she says, it plays an important role. “It’s a very stable ingredient to work with whereas honey behaves a little bit differently because of its composition.”

Crystallisation is a natural part of honey’s ageing process. “The minute you open a jar of honey the atmosphere in your kitchen will start to affect it and crystallisation can occur.”
There’s a simple fix: “Stand the sealed jar in a bowl of warm water to let it heat gently. Microwaving also works, but you run the risk of overheating it and ruining the flavour of the honey for good.”

Newsome recommends some fun ways of flavouring it including fermenting and smoking it. “It makes it a whole new ingredient. Honey draws out the liquid from flavourings you put in it. I add a few bruised garlic cloves and leave them to ferment in there, which makes amazing garlic flavoured honey to use as an ingredient.”

She suggests adding a few quartered, fresh figs to a jar of honey to give it delicious figgy notes. She also smokes honey in a shallow dish over her barbecue using cherrywood or other fruit wood. “You get a lovely smoky sweet spoonful that you can add to so many things.”

So take time this year to choose the best honey and your new year spoonful will be the sweetest yet.

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