Friday, September 20, 2013

Honey, You Should See Me with a Hive, or The Honey Connoisseur

Title: The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey, With a Guide to More Than 30 Varietals
Author: C. Marina Marchese & Kim Flottum
Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
Publication Date: June 4th, 2013
Read: Summer 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Non-fiction with a side of cooking
Rating: 4.5 Happy Honeybees

This book made me want to find a swirly skirt and go spin around in a verdant field somewhere à la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Does that sound weird for a book about honey? I might have thought so prior to reading, but it’s really not—as this book enlightened me, so much of how honey tastes is dependent on the land where it’s produced, and The Honey Connoisseur is a wonderful celebration of that fact, and the locations, plants, and bees that bring us this delicious food. Beautiful pictures of the outdoors! Fields of greenery and flowers! Honeybees working hard! Twirl with me!

I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. I really enjoyed this book. (Can you tell?) Wow—it covered more stuff than I ever knew I didn’t know about honey—how bees make it, how it’s harvested, its composition… It’s a very thorough, well-written guide to honey, and the authors’ passion and enthusiasm for their subject is contagious. Did you know heat can compromise honey’s delicate flavors because it makes the volatile organic compounds, which are components originating from the flower whose nectar was collected, evaporate? No? Neither did I! Did you know a worker honeybee (they’re exclusively females!) will make only 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her life? I didn’t, but I’m glad I do now! It certainly puts that bear-shaped bottle of honey in my pantry into perspective.

Following that first chapter educating us on honey, bees, and the related basics is a lovely chapter about the concept of terroir, or how the environmental factors (soil, in particular) of a certain location affect the flavor of the food that is grown (or in the case of honey, produced) there. It’s a beautiful, enlightening discussion, with pretty pictures to help you understand what plays into the terroir of certain regions. As you may have guessed, this is where the desire to frolic in a meadow came in.

The next section of the book (and quite a big chunk at that, 82 pages!) is devoted to a discussion of many plants from which varietal honeys are made, accompanied by tasting notes on each and illustrations of the plants in question. These plants range from the well-known kings of honey, like clover, to the delicious and intriguing, like blackberry and apple blossom, to the unexpected, like avocado. Before I really knew what was happening I found myself with plans start a honey hoard and host a honey-tasting party.

Ever the thorough authors, there is also a chapter concerning the dark side of honey, including illegitimate honey finding its way to our grocery stores (hilariously called “funny honey”), the many ways in which it can be made illegitimate (such as “cutting” it with sugar, like a drug!), industrial honey-processing vs. smaller-scale honey production, honey from genetically modified plants…like I said, thorough. Who knew there was so much stuff like this going on in the world of honey?

After that foray into honey’s gritty underworld, we transition into that most fun and interactive part of the book—tasting! You will have to provide your own honey samples, unfortunately, but they provide the rest. The authors’ goal with this chapter is to “help you learn to identify and appreciate the flavor of every honey you taste,” and to that end they cover how to observe the color, how to inhale the aroma, and the proper tasting technique. Other fun extras to help you along in developing your connoisseurship include a plan/supply list for honey-tasting, a color guide, a tasting scorecard, an aroma and tasting wheel, and a glossary of terms to consider and use to describe the aroma and flavor. To go further still with your honey-tasting adventures, there is a guide to planning your own honey-tasting party (they must’ve read my mind earlier), a practical guide to selecting and purchasing good quality honey, a guide to pairing honey with cheese and other foods, suggested tasting flights and menus, and the book ends with a few simple honey recipes.

I love honey; it’s my favorite sweetener, and now I know more than I ever knew there was to know about it! This makes me very happy. (The pretty pictures make me very happy, too.) This is not a cookbook, and it’s not a simple surface treatment of the subject—it’s a comprehensive and ardent love letter to honey and a guide to initiate readers into the club. If you are into honey, or want to be, I think you’ll love this book. If you have more of a passing interest in the subject and your relationship with honey is more of the "the honey, it tastes good in my tea" variety, I believe you’ll still find something that interests you in this book, but you may not read it cover to cover. Or maybe you will, when a passion for honey you never knew you had awakens as you read!

How does honey rank in your personal hierarchy of sweeteners? Have you ever felt the urge cavort through the countryside amongst the wildflowers and honeybees? Do you think there’s such a thing as edelweiss honey? Inquiring minds want to know…

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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