Cider, lavender, crème brûlée, cola, apricot, marshmallow, a “honeysuckle explosion.”

The descriptors came fast and furious on a late August afternoon as three experts and one amateur (me) tasted and talked honey. The tasting was skewed, slightly, toward local honeys and scheduled just ahead of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which starts Monday evening. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews eat honey, in the form of honey cake or with apples, as a sign of hope for a sweet year ahead.

As with beer, wine, cheese and other tastings, the honeys went from pale (delicate) to dark (robust, intense). And as with other tastings, a tasting wheel – in this case supplied by the Honey and Pollination Center at the University of California, Davis – helped tasters put words to perceptions, offering a thesaurus-full of possibilities ranging from “cooked butter” to “peony,” from “rain” to “gym bag.” On the advice of Phil Gaven, co-owner with his wife, Meghan, of The Honey Exchange in Portland’s Deering Center, we stopped at six in order to avoid palate fatigue, and we drank water between samples to cleanse our palates.

“Honey is made from sunlight, water and the energy from bees and plants. That’s it. There is no other input,” taster, beekeeper and Overland Apiaries producer Erin MacGregor-Forbes explained later. (Given that, the range of flavors is stunning.) “The natural world is producing this sweetener right here. It’s the most ethical sweet source there is.”

BEES ARE IN CHARGE

The Gavens provided parameters for the blind tasting, supplying the painter’s palettes that kept the samples organized as well as most of the honey, and gently steering me away from the original idea of tasting local honeys only. Since bees around the state are collecting nectar from similar trees and flowers, honey from a single region like Maine, Phil Gaven said, differs mostly by season. Unlike with items like beer, say, in which the brewer makes many decisions – which hops and malt to use, what temperature to brew, which flavoring to add, how long to ferment – with honey, the bees, not the beekeepers, are in charge.

Spring honey in Greater Portland, typically collected around July 4, comes to no small extent from fruit trees, locust and linden trees; fall honey, collected around Labor Day, is from aster, goldenrod and Japanese knotweed. Ecologists hate the highly invasive knotweed, but honeybees love its creamy, clustered flowers, and it transforms into honey the color of “a bottle of red wine,” MacGregor-Forbes said.

Some beekeepers also collect midseason honey, which Phil Gaven described as tangy, fruity and bright. Mixed perennials and wildflowers, clover, annual flowers and purple loosestrife together supply much of the midseason nectar in Maine; loosestrife is also an invasive, but hey, honeybees themselves were introduced to the Americas by European colonists.

“The flavor of the honey is 100 percent determined by the nectar,” said MacGregor-Forbes, who tends to hives in Portland, Falmouth and Freeport. “The plants determine the flavor, the medicinal properties, everything about it. Literally, all the content comes from the nectar. The bees are just evaporating the water off.”

To illustrate these seasonal differences, we tasted Ocean Breeze spring honey (Willard Beach, South Portland), Funk Apiary midseason honey (Windham) and Hildreth Family fall honey (North Yarmouth), along with two non-local honeys selected by the Gavens: Hawaiian coffee honey and Northwest maple honey.

I snuck in a jar of wild blueberry honey (Madison), figuring it was the quintessential Maine honey, a perfect illustration of taster Meghan Gaven’s point that “people like honey that tastes like where they live. People want to taste what they know, and what they know is what they grew up smelling. It feels right. I think your body just goes, ‘Aha. This is what honey tastes like.'”

But even before Phil Gaven had the chance to disillusion me about blueberry honey – “It’s not radically different from standard summer wildflower honey in Maine. I don’t know if I’d be able to pick it out blind,” – the man who answered the phone at Rosemont Market on Brighton Avenue did the job for him.

“Honestly, I think it’s a bit of BS,” he said. “There is no way you can put a bunch of bees in the field and contain them and tell them only to get nectar from blueberry bushes. I’d be interested to hear if you can tell the difference.” Honeybees will typically travel up to 1½ miles from their hives to gather nectar.

Rosemont wasn’t carrying blueberry honey, but the fellow on the phone was charitable: “If some of our farmers can make a little money selling blueberry honey to gullible tourists, well bless them.”

In fact, none of the tasters identified the blueberry honey, although MacGregor-Forbes came awfully close. “Spicy, berry, grass, refreshing,” her tasting notes said. Chef Sean Doherty, of the recently opened Cera sandwich shop in Monument Square (“cera” means honeycomb in Latin, the restaurant incorporates honey into its menu, sells private label honey, and donates some profits to bee conservation) described it as “warm, marshmallow.” My own notes merely say, “very mild.”

Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes consults a tasting chart during a honey tasting. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

HONEY AS METAPHOR

“Very mild” would probably not be used to describe Rosh Hashanah, which begins the High Holy Days, a 10-day period Jews also call The Days of Awe or The Days of Repentance, that ends on Yom Kippur. During that period, Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged over the previous year. God is said to write down the names of all Jews at the new year, deciding, based on past behavior and real atonement, who over the next year will live or die, have a good life, or a difficult one. On Rosh Hashanah, sometimes called the Day of Judgment, Jews greet each other with “l’shana tova,” shorthand in Hebrew for “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

So where does sweet, manifold, remarkable honey figure into the holiday? As a child, I was simply taught that “hope for a sweet new year” trope.

But, “like anything Jewish, there are people who build meanings on top of meanings,” said Rabbi Aaron Shub of Portland’s modern orthodox Shaarey Tphiloh congregation. He referred to Hasidic writings about honey and Rosh Hashanah and dairy and Shavuot, the latter a late spring/early summer holiday that commemorates God giving the Jewish people the Torah. These writings argue that dairy, which is eaten on Shavuot, is blood (cattle) transformed into milk, while honey is bees transformed; neither insects nor blood is kosher, but dairy foods and honey are. Similarly on Rosh Hashanah, Jews should examine their sins of the previous year “and make a radical transformation of who we are,” he explained.

While the “overriding theme” of the 10 days of Jewish holidays are “the fearful days, the terrible days, the days of awe,” going hand in hand with these, Shub continued, are the themes of joy and celebration. “The sweet new year aspect is in keeping with the whole idea of combining celebration and joy with repentance and self-examination.

“We want to self-reflect,” he said, “but we don’t want to walk around thinking we are dirt. Rather, we are capable of making these changes and worthy of them. We deserve this honey. We deserve this sweetness that the honey gives us.”

There’s one other occasion, make that 52 occasions, on which Jews traditionally eat honey and which is likewise meant to set the tone for a happy future: In the first year of their marriage, newlyweds eat honey with challah on the sabbath each week to denote that “they should have a sweet life together,” Shub said.

Sean Doherty, chef at Cera, tastes honey. The sandwich shop has a focus on bees, and Doherty’s wife is a backyard beekeeper. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SKIP THE SUPERMARKET 

To extend the metaphor (too far), depending on which honey they pair with their challah, our newlyweds might set a tone for a marriage like “caramel,” “butterscotch,” “leather,” “spicy” or “warm,” all terms taken from our tasting notes. One thing any sensible young couple would surely want to avoid, however, is supermarket honey, which is sourced from, well, a single 3-pound jar of it in my cupboard identifies itself as “product of USA, Argentina and Canada” (reminding me of studies that say 1 pound of supermarket ground meat may contain bits from as many as 400 cows).

The honey we tasted was raw and unprocessed. To keep it fluid, to prevent crystallization, in other words, supermarket honey is heated above 140 degrees and the impurities removed, at which point, says Phil Gaven, it loses both some of its health benefits and its character.

“Commercial processed honey has a very distinctly different flavor,” agreed MacGregor-Forbes. “You know how there is so much difference between grocery store tomatoes and the ones at the farmers market? Same thing.”

That’s if the honey you are buying at the supermarket is honey at all. Fake honey dumping from China has been a concern for U.S. beekeepers for more than a decade. The honey is mislabeled, adulterated and often made from rice syrup, MacGregor-Forbes said, adding frankly, “You cannot be guaranteed at all that you are supporting real North American beekeepers when you are buying crap out of the store.”

Even if you stick to hyper-local honey, which the Gavens don’t think is necessary as long as the honey you get is unprocessed, the flavors can quietly vary. If the bees that made your honey got into mint or thyme, if the linden trees bloomed over a week of sunny days when the bees were out and about, if the hives sit near apple trees, and much more, the honey will hint of its environment.

“Getting small-producer honey opens up a window that is worth looking through,” MacGregor-Forbes said. “If you have a habitual honey that you buy, try something different and see. I am one of these people who go to a restaurant and order the same thing again and again because I know I like it. Not doing that with honey is a good thing. Try the differences.”


Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SWEET CHEAT SHEET

We tasted six honeys, in this order, from light to dark. All but one are available now at The Honey Exchange in Portland, which sells a great many more than these, as well. Our collated tasting notes follow the price. In general, light-colored honeys are delicate and are spring honeys, while dark-colored honeys are more robust with deeper flavors and were harvested from the hives in the fall. In a good year, beekeepers can collect both, and sometimes a mid-season honey, too. Ask when you buy honey if you prefer certain flavors and you’re unsure. Honeys will crystalize, but they do not go bad; some beekeepers date their honey on the jar by year.

Ocean Breeze Honey, “Raw, Unfiltered Honey from Willard Beach,” produced by the Gavens, $20 (1.25 lbs.) Tasting notes: Buttery, honeysuckle, floral, butterscotch, delicate.

Hawaii Coffee Blossom, new to the Gavens’ product lineup, $10 (11.5 oz.) Tasting notes: Caramely, cider, apricot, vanilla.

Maine Wild Blueberry Honey, Maine Maple Products, Madison, $6.99 at Leroux Kitchen (8 oz.) Tasting notes: Very mild, unremarkable, marshmallow, berry, refreshing.

Funk Apiary Honey, Windham, $15 (1 lb.) Tasting notes: Soft and caramely, spiced, dried fruit, leather, figs.

Maple Honey, Pacific Northwest, $14 (1 lb.) Tasting notes: Wow! Robust, figs, dates, toasted marshmallows, burnt sugar, crème brûlée, chestnut.

Pure Raw Honey, Hildreth Family Apiaries, North Yarmouth, “Crafted by honeybees, bottled by humans.” $10 (8 oz.) Tasting notes: Strong, sarsaparilla, knotweed, spicy, menthol, pineapple.


Aunt Joan’s Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake. The cake uses oil, not butter, which means Jews who keep kosher can eat it with both meat and dairy meals. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Financiers au Miel

Recipe from “Zucchini & Chocolate: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen” by Clotilde Dusoulier. I sometimes call these honey bombs. They are soft, buttery and dense in the best possible way. To switch things up, add citrus zest to the batter or push one raspberry into each financier.

Makes 24 financiers in a mini-muffin tin

1 cup whole almonds
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup honey
4 egg whites

Grind the almonds with the sugar in a food processor to make almond meal. Whisk in the flour and salt.

Brown the butter by melting it in a small saucepan. Continue to cook over medium-high heat. The butter will foam and sputter and eventually turn a deep golden color. Watch carefully to prevent burning. Stir the honey into the butter to melt it. Pour the honeyed butter into the dry ingredients and combine. Add the egg whites slowly, whisking all the while.

Put the financier batter into a container and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to bake the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the mini-muffin tin. Divvy the batter up among the muffin cups, filling them nearly to the top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Do NOT overbake or they will taste dry. Let cool for a few minutes before de-panning the cakes.

Aunt Joan’s Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake

My late Aunt Joan was a wonderful cook and a wise and wonderful human being. Baking her honey cake brings her into my kitchen in an inadequate but delicious way. I changed her recipe slightly, adding rye flour and slightly diminishing the leavener. Cera chef Sean Doherty said the cake reminded him of Sticky Toffee Pudding, while Honey Exchange co-owner Meghan Gaven compared it to mincemeat. If a cake can be said to be brawny, then this one is. While I usually de-pan cakes and cool them on a cooling rack, I sometimes cool this one in its pan, as it can be tricky to de-pan. You may want to bake it one day ahead so the flavors can meld.

Makes 1 loaf cake or bake in an 8-inch square pan

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup marmalade
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup coffee

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease, line and flour a loaf pan. Set aside.

Whisk together the flours, leaveners, salt and spices in a medium-sized bowl.

Combine the oil, sugar, honey, marmalade and eggs. Gradually add the wet mixture to the dry mixture, just to combine. Do not overbeat. Stir in the coffee, again taking care not to overbeat the mixture.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake, for the loaf, for about 1 hour, taking care not to overbake; begin checking for doneness at 45 minutes. If the cake begins overbrowning before it is finished, cover it lightly with a large piece of aluminum foil.


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