• Honey tasting is a sweet art. (Getty Images / Sebastien Durand)
And for the rest of us, tips on how to avoid bad honey and buy the good stuff.
By
Kylie Walker

1 Mar 2018 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2018 - 12:57 PM

The next time you lick the spoon after drizzling honey on your warm buttered crumpets, take a moment to appreciate that golden wonder. Is it a gentle caramel dollop, or a strong dark coastal honey? Is it a raw honey, made by happy, healthy bees dipping into a particular flower? Or maybe you’ve tapped into one of Australia’s growing honey trends, macadamia honey (we’ll come back to that in a minute).

Making your own crumpets is deeply satisfying - try our recipe and slather on the honey!

 

Now, that’s probably about as far as most of us will get, before ditching the spoon and diving into our warm, honey-drizzled brekkie. But dedicated honey lovers are taking things one step further. Imagine spending four days in “honey school” in Bologna in Italy, learning how to taste and describe honey.  The Albo Nazionale degli Esperti in Analisi Sensoriale del Miele – the National Register of Experts in Sensory Analysis of Honey – trains hundreds of beekeepers and others with a passion for honey every year. The four-day course (offered in English for the first time last year) is the first of three levels of training; those who complete all three levels can join a prestigious national register.

And it’s not just Italy’s best beekeepers signing up for these intense honey evaluation courses – the 258 currently accredited graduates of the full three levels of training include American honey sommelier Carla Marina Marchese.

See Carla Marina Marchese introduce Action Bronson and Australia’s fried chicken king, Morgan McGlone, to some of Italy’s best honeys in this episode  of The Untitled Action Bronson Show, now streaming on SBS On Demand.

While most of us aren’t likely to be heading off to honey school, we figured the experts behind the courses might have some handy tips for the rest of us on how to buy good honey, avoid bad honey and store our jars of liquid gold. So we chatted to Dr Gian Luigi Marcazzan, a honey researcher for more than 25 years, president of the Albo Nazionale and one of the regular instructors on the courses.  

“The best thing is to know a trusty beekeeper. If you don’t I suggest choosing a product whose appearance is homogenous and clear. Avoid the product that is in two layers – liquid and crystallised. Consider that honey is liquid only within a few month from harvest; then the natural physical state that it assumes is solid (crystallised),” Dr Marcazzan tells us.

“Liquid honey in autumn or winter will have been very likely pasteurised. I suspect that most commercial honey on supermarket shelves has been pasteurised.” That process, he says, might destroy some of the honey properties, along with changing the aroma and flavour.

Colour, on the other hand, doesn’t indicate good or bad honey; instead it shows where the bees collected nectar, especially if you’re looking at a unifloral honey, one where the bees have collected mainly from one type of flower.  “For example chestnut honey is very dark and acacia honey is very light,” says Dr Marcazzan, who suggests honey as an excellent holiday souvenier. “A good idea is to buy honey whenever you are on vacation in different places. You will be able to enjoy the high variety of smell and taste honey can offer. “

“Storage is very easy. The honey is a very resistant product, just keep it away from warmth and light. Storing it in your cupboard is okay. You don’t need to put it in the refrigerator. “ But it is better if the temperature is below 20°C, he says. “So, if you have bought a lot of your favorite honey, put a jar in the cupboard and the rest in the cellar or a cool room.”

Australia doesn’t have any accredited graduates of Dr Marcazzan’s courses yet – although he’s hoping  that will change.  “I think the limits for Australian people are the distance and the language. But now we have classes in English.”

But we are becoming more interested in honey.

At the Mayfair Hotel in Adelaide, executive chef Bethany Finn is passionate about bees. The breakfast spread at the hotel includes a honey trolley, with bee pollen, honeycomb and pots of 10 different honey varieties – including a sample from the two hives installed on the hotel’s roof in 2016, now home to around 40,000 bees.

“The honeys on offer are all raw honey, meaning not heat treated, and are from small producers.  The honey trolley is something unique and celebrated at breakfast with guests finding it great to try the different flavours and learn a bit more about honey,” Finn says.

Finn, who also has hives at home, has studied beekeeping with help from Adelaide’s Bee Sanctuary, a group that encourages natural beekeeping and sells local honeys.   

Why the passion for bees?

“I have always been a bit of an environmentalist. Introducing the bee hives was my contribution to the environment.  Growing up, the land near our home had a few beehives. I was always intrigued with the hives and as you can expect with a very cheeky child taking the honey from the hives for tasting  - yes, I was stung so many times!,” Finn says.

Finn says she has noticed Australians becoming more aware of the plight of bees (the colony collapse syndrome killing bees around the world and other challenges), and the different kinds of honey available. “The word is out about the different varieties of honey and people are becoming aware of the difference with raw honey and not being heat treated.”

Wherever you live, getting your hands on a good honey is easier than it used to be – partly because of the rapid growth in amateur beekeeping.

Former commercial beekeeper Trevor Weatherhead, the executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Council  (which represents the peak industry bodies in Australia, including honey producers, packers, queen bee breeders and equipment suppliers), tells SBS there’s been a dramatic increase in beekeeping in the past three to four years.

Keen to give it a go?
Beekeeping 101: how to setup (or adopt) your own hive
With benefits that extend far beyond a delicious honey supply, backyard beekeeping is a growing trend that’s likely to stick around – here’s how you can get involved.

Although interest in single-flower honey  isn’t new -  “20 or 30 years ago different producers were recommending different honeys for different things, especially when cooking with it,” Weatherhead recalls – it is more widespread.

“More and more unifloral honey are coming onto the market – you can see that in supermarkets, too,” he says. 

What you like may depend on the honey you grew up eating. “For example, here in Queensland people on the coast are used to the darker, stronger coastal honeys, but up in the Darling Downs they like the yellow box, which is a lighter honey.”

Few honeys come from commercial food crops – Weatherhead explains that the bees don’t get what they need to stay healthy – but there’s one exception that’s proving popular with buyers.

“Macadamia has come to the fore in recent years. Macadamia plantations are increasing in number, so more beekeepers are working those plantations. The growers like it because it helps pollination. It’s one of the few commercial crops where they [beekeepers] can get a crop without it affecting the health of the bees, and the egg laying of the queen. You need a good pollen and nectar source for the bees to breed well.”

As chef Ainsley Harriott says as he slathers honey on toast in the Honey episode of The Great British Food Revival, “Honey's just not honey. There's so many different varieties, so many different flavours.” 

Watch the honey episode of The Great British Food Revival  6pm Thursday 1 March on SBS, as Ainsley Harriott whips up delicious dishes with honey and meets amateur beekeepers and bee researchers, or catch up on all the episodes so far on SBS On Demand. 

Explore SBS Food's honey recipe collection here, including Ainsley Harriot's honeyed duck breasts with rosti and creamed cabbage and bacon

Let the honey shine in these
Blue cheese with honey, thyme, dates and fried onions

This is so simple, but it shows how an assembly of great ingredients can work so well together.

Honey crepes with caramelised bananas and mascarpone

The secret to the perfect crepe is its thinness. While you can fill your crepes with almost anything, this caramelised banana and honey version absolutely pops and if you love your honey then an extra drizzle before serving never goes astray. 

Chamomile, manuka honey and raspberry jellies

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!