Honey in its natural state has been valued since antiquity as a wonderful food though like most others should be enjoyed in moderation. It is a mixture primarily of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose in varying amounts, and over thirty important enzymes and phytochemicals in tiny fractions.
The ratio of fructose to glucose in the nectar, along with the ambient temperature, will determine if it crystallises or not.
That from the jacaranda for example is high in fructose and tends to stay liquid, especially as it is harvested in the summer.
Unprocessed natural honeys that stay liquid are hard to come by in South Africa; you won’t see them often on the shelves. Citrus and kidney beans are two other examples.
Nectar from gum trees is much lower in fructose and so the honey tends to crystallise very quickly, especially as it harvested in autumn and winter when temperatures are much lower.
Without question the most natural form of honey is in the comb; it is completely unrefined with all the goodies intact, but it is hard to come by and is very expensive because you are paying for the wax too. All the rest is processed to one degree or another including my own; buyer beware.
Food producers and manufacturers are faced with a difficult moral dilemma; do you supply the public with what they want, or do you only give them what is good for them? The profit motive creeps in too, needless to say.
No question of it, the public prefers liquid honey from a squeeze bottle; it’s so easy to spread over your cereal or toast.
Honey in the Midlands of South Africa comes primarily from the gum trees. As stated above it crystallises very quickly and to give the public what they want, manufacturers heat the honey and put it through very fine filters to remove every last vestige of pollen that might act as a seed on which this process of precipitation will start.
The important enzymes that make honey unique are denatured and frankly it’s a junk food, of little more value than sugar or syrup. A purist would not touch it.
Added to that honey, along with olive oil and milk, is one of the three most highly adulterated foods in the world. Unscrupulous bottlers, utterly without any ethical principles, add high-fructose corn syrup which is cheap, and very nasty.
Insulin is not responsive to fructose so you can have dangerously high levels of sugars in the blood stream with little protection from the hormone.
Plus the raised proportion of fructose means that it won’t crystallise, giving the public exactly what they want; runny honey. It is estimated that around a half of that on the shelves has been doctored in this way and even experienced beekeepers are often none the wiser.
Part of the reason for this I believe is because we have lost the art of eating our food mindfully, enjoying the textures and innate flavours. It just gets shovelled down whilst watching TV, or we are engrossed in other matters.
Extracting honey from the comb in some ways actually increases its value; the nutritious pollen and propolis that help with allergies and inflammation are also spun from the frame and finds their way into the liquid-gold. In the Midlands it will tend to crystallise very quickly.
It is the safest way to ensure you are getting a good product; it should have fine crystals and not separate out.
It is often called raw honey, meaning it has not been heated in any way, and should not even have been ‘warmed’ though many beekeepers may bend the rules slightly.
It should not, even at the point of contact between the heating element and the honey, be raised above the temperature in the hive; around 40*C.
Make a habit of smelling your honey when you first open the bottle; it should have the rich, deeply-scented aroma of millions of flowers. If it has none at all, or worse gives off an awful stink then you can be sure that it has either been processed or adulterated.
One of the problems with our local gum honey is that when it crystallises it becomes extremely hard; almost like rock, and the consumer doesn’t like it. Putting the bottle in a brown paper-bag on a sunny windowsill will soften it.
The other option open to the beekeeper, the one in fact which I have chosen, is to take some of the choice honey from last year and whip it briefly into the liquid just before it crystallises.
Seeding it in this way gives it a very smooth texture that will not be rock-hard. We call this ‘set’ honey. It is beaten in this way for at most a few minutes; there is no intention of whipping air into the mixture.
And finally there is that which is creamed. It is treated in the same way as set honey except that it is whipped for a much longer time with the specific intention of beating air into it, not unlike beaten egg-whites. It is super-smooth, will actually pour, and is very nice for spreading on bread.
It tends to be expensive because of the extra processing but I personally have concerns about what effect the oxygen might have on the honey. And to muddy the waters, some unscrupulous bottlers may cream corn-syrup into it.
In short, if you are a connoisseur and want decent honey find a small beekeeper you can talk to, or even consider keeping a hive or two in the garden; it really is a good option.
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