With the season’s annual sense of renewal, spring flowers bring (hopefully) bees buzzing – and thoughts of honey.
Not surprisingly, honey sweetens many spring favorites for Passover gatherings. The Jewish holiday begins at sundown Monday.
“Honey is intrinsically kosher,” noted Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science.
That makes it a perfect, and symbolic, ingredient for such celebrations. Since Moses’ day, honey has represented agricultural abundance. For Passover, honey sweetens kugels, glazes strawberries and accents savory dishes.
“I make a cheesecake with a ground almond crust, honey, cinnamon and butter,” Harris said. “(Honey) is great for fruit tarts of all kinds.”
Saturday, the Honey Center hosts its second annual Pollination Day as part of UC Davis’ Picnic Day. At the Honey Center, families are invited to taste varietal honeys, dress up like busy bees for photos and observe real bees up close.
“We had so many people line up for tastings last year, we decided to double our tasting stations,” Harris said. “We’ll sell local honey (including the Honey Center’s own UC Davis honey) and do lots of family activities. It will be a lot of fun.”
Recent perils to our bee population have made consumers more aware of this important insect. Honeybees pollinate more than 130 California crops, including almonds, California’s largest agricultural export. More than 780,000 acres of almonds grow in California, and for pollination, they need an estimated 1.6 million hives, more than 60 percent of the nation’s total.
Colony Collapse Disorder, the often puzzling malady that kills honeybees, has taken a heavy toll.
“We’ve had 30 percent loss (of the hives) every single year,” Harris said.
Concern over the collapse disorder has prompted widespread concern over bees and bumped up honey sales at record high prices.
According to the American Beekeeping Federation, national honey production reached 149 million pounds last year, up 5 percent from 2012. Prices edged up to $2.12 wholesale a pound.
On average, we eat about 1.5 pounds per person, three times as much honey as we ate 20 years ago.
“I have absolutely seen a surge in the popularity of honey,” said Marie Simmons, author of “Taste of Honey” (Andrews McMeel, $19.99, 192 pages) and a spokeswoman for the National Honey Board. “I think it’s for a variety of reasons, including perhaps the back-to-the-earth movement, farmers markets, comfort foods (and) yearning for hearth and home, unprocessed foods and natural foods.”
The collapse disorder goes far beyond California as a worldwide problem, she added.
“Wide reporting in the media has brought much-needed attention to the issue and an awareness of the importance of the honeybee – especially since honeybees provide a vital benefit to agriculture through pollination of many food crops. This in turn has manifested itself in passion for honey as a pure food.”
Added Harris, “People ... think by eating more honey, they will help the bees. That’s fine. But what they really need to do is (to) stop spraying pesticides and herbicides in their own gardens. People know bees are important, but they don’t want them in their yards. That’s a major disconnect; people don’t realize how they contribute to bee health.”
Honey still represents just a taste of America’s sweet tooth, Harris noted. “The average consumer eats 47 pounds of sugar a year and 35.1 pounds of corn syrup. So, there’s lots of room for honey growth, sadly.”
With new focus on an ancient food, consumers are rediscovering honey, particularly varietals derived from different flowers. Pollen sources give distinctive flavors to the bee’s final product.
Orange blossom and clover are the most familiar varietals. But there are many more, such as avocado, buckwheat, eucalyptus, pomegranate and wildflower. The National Honey Board lists more than 300 varietals.
Although millions of bees pollinate almonds, almond honey is rarely sold to the public due to a bitter aftertaste, Harris said. “And you’ve got to watch labeling. (Recently), I saw a ‘truffle honey’ that was actually truffle oil-infused. When was the last time you saw a honeybee go underground to pollinate truffles?”
As an ingredient, different honeys change the way the final dish tastes.
“Varietal honeys are appearing in both farmers markets and on the shelves in local grocery store chains,” Simmons said. “Many chefs are featuring honey on their menus, often mentioning a particular varietal.”
She said she prefers to match certain flavor profiles with specific foods.
“Light-colored floral honey I love with cream, butter and other mildly sweet dishes, like drizzled on a scoop of vanilla ice cream or over a dish of vanilla yogurt. At the other end of the spectrum, I am very fond of deep, dark amber-colored and robustly flavored honeys, especially as an ingredient in barbecue sauce or used to sweeten chocolate pudding or brownies.
“I also love honey with the bright tang of herbs such as mint, fennel or sage, drizzled over a slice of cheese and served as a sweet/savory dessert.”
That can create some tasty buzz at your own dinner table.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.