Pure honey is just as layered and complex as wine and chocolate and equally deserving of our appreciation. During Rosh Hashanah, we eat honey as a reminder that we want to have a sweet and good year ahead, but honey is not just for dipping challah and apples in or baking in a cake.
People have been eating honey since the seventh century, and its healing and medicinal properties are well documented. Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life —including water — and it’s the only food that contains a substance called pinocembrin, which is associated with improved brain function.
Recently, I toured an African honey farm with its owner and top beekeeper, Sandie Ejang, to learn about bee farming and honey production, on her 60-hive, 40-acre property in western Uganda. Ejang’s company, Asali Wa Moyo, which means “sweetheart” in Swahili, is one of the largest boutique honey producers in Uganda. Wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m an apiarist — what’s your superpower?” Ejang explained that the varietals of honey and their flavor are determined by their nectar source and the location of the hive.
Sure enough, I tasted honey from northern Uganda, where the nectar source was avocado trees and wildflowers, producing distinctly darker honey with butterscotch and caramel notes. Another honey, produced by bees feeding on mango blossoms, produced a clearer, subtler honey with a mild flavor reminiscent of a flower. Climatic changes can produce a slightly different flavor in the honey from year to year, even with the same nectar source.
You can be forgiven for thinking that honey producing is a bees’ only job. In truth, bees are one of our more important resources. Since honey bees visit millions of blossoms in their lifetimes, collecting nectar to bring back to deposit in their hives, they make the pollination of plants possible. In fact, 80 percent of all fruit, vegetable and seed crops in the world are pollinated by honey bees, and although a single honey bee will visit from 50 to 100 flowers on a single trip out of the hive, it produces only about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Worker bees produce the honeycomb that comprises hexagon-shaped cells through the consumption of the honey and must ingest about 8 pounds of honey to produce one pound of beeswax.
Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life.
Ejang told me that the buzzing sound produced by bees is the sound of their wings beating at an incredible 11,400 times per minute. The design of the honeycomb and constant fanning of the bees’ wings causes evaporation, which creates the liquid honey. Beekeepers harvest it by collecting the honeycomb frames and scraping off the wax cap that bees make to seal off honey in each cell. Once the caps are removed, the frames are placed in an extractor, a centrifuge that spins the frames, forcing honey out of the comb.
In Africa, where many of the rural beekeepers use hollowed-out logs as a home for the hive and then smoke them out with fire in order to collect honey, Ejang is so passionate about the sustainability of beekeeping that she makes every effort to keep the bees alive throughout the process. Since honeybees die after they sting, it’s important that the bees are not agitated or stressed during the collection process, so they will come back to the hive and begin working again immediately.
After the honey is extracted, Ejang brings the combs to a processing plant Kampala where she strains it to remove any remaining wax or other particles. After straining, she bottles the liquid gold in glass containers, labels them and sells them at farmers markets and through her website. She points out that there is plenty of fake honey on the market made from corn syrup or liquid glucose and consumers should be wary if the label doesn’t say “pure honey,” an indication that nothing was added from bee to hive to bottle. There are, however, a few things Ejang adds to make flavored honey, and my sampling included honey steeped with cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger and even bee venom, the poison excreted during a sting that makes it painful. Apparently, bee venom heals wounds and reduces inflammation associated with arthritis and can even be used on the skin as a natural “botox” alternative. Remember you heard it here first!
After I got back from the farm, fresh from my inspiring honey tasting with virtually a bathtub’s worth of honey on my hands, I experimented with another ancient flavor combination that I use in the lamb tanjia recipe that follows — saffron honey. Saffron and honey are thought to be natural aphrodisiacs. Remember this when you are around the table celebrating the holidays this year, and you notice there is an extra sparkle in the eyes of your guests.
Next time you see a bee buzzing around a flower in your garden collecting nectar, think about the miracle of honey bees and stop to appreciate beekeepers like Sandie Ejang who work their magic all over the world to make our lives sweeter.
1 /2 cup light-colored, pure honey
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, preferably from Iran, Greece, Spain or Morocco
Pinch of sea salt
Using a mortar and pestle, crush the saffron threads with salt until it turns into a powder. Gently heat the honey in a small saucepan and add the saffron. Let heat until warm and store in a clean glass jar until use. This makes a great spread for toast, and it’s heavenly drizzled on top of yogurt and fresh figs.
MOROCCAN LAMB TANJIA WITH DRIED FRUIT
6 to 8 lamb shanks (about 10 pounds)
1/4 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped
8 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 pinch smoked paprika
1 cinnamon stick*
1/4 cup dried whole apricots
1/4 cup dried whole prunes (pits removed)
1/4 cup dried whole figs
3 carrots, peeled and cut into spears lengthwise
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves washed and chopped coarsely
1 /4 cup saffron-infused honey (recipe above)
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Trim lamb shanks of excess fat or membrane, wash and dry thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in an oven-safe pot or Dutch oven and brown meat on all sides over medium-high heat.
Remove meat and set aside. Turn down heat to meduim and place chopped onion and garlic in pot. Sprinkle with salt and fry until translucent and starting to caramelize. Add all spices and fry until fragrant — about a minute. Add dried fruit, carrot spears, cilantro leaves and saffron honey and stir.
Add the meat and then the wine (if using) and just enough water to barely cover the meat — about 1 cup.
Cover pot with tight-fitting lid or transfer to a clay tagine or tanjia pot, reduce heat to 275 degrees F and place in the oven.
Slow cook at this low temperature for 5 to 6 hours, then remove pot from oven and carefully open the lid. Meat should be tender and fall off the bones and liquid should be syrupy and thick. If not, continue to cook tanjia on the stovetop on medium heat until sauce reduces. Skim fat from top of stew, taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
*Remove cinnamon stick before serving. Serves 8 to 10.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.