“It reminds me of walking through a meadow of wildflowers. The flavour is musky and woody, and has a spicy pepperiness. It pairs well with a creamy brie.” Jacqueline Bender isn’t making tasting notes on a full-bodied red wine, but on a spoonful of Tasmanian Leatherwood honey. A beekeeper, Bender runs honey appreciation classes at Melbourne’s Bee Sustainable, walking punters through a selection of unifloral samples from around Australia. Unifloral honeys, for those playing at home, are honeys derived from the nectar of a single flower. And here in Australia, there’s no shortage of them.
When we think of terroir – the reflection of the land in an edible product – we usually think of wine. The same idea can be applied unifloral honeys, each carrying a signature of their natural setting and a botanical record of their bees’ voyage. These go beyond the standard squeezie of sweetener to offer a bottled bold taste of place.
“People are amazed at how different each honey can taste,” says Bender. Her workshops might include tastings of Stringy Bark, Yellow Box, Mallee and Banksia honeys, each harvested from beehives placed in select locations at calculated times. More on that in a minute.
A quick biology refresher: honey bees leave their hives to collect nectar from the flowers of blossoming plants, bringing the nectar back to the hive to transform it into honey. When making a pit stop at each bloom, the bees brush against the plant’s pollen, which sticks to their furry coat and legs, ending up in the hive and in their honey, too.
While most commercially produced honeys are created by bees that visit of a mix of flowers (producing multifloral honeys), unifloral honeys (or monofloral honeys) bear a dominant plant nectar and pollen. That’s thanks to decisions made by savvy beekeepers about where and when to place their hives, based on intimate knowledge of flowering seasons, along with the way that bees like to work.
And while the process is natural, there’s a certain amount of calculation involved. “There’s an optimal moment to take your hives to the flowering source, when 25 per cent of the flowers have already opened,” Bender says, adding that bees are creatures of habit, exhausting the nectar from one plant before moving on to the next. “As soon as you let the bees out of the hive, they’ll find those flowers and stick to them.”
Say a beekeeper is keen to produce Yellow Box honey. They’ll move their hives to a bush location where they know that enough Yellow Box trees are set to flower, and will harvest that honey before the bees start foraging for the next set of blooms. The difference between regular honey and Yellow Box? “It reminds me of lollies. It’s thick like toffee, and smells like fairy floss with flavours of butterscotch, caramel and vanilla,” says Bender, who likes it spread on a warm crumpet. “[The crumpet is] a plain base to let the honey shine.”
We've mixed both shredded and flaked coconut in this loaf for a textural tease. Just toast, spread with ricotta and honey — and someone to bring it to you in bed — and you've got the makings of the best Saturday morning.
Homemade crumpets don’t have as many holes, and take a while to cook, but the good news is, you can make them ahead because they’re even better toasted a few days after making. You can use crumpet rings (available from good cookware stores) which will make 12 crumpets. If you use egg rings, it will make 20.
Australia’s unique native plants allow beekeepers to produce unifloral honeys unlike those from anywhere else, offering a floral fingerprint of the honeys’ distinct environments. Showing a spectrum of colours, flavours and aromas, the unifloral honeys available from a particular region reflect what grows in that territory – dark, caramel Jarrah honey from Western Australia; mild, golden Red Gum honey from along Victoria’s Murray River; malt-like Jelly Bush honey from the northern New South Wales coast.
Honey so effectively captures its environs that even multifloral samples will vary from suburb to suburb, with the crop of ultra-local honeys spurred by the rise of backyard beekeeping. “The honey from Northcote will be different to the honey from Thornbury,” says Bender of honeys from Melbourne districts.
Unifloral honeys can also be harvested from wild introduced species; for instance, blackberry honey from Tasmania; from farmed introduced species, like orange blossom honey, where hives are placed in orchards; or from farmed native species, such as macadamia honey from Queensland, which is delicate and nutty.
Bender is experimenting with harvesting her own chestnut honey, having placed hives on a chestnut farm in Gippsland, Victoria. “I tried it in Italy a couple of years ago, but it’s not common here, so I thought it’d be unique,” she says. “My chestnut honey is gamey, animal, it tastes herbaceous. I tried it with ricotta and it’s the perfect combination.”
When it comes to the bees themselves, species vary around the world. Australia has a number of native bee species, including the stingless Trigona carbonaria, which does produce small quantities of honey – traditionally sought after from wild hives by Aboriginal communities – but nowadays these bees are usually kept in hives by people who want to help support the pollination of native plants.
It’s the European honey bee, or Apis mellifera, that’s used in Australia to produce honey commercially. Introduced to Australia in the 19th Century, they now thrive here. “When the first colony of bees was introduced in 1822, there are stories that they swarmed and swarmed and swarmed. They just went crazy over all this nectar,” says Bender. She explains that native gum trees produce relatively high volumes of nectar compared to other plants, and that Europe’s harsh winters meant those bees had adapted to storing 25 kilos of honey to graze on through the cooler months – that’s double the amount they need to survive a temperate Australian winter.
Despite all this evidence that Australia provides a pretty darn perfect environment for unifloral honeys, they’re often in limited supply. That’s because this approach to beekeeping requires a lot of added attention, state-controlled beekeeping spots available in bushland are scarce, and local native plants are super biodiverse (so it’s harder to keep the bees to one singular source).
“Unifloral honey is hard work,” says beekeeper Antonia O’Brien, who runs Wellington Apiary in Tasmania with her husband Robin, producing unifloral Prickly Box and Leatherwood honeys. Moving hives at just the right time and ensuring sufficient flowers are available in order to produce enough honey is labour-intense and important work. “Climate change is also having an impact on irregular flowering, while drought has resulted in no nectar being produced.” Earlier this year, Tasmania also saw harsh bushfires, which decimated Leatherwood forests.
Keen to offer the strongest reflection possible of the local environment, the O’Briens choose not to heat their honeys at any point during the harvest process, which is often a technique used to improve the consistency of honey in commercial production. They also opt for a coarse, rather than a fine, filter to allow the pollen inside the honey – and so, maximum flavour – to pass through to the final product. “It’s about capturing the taste of a single flowering source as a whole,” O’Brien says. “This year, our Leatherwood honey has a distinct marzipan flavour.” Her insider tip: use it to sweeten a panna cotta.
While Leatherwood itself is not a eucalyptus, most Australian honeys are produced from eucalyptus nectars. Trevor Weatherhead, executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, says local beekeepers are accustomed to working with at least 50 to 60 species of eucalyptus trees. “You’ve got to know your botany, you’ve got to know how and when they flower,” he says. He explains that dedicated apiary sites in state forests are leased by beekeepers to ensure access to the right eucalyptus blossoms, but are in especially high demand due to residential development in those areas.
Australia has a whopping 894 native species of eucalyptus. Not only does this range demand expert botanical knowledge from beekeepers, but the close similarity among eucalyptus pollens makes it difficult to define what constitutes a particular unifloral honey produced from eucalyptus nectar. Melissopalynology – the study of pollen and its source within honeys – has been used in Europe to regulate the quality of unifloral honeys, but this niche branch of study is so far unchartered territory within Australia.
“They all have the same general morphology. It’s like looking at a different varieties of apples, with very subtle differences,” says Dr Kale Sniderman of eucalyptus pollens. He’s currently carrying out government-sponsored research into the geographical origins of Australian honeys using melissopalynology. While it’s straightforward to tell the difference between a eucalyptus pollen and the pollen of a totally different type of plant, distinguishing between pollens from individual eucalyptus trees is much tougher as they are so structurally similar.
That’s unlike the European unifloral honey scenario, where, say, linden pollen is structurally different from chestnut pollen, so it’s easier to classify and set industry standards for a linden honey and a chestnut honey based on their pollen content. “This is my first venture into honey analysis,” says Sniderman, whose background is in looking at fossil pollen grains to interpret how climates have changed in the past. “I think I’m the first person to do it [in Australia].”
Weatherhead says beekeepers keep records of where their hives have been placed and of what was flowering, in line with quality assurance guidelines. There are currently no formal standards outlining what characteristics a particular Australian unifloral honey should have, but these records are used (alongside sensory testing) to decide whether honey should be labelled Yellow Box, or Iron Bark, or Red Mallee, and so on.
Though Australian demand for unifloral honeys is still small right now, interest is on the rise, says O’Brien. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the provenance of their food, and want to know how it’s produced,” she says. For Bender, the growing interest is down to rising awareness of the plight of bees worldwide. “Because of that, they’re becoming more aware of the uniqueness of honeys.”
Crepes and duck: Photography by Brett Stevens. Styling by Marcus Hay. Food preparation by Angela Devlin.
The gelatin in these delicious jellies is great for gut health, and the chamomile and manuka honey in this recipe are also brilliant at soothing the digestive system and balancing gut bacteria. I just threw the raspberries in because they look pretty!
This Scottish roast chicken is basted with a sweet honey glaze made from a mixture of mustard, curry powder and local honey made from heather flowers found around the Scottish moorlands. Reddish-brown with a pungent, slightly bitter and smoky flavour and with floral aromas, heather honey is truly one of a kind. Another unusual characteristic is its gel-like consistency that only liquefies upon stirring. Once used to make ale and mead, heather honey is now more commonly used in Scottish whisky and desserts. Due to its limited availability in Australia, we’ve substituted heather honey with manuka honey, another strong, aromatic variety.
As is the case in many countries, honey in Korea is regarded as a highly nutritious food that cures various ailments. It’s no surprise then that these fried sweets, known as yakgwa, literally mean ‘medicinal confectionery’.
This panna cotta is based on a recipe from Vini, Berta’s sister restaurant. There they serve it with a coffee caramel and dark roasted almonds and I think it may be one of the most perfect desserts, creamy, light and delicate with a touch of bitterness and crunch. This version aims to explore the honey element found in the recipe and pair it with some fresh summer fruit. Find a type of honey that tickles your fancy – Italian chestnut honey is strong and very aromatic or use some nice local Australian variety.