Not all honey is created equal. Some tastes like a summer's day, dappled with lemony sunshine and wildflowers.
Others point to their specific source. That mahogany ooze like thick grenadine? Pomegranates. A creamy spread laced with tropical flavors? Hawaiian lehau. Golden syrup with a heady citrus scent? Orange blossoms.
"But orange blossom honey from California is totally different from Florida orange blossom honey," said Amina Harris with a knowing smile. "The terroir of honey is very specific."
Harris heads the new Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis. Part of the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, the center wants to do for honey what other California experts have done for olive oil.
The biggest benefactors? Bees. These days, they need all the help they can get.
Colony Collapse Disorder has wiped out billions of bees, which are used by California agriculture to pollinate almost 100 crops. Honey often is considered a byproduct, not the hives' main job.
By focusing on honey, the center hopes to shift bee business back to a sweeter place.
"We just opened at the end of October," Harris said. "We have really big plans and goals. Our mission: Educate everyone about different ways we can use honey and help them understand varietal honey."
To broaden bee understanding, the center may have found a little sweet spot: honey tastings.
"Right now, people want to support the bees," Harris said. "Honey is a natural way to do that."
During last month's Picnic Day on campus, the center hosted its first tasting of all-California honeys. (Pomegranate proved the most popular.)
"We had 2,000 people come through," Harris said. "People are so interested in different varieties and the whole concept of honey-tasting."
The center hopes to develop a "honey wheel," like a wine wheel describing the attributes of each varietal.
"We want to enhance people's honey language, give them a way to describe what they're tasting," Harris explained.
Different honeys are better for different tasks, she noted. Clover honey with a hit of cinnamon and vanilla finish pairs well with butter, slathered on a piece of bread, or as an ingredient in shortbread cookies. Hawaiian honey is a natural for sweetening coffee.
To raise its profile, the center recently released its first UC Davis wildflower honey. Sold in 12-ounce jars for $9, the all-natural honey is available at the UC Davis bookstore (including its online outlet, www.ucdavisstores.com). In just three weeks, the store sold 35 cases.
The locally sourced UC Davis honey is a blend of spring wildflowers.
"It's very light, very floral; like a bouquet of Northern California wildflowers," Harris said of the honey. "It's not overtly sweet, but has some acid up front. I think it's actually quite extraordinary."
In addition, the center published note cards featuring the bee photography of UC Davis' Kathy Keatley Garvey. Also available from the bookstore, the cards sell for $3 apiece or eight for $18. Proceeds benefit the center's projects.
"Ideally, what will happen is that people will start demanding better honey just like olive oil," Harris said. "If demand goes up, beekeepers can demand a better price for their honey. More people will get interested in the bee industry. It's a win-win for everybody especially the bees."
Home tour on river
About 30 miles south of Sacramento, Walnut Grove holds a lot of history.
"It's the only town that actually sits on both sides of the Sacramento River," said resident Sally Christie. "We have several beautiful old homes, particularly on the west side of the river."
Next Saturday, people can see for themselves during the Delta Home Tour. Hosted by the Walnut Grove Community Presbyterian Church, the tour offers a rare chance to see two distinctive landmarks: Carr Jones' whimsical circular house and the handsome Orchard Gables mansion. A contemporary Southwestern retreat with a fortlike lookout and a working ranch house with many modern amenities are on the itinerary.
"We're very excited about the Carr Jones house," said Christie, noting its unusual design. "Most (local residents) have never been inside."
Due to parking restraints, patrons will be shuttled to the homes from Jean Harvie Community Center, 14273 River Road, Walnut Grove. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 on tour day. A box lunch ($15) can be preordered, too. For tickets, call (916) 776-1106 or visit www.wgcpc.com.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.