23 Oct Covered in Honey
by Mani Niall
If you think recipes sweetened with honey belong exclusively to stodgy, hippie-style, health-conscious cuisines, Mani Niall would like to change your mind.
As chef and spokesperson for the National Honey Board, Niall claims that honey offers a sophisticated complexity of flavor that goes beyond mere sweetness. In his book Covered in Honey: The Amazing Flavors of Varietal Honey, he offers new culinary uses for Nature’s oldest sweetener, and hopes to entice us to seek out and use honeys beyond those found in our local grocery stores.
The book begins with a journey into the history and mythology of honey. In The Mythical History of Honey, Niall goes as far back as the time of the Pharoahs in Ancient Egypt to demonstrate the reverence held by countless cultures for this sweet, natural substance. In the next chapter, Bees, Beekeepers and the Honey Jar, he takes us into the bee hive, explaining such fascinating details as bee society, the role of the queen, the life cycle of bees, as well as the structure and function of the hive itself. He also reveals how varietal honey is made, gathered, and prepared for consumption. Throughout this section, Niall’s deep respect for bees and beekeepers is not only evident, but infectious. It is hard not to feel some sense of wonder about this ancient and remarkable substance.
The following section, entitled The Sweet Stuff: Varietals and How to Pair Honey in Cooking, examines varietal honey in detail. Niall categorizes honeys into four groups according to their predominant flavors – fruity and floral; herbal; spice; and deep and earthy – and provides detailed instructions for the process of honey tasting. The list of varietals is extensive, and I could easily appreciate how certain honeys, particularly the more strongly flavored ones, imbue a dish with lovely nuances of flavor. While Niall’s enthusiasm for honey is clearly evident, it tends to make his writing a bit hyperbolic. Describing the taste of sunflower honey as “pure sunlight in a bottle” is beautiful, but it doesn’t tell me much, nor does reading that fireweed honey tastes “as light and bright as the beautiful purple flowers that pop up after a wildfire.” Still, I couldn’t help but be curious about the more than three dozen varieties of honey described in this section of the book.
The balance of the book is dedicated to more than 100 honey-based recipes. The range of recipes – from drinks and snacks, to entrées, sides, and desserts – illustrates this ingredient’s amazing versatility. Some recipes, such as Fig and Roquefort Bread with Tarassaco Honey or Basswood Honey-Baked Beans, call for the use of a specific honey, while others, such as Pumpkin-Cranberry Muffins or Honey-Mustard Chicken, are less specific.
I made the Warm Teriyaki Beef and Soba Noodle Salad, which requires two tablespoons of buckwheat honey for the marinade and dressing. The salad was zesty and flavorful, with a warm gingery sweetness that infused every delicious bite; but I suspect it would not have been any less tasty had I used plain old grocery-store honey, which Niall admits can easily replace varietal honey in any of his recipes. As many of his creations call for a specific honey plus some sugar, however, it’s clear that he is not out to replace sugar; rather, he hopes we begin to use honey for its range and depth of flavor instead of mere sweetness.
Although written in a very accessible style with relatively straightforward recipes, Covered in Honey is not for every home cook. This book is targeted to those curious about varietal honeys – and those willing to invest the time and money in finding them – suggesting that it will most likely hold appeal for the culinary cognoscenti. If your pantry is, like mine, stocked with sea salt, kosher salt, and fleur de sel, it is more likely you would bother seeking out sourwood, wild oak, or tulip poplar honey; otherwise it seems like a lot of fuss about what is basically just a sweetener.
And herein lies the attitude that Niall is working to change: He likens our current attitude toward (and ignorance about) honey to the approach North Americans took toward wine twenty or so years ago, wherein all wine was basically seen as either red or white. Today, people are much more aware of exciting varietals such as Shiraz, Barolo, Riesling or Viognier, all of which bear their own distinctive characteristics. It is Niall’s hope that a similar interest in varietal honey will develop, and his cookbook is one way of championing his cause.
With its pages of honey lore and charming illustrations of bees, flowers and hives, Covered in Honey would make a lovely addition to the library of anyone who delights in exploring Nature’s sweetest gift.
Review by Tania Denesiuk
Tania Denesiuk is a cookbook reviewer for The Gilded Fork, and she writes, cooks and eats in Toronto, Canada. Her culinary adventures can be found at www.candiedquince.ca.