When you think of Rosh Hashanah, you might recall this classic song from the early 1960s, and popularized by the Beatles:
“A taste of honey, tasting much sweeter than wine …”
Honey is a gustatory and sensory experience most powerfully perceived during Rosh Hashanah, as we dip apples into honey, swaddle our bread in honey and serve pastries imbued with honey. However, picking the right honey can make a big difference in the Rosh Hashanah experience. It is similar to choosing the right wine for a Passover seder.
One of the most pervasive customs around Rosh Hashanah is eating apples dipped in honey. Apples are symbolic of the Garden of Eden and represent the sweet year that we hope to have. Honey symbolizes the sweetness of life and encapsulates our hopes for the new year. It is also a reminder of one of the biblical attributes of the Land of Israel, a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
But the mass-produced commercial honey that we consume in plastic squeeze bears nowadays is a far cry from traditional raw honey. Most commercial honey brands go through a heat sterilization and ultra-filtration process to extend shelf life, make the product look smoother and prevent crystallization, making it easier to pour.
Unfortunately, the processing causes the honey to lose much of its nutritional value. It also strips out beneficial enzymes, eliminating honey’s natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. What remains is mostly refined sugar in liquid form. In some cases, honey is adulterated with fillers such as glucose, high fructose corn syrup and even starch.
By contrast, raw honey is honey in its original form, fully produced by bees. Buying a good-quality raw honey means you are getting a product full of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidant polyphenols, pollen, enzymes and probiotic bacteria such as acidophilus.
Buying raw honey from beekeepers at farmers markets is one way to ensure you are getting real honey. Most major supermarkets also carry raw honey. Real, unadulterated honey should contain the producer’s name and information on the product label. It should say “raw” and “unpasteurized” on the package.
You might be tempted to choose your Rosh Hashanah honey based on the cheapest price, the biggest container or the most familiar major brand. What I’ve found, though, is that after you expand beyond the world of pasteurized, mass-produced honey, you enter an exciting world of different varietals, tastes and textures. It’s like the choice between a cheap table wine and a fine wine for the Passover seder. Which do you choose — and why?
Just like “A Taste of Honey” suggests, a fine honey really tastes sweeter than wine. And much like a fine wine, a fine raw honey provides a great richness and subtlety of flavors on your tongue.
You may have noticed honey jars with names like clover, orange blossom, avocado, sage and buckwheat. But varietals are not flavors. They derive from different nectars produced by different flowers. And each has slightly different properties that serve various culinary uses. Clover honey is the most versatile, even enlivening brisket. Orange blossom fits with chicken and citrus. Clover and sage spruce up a raisin challah. Sage also rounds out an herbal or green tea. And avocado adds bold notes to nondairy ice cream.
If bee’s honey isn’t for you, or if you have a raw honey allergy, you can use a honey substitute. The most common is date honey, known as silan in Israel. Date honey is actually not honey at all, but the concentrated syrup from dates. If you are strictly vegan, date honey offers the advantage of being fully plant-based, as opposed to being produced by bees.
Ironically, when the Torah uses the phrase “eretz zavat chalav u’d’vash” (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), “d’vash” refers to date honey. And dates also are mentioned as one of the Seven Species native to Israel — and by which the Land is praised. It’s even more fascinating when you consider that dates are among the first fruits of the fall harvest!
Just like “A Taste of Honey” suggests, a fine honey really tastes sweeter than wine. And much like a fine wine, a fine raw honey provides a great richness and subtlety of flavors on your tongue. With so many honey options available, consider embarking on a little honey adventure this Rosh Hashanah. You may find that the experience pleasurably enhances your holiday and your palate.
Michael Tanenbaum is a writer and marketer living in Los Angeles. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of ConsciouslyKosher.