May 20 is World Bee Day so I’m devoting a whole column this week to honey, nature’s most delicious, interesting and biodiverse sweetener.
Honey has long been prized for its medicinal properties, now backed up by modern medicine and a growing body of scientific research. I’m a big honey aficionado.
Ancient Ireland was known as the Land of Milk and Honey and coincidently the name Ballymaloe means the Townland of Sweet Honey. The anglicised version of the Irish Baile Meal Luadh — ‘meal’ means ‘honey’ and ‘luadh’ means ‘soft’ or sweet. These names entered into the language more than 2,000 years ago and have always reflected a particular attribute of that place. So Ballymaloe must have been well known for the quality of the honey from the area.
At Ballymaloe Cookery School we have some hives in the pear and apple orchard looked after by our local beekeeper. Both honey and bees are utterly intriguing, the colour, flavour and aroma of honey reflects the flora from which the bees collect the nectar. Heather honey tastes and smells quite different from mixed flower or apple blossom, ivy, rapeseed.
Honeys from further afield have their own distinctive taste. Lavender honey captures the aromatic essence of the lavender plant as does chestnut, orange or acacia blossom. Honey from pine forests which I also love, tends to be more resinous and a deeper amber colour.
The New Zealanders did a brilliant marketing job on Manuka honey when they discovered that it was most effective in killing antibiotic-resistant infections such as MRSA. However, it’s not the only honey with these and many other healing
attributes. Raw honey is increasingly being used to treat wounds and burns that are difficult to heal. Other studies have shown its efficacy as a cough soother.
Raw honey is the term used for honey that has not been heat treated to extract the honey from the combs. It still has its full complement of antioxidants, enzymes and anti-bacterial properties. It looks paler in colour, and sets almost solid in the jar. In Ireland we have an astonishingly wide range of honeys.
Check out the local beekeeper(s) in your parish. I seem to favour honey from small local producers. Talk to the beekeeper, hear the story, each honey will taste different and contain the antibodies and enzymes of the area, which help to counteract eczema and hay fever. Look out for city beekeepers too. The Dublin Honey Project is intriguing as is Belfast Bees; there are similar projects in London, Paris and New York.
How about keeping bees yourself? It’s really thrilling to have your own honey. It’ll be slightly different every year depending on what the bees are feeding on and the prevailing weather.
If the idea of doing the beekeeping yourself doesn’t appeal, contact your local beekeeper, they are often delighted to have a few more hives, particularly in an organic garden or on a rooftop in an urban or rural area where there are little or no pesticides. Scientists are convinced that neonicotinoids have been damaging bee colonies and have a dramatic impact on ecosystems that support food production and wildlife.
The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 after a major report from the European Food Safety Authority concluded the widespread use of these chemicals is in part responsible for the plummeting number of pollinators, vital for global food production.
They pollinate three-quarters of all crops. Finally, governments appear to be listening to their citizens’ concerns, so hopefully the bee numbers will begin to recover. Nature, given half a chance, has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate.
Honey is not only brilliant lathered on toast, I regularly add a spoonful to savoury dishes, dressings and salads to balance acidity and add a sweet-sour element.
The herb and vegetable gardens beside the Ballymaloe Cookery School are bursting with a myriad of lettuce and salad leaves and edible flowers. The gardens are open to the public every day except Sundays.
A selection of fresh lettuces and salad leaves:
eg. Butterhead lettuce; oakleaf lettuce; iceberg lettuce; lollo rosso; frisee; mesclum or saladisi; red orah; rocket (arugula); edible chrysanthemum leaves; wild sorrel leaves or buckler leaf sorrel; wild garlic leaves; salad burnet; pennywort; borage or hyssop flowers; young nasturtium leaves and flowers; marigold petals; chive or wild garlic flowers
Herb leaves, eg, lemon balm, mint, flat parsley, golden marjoram, annual marjoram, tiny sprigs of dill, tarragon or mint
Green pea shoots or broad bean tips
Tiny chard and beetroot leaves
Mustard and Honey Dressing
150ml extra virgin olive oil
50ml white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tsp honey
2 heaped tsp wholegrain honey mustard
2 cloves garlic crushed
First make the dressing: Mix all the ingredients together and whisk well before use. Wash and dry the lettuce and salad leaves. If large, tear into bite-sized bits. Put in a deep salad bowl, add the herb sprigs and edible flowers.
Toss, cover and chill in a refrigerator until needed. Just before serving toss the salad in just enough dressing to make the leaves glisten, save the remainder of the dressing for another day.
12oz (350g) honey
8fl oz (225g) oil — eg, sunflower
1lb 1oz (470g) jumbo organic oat flakes
7oz (200g) organic barley flakes
7oz (200g) organic wheat flakes
3½oz (100g) organic rye flakes
5oz (150g) seedless raisins or sultanas
5oz (150g) peanuts/hazelnuts, or cashew nuts split and roasted
70g wheatgerm and/or millet flakes
2oz (50g) chopped apricots (chopped dates are nice too)
Toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds are also delicious
Heat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.
Mix oil and honey together in a saucepan, heat just enough to melt the honey. Mix well into the mixed flakes. Spread thinly on two baking sheets.
Bake in the heated oven for 20-30 minutes, turning frequently, making sure the edges don’t burn. It should be just golden and toasted, not roasted.
Allow to get cold. Mix in the raisins or sultanas, roasted nuts, toasted seeds, chopped dates, apricots and wheatgerm. Store in a screw top jar or a plastic box, keeps for 1-2 weeks.
Serve with sliced banana, milk or yoghurt.
4 handfuls rocket leaves
2 soft Ardsallagh Goats cheeses
1 tbsp best quality local honey
Maldon sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
Divide the rocket leaves between 4 large plates or 1 large flat serving plate. Slice or dice the goat’s cheese and sprinkle on rocket leaves. With a teaspoon, drizzle the honey over the rocket and cheese in a grid pattern. Drizzle the salads with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Finally, season with sea salt and black pepper and serve.
2 cooked beetroot, peeled and very thinly sliced on a mandolin
16 small mint leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Maldon sea salt
Cracked black pepper
Divide the sliced beetroot between four white plates. Cut some of the raspberries in half lengthways and some in cross-section slices, and scatter over the beets. Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
Dress the salads evenly with a drizzle of honey, a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle on the tiny tender mint leaves and serve.
Note: I sometimes place a few teaspoons of thick yoghurt or labne on the salad when assembling. If the mint leaves are a bit coarse as they sometimes are in late summer, remove the spine, roll and slice into a chiffonade instead.
This wonderful Moroccan dish, which Claudia Roden gave us, derives its special flavour from the tomatoes in which it cooks ( there are mountains of them which reduce to a thick sauce ) and from the honey which comes in at the end.
1 free-range chicken
3 tablespoons butter or oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 onion, grated
1 clove garlic , crushed
1-2 teaspoons cinnamon¼ teaspoon ginger
A pinch of saffron (optional )
1 ½ kg ( 3lb ) very ripe tomatoes , skinned and cut into pieces or 3 tins x 14ozs
2 tablespoons honey (with a good perfume like Hymettus )
For the garnish:
50g ( 2oz ) blanched almonds ( optional)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
It is considered more elegant to cook and serve the chicken whole but more sensible to cut it into pieces. Claudia prefers to cut it into quarters as this ensures that the flesh is impregnated with the sauce at all times.
Put the pieces in a large pot with the butter or oil, salt, pepper onion, garlic and spices , and the tomatoes.
Cook gently, covered, stirring and turning the chicken over frequently until it is so tender that it can be easily pulled off the bone.
Remove the chicken and reduce the tomato sauce further to a thick creamwhich sizzles in the separated fat. Stir often and take care that the bottom does not stick or burn when the tomatoes begin to caramelize.
Then stir in the honey and put the chicken back to heat it through.Fry the almonds in oil or toast them and toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan or under the grill.
Serve the chicken hot covered with the sauce and garnish with almonds and sesame seeds.
Beekeeping for Beginners
If this article has whetted your appetite for honey and beekeeping I should tell you that we have beekeeper extraordinaire Shane Lehane coming to the Ballymaloe Cookery School to teach a one-day course on June 6. Shane is a brilliant and very knowledgable teacher whose enthusiasm is infectious. He will also introduce the practical side of beekeeping.
Participants will have a chance to learn about beekeeping equipment, bee suits, beehives, smokers and the full spectrum of beekeeping paraphernalia.
For more information or to book a place go to www.cookingisfun.ie
La Maison de Meil
Honey-lovers should make a pilgrimage to La Maison de Meil on 24, Rue Vignon in Paris. It was founded in 1898. There is a mind-boggling selection of honey from all over France and the world.
While you are there check out Les Abeilles which is another gourmet grocery store on 21, Rue de la Butte aux Cailles.
Many, many temptations.