Exploring how Vermont honeys have their own ‘taste of place’
By: Alice Eckles
I suppose every beekeeper feels that the place where “their” bees forage is the capital of taste, for it’s true that honey can capture the charms of particular nectars in particular places all over the world. According to the National Honey Board, there are more than 300 varietals of honey in the United States alone, making it possible to educate the palate and develop a descriptive language for the taste of honey. In Vermont, we’re learning to apply the French concept of gout de terroir, roughly translated as “the taste of place,” to our honey.
First, a refresher: what exactly is honey? It is the food that bees make for themselves from the nectar of flowers. “Forager” bees collect nectar from flowers, drinking the nectar and storing it in their honey stomach. The forager then takes the nectar back to the hive, regurgitating the nectar directly into the honey stomach of a “processor” bee, who takes the nectar to the honeycomb and regurgitates it into a hexagonal wax cell, adding an enzyme called invertase. The invertase breaks down the sucrose of the nectar into glucose and fructose. The bees then “dry out” the nectar by fanning their wings, and they cap the comb when the honey is ripened in this manner.
Honey is thus a pure product that comes directly from the producer—the beehive—to us, without any transformation or additives. Your local beekeeper may advertise and sell “raw honey,” which simply describes honey that has not been heated. (Raw honey is best for culinary and medicinal use, since heating compromises flavor, changes color and texture, and kills enzymes.) Even closer to nature is honeycomb, usually to be found at the beginning of the harvest season because it sells out quickly. Instead of extracting the honey from the comb, a beekeeper cuts the honeycomb into squares and sells the squares in containers, to be eaten wax and all.
“Artisanal” honey is produced through traditional, non-industrialized methods. A large quantity of uniform product is not the goal of artisanal beekeepers; instead they use traditional methods to highlight the quality and character of nature’s gift. In contrast to the artisanal beekeeper, larger distributor/producers may buy and blend honey from many sources to get a uniform product.
Discovering the unique taste of Vermont’s honey from year to year, from beekeeper to beekeeper, is a sweet way to learn about gout de terroir, (taste of place) in our state. Terroir is a French term literally meaning “land.” The fuller meaning encompasses all the elements of the unique environment that affects the taste of food produced from a certain place. Climate, rainfall pattern, soil type, topography, and geology affect the taste of the food, with the soil being especially important. Different soils contain different minerals, and the soil determines which plants can grow in a region. The minerals in the soil then affect the flavor of the nectar from the flowers that grow in that soil. Which in turn contributes to the flavor of honey.
Even so, honey from different apiaries in the same region will taste different.
Whether this is because of microclimates or because each beekeeper has her own “bee culture” is hard to say. As a beekeeper, I know this: When you see a rainbow you feel special, and the honey from your bees is the same sort of personal answer from the Divine; it’s evidence of a special relationship. The terroir of honey is the taste of place, but also the taste of the beekeeper!
For example, I have honey from 2013 that I harvested from locations in Cornwall and Middlebury, Vermont. This honey has a light, straw-toned color, mostly opaque, with a delicate floral scent, and a hint of raspberry. It has a fudgy, creamy, crystallized mouth feel and is pleasantly grainy—like those maple candies that come in the shape of pilgrims. The taste is floral, like eating candied flowers. Clover is the predominant floral flavor, but there are many others, too, from flowers all around: the bergamot growing in my dooryard, wildflowers of roadsides and hedgerows, and raspberry brambles in bloom.
You may find that some beekeepers offer varietal honeys. This refers to the type of flower nectar the honey is predominantly made from. Honeybees tend to work one species of flower at a time; as long as a certain species of flower is in bloom and producing nectar, the bees will continue working it, so long as the weather is favorable for flying. Thus a beekeeper can remove honey from the hive just after the honey flow from the desired flower is over. If the apiary is located in an area where a certain flowering plant—blueberries for instance—is predominant, then they can harvest in such a way as to get a single varietal honey, blueberry honey in this case.
Some beekeepers, rather than producing a single varietal, will harvest a spring, summer, and/or fall varietal. The difference in taste makes good conversation about the different flowers in bloom at different times. In Vermont, early season honey is likely made of the nectar from black locust trees, wild blackberry and raspberry bushes, clover, and wildflowers. Late- season honey will have nectar from goldenrod and aster for a stronger, darker flavor. Beekeepers who keep their bees in the farmland of the Champlain Valley, where white clover predominates, generally remove their honey all at once and call it clover honey, whereas beekeepers in the mountains, taking one harvest at summer’s end, might refer to their honey as wildflower honey, which is a darker, amber color and more robust tasting than clover. Clover honey is prized for its mild, delicate floral flavor and rich smooth texture. It’s the clover and alfalfa that have turned the Champlain Valley in particular into “a land of milk and honey.”
Honey also captures the flavor of the particular seasonal variation of the year it was harvested. Each year the amount of sun and precipitation affects the character and quantity of honey, and one can taste and appreciate these differences of “vintage.” As with wine, honey is a sensual record of a season that never will be repeated in exactly the same way. When the honey harvest is small, particular honeys may be more expensive, but stress on the bloom can also mean greater flavor. Beekeepers often preserve small amounts of honey from prior years to compare and enjoy the taste of years past. I look forward to seeing Vermont honey labels identifying these vintages and provenances.
For more information, consult the Vermont Beekeepers Association (vermontbeekeepers.org) or read The Honey Connoisseur,
by Marina Marchese and Kim Flottum.