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Honey has been a fundamental part of human existence for over 10,000 years. From Stone Age wild honey hunts to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting beekeepers using clay pipe hives, the magic of honey flows through the past and present of a myriad of cultures the world over. We spoon it into tea, drizzle it over yoghurt and spread it on toast, yet if we look beyond the bland squeezy bottles on our supermarket shelves to raw, unprocessed honey, an untapped world of flavour presents itself. A spring English honey might be pale gold and creamy, thanks to bramble and hawthorn blossom, while in autumn it may be dark, runny and rich, reflecting plants like ivy and rosebay willowherb. An Australian winter honey might be verdant and aromatic from eucalyptus blossom. Delightfully, no two honeys are the same.
I’ve written this book to lift the veil a little on the mercurial craft of beekeeping and cooking with honey. We’ll follow the bee’s wing through the seasons as different flower species bloom, offering a fresh insight into how the best honey is made, and why single-origin honey from small-scale beekeepers is the ultimate flavour expression of terroir – just like the best wine, extra-virgin olive oil, coffee and chocolate. There’s ample advice for bee-friendly gardening, learned in my work as a Kew Gardens-trained horticulturist and garden designer, and an in-depth look at the marvel of pollination, to discover just how flowers and their insect pollinators work together to produce the pot of gold in your kitchen.
Honey has inspired generations of cooks to dream up delicious dishes and drinks both savoury and sweet. Below, curious cooks will find new takes on familiar favourites, much-loved historic traditions and modern plates.
Inspired? Here are four recipes to try at home
Black Garlic & Lime Tomatoes
This salad is sweet and bright, but with deep umami flavours from the tomatoes and black garlic paste. Fresh buffalo mozzarella, torn into large chunks, is an excellent addition to the party. Let the tomatoes sit in the dressing and aromatic leaves for a good hour at room temperature before serving.
Roughly chop the tomatoes, discarding the watery seeds as you go.
Add the black garlic paste, olive oil, smoked salt, lime juice, vinegar, honey and lime powder into a bowl. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan and, while still hot, pour half the seeds into the dressing bowl and set the other half aside. Whisk the sizzling sesame seeds into the dressing until emulsified.
Combine the tomatoes, basil and dressing, tossing to coat, and set aside for an hour to develop the flavours.
Drain the sliced onion and stir through the tomatoes, then arrange on a plate. Tear over the mozzarella, if using, and scatter with the remaining sesame seeds.
Smoked Lime & Honey Chicken
This smoky, salty, zesty sharing feast is a great one for the BBQ on summer evenings. Serve with a big green salad and cocktails. The black lime powder here really is something else; fusty mummified limes transform into a deeply aromatic magic powder you should use on anything and everything.
To make the black lime powder, blitz the limes in a powerful, sharp-blade blender and pulse until finely powdered. Put in a bowl to one side.
To make the toasted guajillo chilli powder, toast the dried chillies in a dry, hot frying pan until charred, then blitz in the blender and pulse until finely powdered. You can shake out the seeds before toasting for less heat, if you like.
Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Set aside 3-4 tablespoons for the potatoes. Add the chicken thighs to the remaining marinade and thoroughly coat. Cover and refrigerate, preferably overnight, to allow the flavours to infuse the meat.
Remove the chicken from the fridge and grab two pairs of metal skewers. Skewer each thigh across 1 pair of skewers, moving onto the second pair when you run out of room; you should get 5 or 6 thighs on each pair.
Cook the potatoes and corn in a pan of salted boiling water until the corn is done, around 5 minutes. Drain both thoroughly and pat dry with kitchen paper. Loosen the reserved marinade with the glug of oil and use to coat the par-boiled potatoes.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas mark 6, or prepare your griddle pan on the stovetop, or your BBQ on indirect moderate-to-hot heat. Roast, griddle or grill the chicken for 15 minutes, then flip and add the potatoes on a tray and cook for another 15 minutes. Once cooked through and crispy round the edges, remove from the heat. Take the chicken off the skewers and toss with the potatoes and the corn cob rounds.
Apply the yogurt thickly to a serving plate and smooth slightly. Sprinkle with Tajin. Arrange the chicken, potatoes and corn cob rounds across the yogurt. Scatter over the jalapeño and radish slices, chopped coriander stems and leaves. Squeeze half a lime over it all and cut the rest of the limes into wedges to squeeze over the finished plates. Finish with the sea salt, a grind of black pepper and another sprinkle of Tajin and serve with a fresh salad.
One grey Wednesday in June, I was five short days away from needing to send this manuscript to my editor, and my partner was taking Zoom calls from the bedroom floor having done his back in; we were both thoroughly exhausted. I made these beans, a quick variation on smoky Boston beans, for a speedy lunch. They have everything you need to restore you as you break the back of the day, or your own. Sweet and smoky enough for rich comfort, spicy enough to give you some pep in your step for the rest of the afternoon, and quick enough to feel doable when your mind is full.
Soften the shallot in the oil in a pan over a low heat – I find having a lid on speeds up the softening and reduces the chance of catching. You want it to soften, not fry. Add the garlic after a few minutes and cook gently for another minute or two.
Up the heat slightly and add the paprika, fennel seeds, cumin and oregano, with a little extra oil if necessary. Once fragrant, turn the heat down, add 1 tablespoon of the ’nduja and cook for a couple more minutes until softened through. Add the beans, honey, mustard and salt, and a little water to loosen. Stir, then cook over a low heat for 10 minutes or so while you prepare the toast and eggs, adding a little more water if necessary.
Pop the bread in the toaster and poach the eggs. Generously butter the toast, of course, and add a scrape of Marmite, if you like.
In a small frying pan, add the remaining ½ tablespoon of ’nduja, the extra pinch of fennel seeds and drizzle of honey, and warm gently. Stir the vinegar through the beans, before serving piled on toast, with a poached egg on top, and a little of the fennel ’nduja oil atop the egg to finish.
Honey On Toast Ice-Cream
I once had (untoasted) brown bread ice cream, half chewy with flecks of blitzed, malty wholemeal. It tasted a little like if you froze a bowl of soggy Weetabix, only creamier, and was kind of incredible, but that’s not the sort of bread to bring much pleasure at any time of day. For this ice cream, I suggest a good crusty slice or end of white or wholegrain bread to get all the toasty caramelised flavour from its Maillard-ed outer. If you want to use sourdough, go for a mild one. Clover honey is my favourite honey to spread on toast, so I’ve suggested it for this recipe. As the honey isn’t heated, go for a good-quality raw one to enjoy all of its flavour.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas mark 4.
Toast the bread then cut into small pieces.
Warm the cream gently in a saucepan, remove from the heat and stir through the toast, reserving a few pieces for garnish. Steep for 30 minutes, then strain through a sieve, pressing the soft toast to release as much cream as possible. Allow the cream to cool fully.
In one bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, then whisk in the honey. In another bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks, then add the egg yolks and briefly whip through. Fold the cream mixture thoroughly into the egg whites, transfer to a lidded freezer container and freeze for at least 4 hours.
Serve with the reserved toast crumbled over the top and an extra drizzle of honey.