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Friday, October 13, 2017

Tallow Tree Honey, Walker Honey Farm, Central Texas

On a recent visit from friends from Texas I got some Texas Tallow Tree honey (thanks Robert and Monique!). Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera) is also known as: Chinese tallow, Florida aspen, chicken tree, popcorn tree and candleberry tree.  The “tallow” and “candle” names refer to the fact that the waxy coatings of the seeds can be used for candle and soap making. In fact, “sebifera” means “wax-bearing.” “Popcorn” describes the appearance of its seeds (see photo below showing the popcorn like seeds). “Chicken” refers to the fact that chickens like to eat the seeds. Furthermore, the leaves are similar in shape to the aspen, hence “Florida aspen.” The tree is native to China and Japan, hence the name “Chinese” tallow. The Tallow tree has been introduced into a number of countries. In the US it was introduced into South Carolina in 1776 by the French botanist Francois Michaux, and can now be found from North Carolina to California, mostly in warmer, southern states (see map below). 

Tallow Tree with "popcorn" seeds

Tallow tree is an attractive shade tree with waxy, green, heart-shaped leaves that exhibit beautiful fall colors that rival maples in their yellows, oranges and scarlets (see photo below). It can grow to 60 feet in height and 30 feet in width and live to be 100 years old. It is the definition of hardy. It does well in a range of soil and light conditions. It likes warm temperatures but can withstand light frosts. It can also tolerate flooding, even saltwater flooding.

It is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same plant, and has an unusual flowering strategy, called dichogamy, that involves different flowering times and requires having at least two sub-populations. Dichogamy contributes to having a high genetic diversity within the same stand. The yellow or white, very sweet smelling, flowers occur within an inflorescence spike of up to 20 cm long (April-June). The flowers produce capsules that change from green to black (September-October). The capsule walls then fall away to expose white wax-covered seeds. These seeds stay on the tree for several weeks.

Tallow Tree with yellow flowers

Apart from its use as an ornamental tree, it has many other uses. The waxy, outer covering of seeds contains a solid fat known as Chinese vegetable tallow and the kernels produce stillingia oil. Candles and soap can be  made from the tallow. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture introduced Tallow trees into some Gulf Coast states in the 1970s to establish a local soap making industry. Its kernel oil, which is a potential substitute for petroleum, is also used in machine oils and in making varnishes and paints. In addition a black dye can be made from its leaves, and its wood is suitable for furniture making and carving; its wood has been used to make blocks in Chinese printing. More recently the tree is thought to be a promising source of woody biomass that can be used for direct burning, or conversion to charcoal, ethanol or methanol.

Map depicting Tallow Trees range
(blue, green and pink- with pink showing areas of noxious growth)
While attractive and seemingly useful, it is also an extremely dangerous invasive species in the United States. It is listed by the Texas Department of Agriculture as one of the 24 most invasive plants and by the Nature Conservancy as one of “America’s Least Wanted- the Dirty Dozen.” It causes large-scale ecosystem modification by replacing native vegetation and by negatively altering soil conditions (related to the high level of tannins in its leaf litter). It has the potential to invade marshes, changing them from herbaceous to woody plant communities. In Texas it has produced large-scale conversion of upper coastal prairie to woodland, and is credited with the near extinction of the Attwater prairie chicken and a decline in grassland bird species due to loss of their habitat (the irony of chickens liking to eat the Tallow tree seeds is not lost on me). It has done so well that in Houston it makes up 23% of all trees, out-competing native vegetation and creating a monoculture in some areas. Not surprisingly, in Texas it is illegal to sell, distribute or import it.

Tallow Tree showing fall colors and seeds
The Tallow’s success is attributed to its high growth rate, high reproductive ability, and lack of herbaceous and insect predators or pathogenic organisms. Its leaves and sap are toxic keeping away most things that might harm it. Just touching it can cause dermatitis. As invasive plants go, it is in a class of its own with an incredible capacity to reproduce. A single tree can annually produce 100,000 seeds and seeds can remain dormant in soil for several years before sprouting. For a mature stand, this translates into upwards of 4,500 kilograms of seeds per hectare per year (yes, someone measured this)! Apart from seeds, it can also spread via root sprouts and it has a short generation time, meaning cut trees quickly regrow.  Mechanical removal is only effective for small specimens. Tree stumps can re-sprout and root fragments can develop shoots. This all means that the Tallow tree spreads and takes hold quickly, and is a nightmare to get rid of. Only certain herbicides and serious fire seems to be able do the job. One Cajun is quoted as saying “You don’t kill Tallows, you just make them mad.” It probably speaks volumes that most of the information I found on the Tallow tree was about ways that have been tried, unsuccessfully, to kill it. In Florida and Louisiana it is classified as a noxious weed, which given the circumstances seems like an understatement. The take home message: don’t buy, plant or otherwise spread this tree.

As for honey production, though, it is a winner (a silver lining?). While the leaves and sap contain toxins the nectar does not and bees love it, yielding impressive amounts of honey per colony. Apiarists in Texas and Louisiana claim colony yields ranging from 35 to 200 lbs, with averages of 100 lbs.

The honey I have is from Walker Honey Farm in Rogers, Central Texas, a family business that started in 1930 by G.C. Clint Walker and currently run by Janice and Clint Walker. They’ve expanded in the last 80+ years into quite an impressive operation, now offering 20+ varieties of honey, beeswax candles, mead, specialty foods, soaps and beauty products, among other things. 
Tallow Tree honey 
The Tallow Tree honey that is distributed by Walker Honey Farms is, not surprisingly, from the Houston area. It is a warm brown color that has an herbal, grassy smell. It has crystallized since I got it with large crystals (like rock candy) at the bottom of the jar and a layer of thin honey on top.  It has a rich, not to sweet and slightly bitter, herbal taste with a caramel, slight cinnamon, aftertaste.  It is unusual and tasty and would be very nice in baking, on warm buttered toast or in hot cereal.

This is not the first honey I've reviewed that is from an invasive species (see my review of Brazilian Pepper honey). Is honey production a silver lining to a serious problem? I struggle with how I feel about the production of a quality honey from a species that is destroying certain ecosystems. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on the matter if you have a moment to leave a comment!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Leatherwood honey, Tasmania

Leatherwood honey is produced only in Tasmania and mostly from forests of leatherwood trees in the wilderness areas of western Tasmania. While Tasmania shares many plants and animals with Australia, it has unique species, like the leatherwood tree, that evolved separately after the land mass (Godwana) separated into Australia and Tasmania 10,000 years ago.

Tasmania showing the World Heritage Site
where leatherwood forests are
Tasmania is a southern Pacific island located 150 miles off the southern coast of the Australian mainland. Its forests are considered to be some of the oldest forests in the world and to recognize how unique this habitat is the forests of the western coast of Tasmania have been designated as a World Heritage Site.

Leatherwood (Eucryphia lucida, major source, and Eucryphia milliganii, minor source) is a tree (some call it a large shrub) that is endemic to the forests of western Tasmania, but also found in the northwest and through the southwest wilderness of Tasmania. It is an ancient tree that is thought to have originated 65 million years ago.  It is classified as “a cool temperature rainforest tree” and likes moist conditions. 

Leatherwood forest
The leatherwood typically grows to about 30 feet in height and produces beautiful masses of white, sweetly scented flowers- that look a little like simple roses - that have an abundance of nectar. The presence of leatherwood forests and the amount of nectar produced make leatherwood honey possible. Blossoms appear in spring and summer, and flowers mature into leathery capsules in the fall. The name “leatherwood” is thought to refer to this leathery capsule, as well as the toughness of the tree’s wood. Of interest, leatherwood trees under 75 years of age generally don’t flower and the most prolific flowerers are 100-200 years old.

Leatherwood tree blossoms
Leatherwood honey has been harvested for over 100 years in Tasmania. However, given where leatherwood trees grow -deep in the forests of Tasmania’s west coast- they are notoriously difficult to access. There are no roads. Of note: given their remote locale, leatherwood forests are thought to be entirely free from insecticides and artificial fertilizers. In the early days hardy beekeepers brought in their hives and took out honey by horse via rough bush tracks, camping in the forest for the duration of the honey collecting season. Unfortunately, these tracks were blocked when the Apt Wilderness Railway was built (1897) creating a crisis of sorts for leatherwood apiarists. One early apiarist family, the Stephens’ family, arrived at a creative solution. They petitioned the State Government to gain access to the area via the railway. The government agreed, and they then designed a special flatbed rail carriage to transport beekeepers’ trucks with their hives, allowing them access in and out of the area.

Honey truck railway flatbed
The Stephens family is one of many multi-generational beekeeping families. The Stephens’ Apiary (known as the R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory) was established by R. (Robert) Stephens (1896-1977) in 1920.  It was the first commercial honey factory established in Tasmania. R. Stephens started as a weekender beekeeper with a few hives but gradually expanded to become an impressive commercial endeavor that now has 2,400 hives. For a full account of this family’s fascinating history in the honey making business visit their website The Stephens’ family business is now into its third generation, with Ian Stephens currently at the helm and his three sons, Ewan, Neal and Kenneth, by his side.

R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory
In addition to being a beekeeping trailblazer, R. Stephens, the Stephens that commercialized their honey making business, was a gifted researcher. He developed ways to detect pollen varieties from honey samples, he studied the types and effects of floral enzymes and acids on  honey qualities, and bred queens to optimize bee attributes, including wing span. Larger wing spans allow bees to forage more widely and carry more nectar, resulting in higher honey yields. The Italian ligustica honey bee, a subspecies of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), was introduced to Tasmania in 1884 and thrived in local conditions. R. Stephens imported Golden Italian queens, began a bee breeding program (1925) and is credited with improving the bee stock in Tasmania. He kept meticulous records and, incredibly, these records are still used today by the Stephens family in making decisions about bee matings and which hives to use. To recognize the historic significance of R. Stephens work and records, the Stephens’ Honey Factory is listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register, a first for any beekeeping operation. 

The R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory currently produces clover, blackberry, and ground flora, and leatherwood honey, and their production accounts for about 35% of all Tasmanian honey – which is a HUGE amount and gives you an idea of how large their operation is. Their leatherwood honey production began in 1934 when they first placed hives in the Franklin River basin of the wilds of the west coast. Because of poor transportation infrastructure, however, they suspended honey collection there, and only resumed it in 1951. Now, about 70% of all the honey produced on Tasmania (about 1,000 tons per year) is leatherwood honey.

Leatherwood honey

My leatherwood honey is a creamy yellow and starting to crystallize from the bottom up. It has a heady, sweet, summer smell that reminds me a little of cut grass.  It is a relatively thick honey and spools easily on a toothpick. It has a creamy texture and a musky first taste with a very interesting citrus (grapefruit-y) after taste. Unusual and very tasty! Others have written that “it tastes like the wilderness.” This makes me, a city person, want to go out and experience firsthand the wild west coast of Tasmania. Thank you Stephens family and all the other apiarist families on Tasmania that harvest this incredible honey! 

You can buy leatherwood honey online- or, in the US at Whole Foods (where I got mine). The Stephens Family website also lists distributors to locate it in other places.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang), Southern Iceland

When you think of Iceland- land of fire and ice- honey and honey bees probably aren't the first things that come to mind. Might not even be in the top 100. With its cold, rainy climate, long winters and majestic, wind swept landscapes of lava flows and snow capped peaks, it may be hard to imagine that Iceland produces honey at all, but it does. 

Iceland & Europe
Iceland lies on the 66o latitude, the same as Alaska, but the Gulf stream works its magic and produces more moderate, and warmer temperatures than you'd expect. The summer average temperature is 58 oF and winter temperatures, at least in the southern part of the island, generally hover around freezing, making honey production a possibility.

As you can imagine, though, Iceland posses many challenges for bees and beekeepers. For one, honey bees are not native to Iceland. Bees are imported from Sweden and Norway (Buckfast bees) where they are hardy enough to withstand challenging weather conditions. 

Which brings us to the weather. And it isn't so much that Iceland is cold, but windy. The wind blows incessantly which is a problem if you are bee out foraging. And the harvest season is short. Spring comes late and summers only last a few weeks, so there isn't much time for the hive population to get big enough (or strong enough) to survive the winter. To address this beekeepers use hives (polystyrene langstroth hives) that are designed to shelter bees from the windy, rainy, cold conditions. The hives also contain sensors that allow beekeepers to monitor the hive conditions remotely, giving them early warning if a colony is in trouble. 

Vegetation on lava flow (September), near Husafell
On the plus side, summer days are (very) long in the land of the midnight sun allowing bees to be out and about foraging nearly nonstop during the foraging season. Furthermore, the bees are virtually disease-free (import requirements for bees are very strict) and as a result, no chemicals are used in beekeeping. So, for bee survival in Iceland it all comes down to whether summer gains can overcome winter losses.

Beekeeping in Iceland is not for the faint of heart. There is a small, but by all accounts, resilient and enthusiastic group of apiarists who make up the Icelandic Beekeepers Association which was most recently reinvigorated by Egill Sigurgersson in 2000. The current iteration of the group has its beginnings in 1998 when Dr. Sigurgersson moved back to Iceland after his medical training to begin his practice in Iceland. He brought with him bees from Sweden to start a few hives. It took six months to get all the permissions needed, for licensing and certification of disease free status, and then, sadly, within two seasons all had died. He tried again, changing how he sheltered and winter fed them, but with the same results. He next tried bees from Norway and made other changes with some success. It seems that the trick for sustainability is to have at least 70-80% of the bees survive the winter.

Southern Iceland (September)
As alluded to, beekeeping in Iceland goes back a bit further. According to "The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting" by Ethel Eva Crane, some (unsuccessful) attempts were made in the 1930s to import European honey bees to Iceland. These were followed by others, notably in the 1950s, with hives surviving a few years. I read one account of an Austrian, Melitta Urbancic (poet, actress and sculptor), living in Iceland who had brought bees from Austria. She was the original founder of the Beekeeping Association of Iceland in 1952. Unfortunately authorities banned bees as being "too dangerous" in 1960 after a swarm (an impressive phenomena when upwards of 10,000 bees mass migrate to form a new hive) created concern about public safety. 

Currently things are on the upswing for Icelandic beekeepers. There seems to be about 15-20 beekeepers across the country with about 250 hives. Most are found in the southern part of the island, near Reykjevik. They have a thriving association, and interest within and outside of Iceland. They also have a facebook page
Gullfoss Falls

There are no large crops grown in Iceland so no mono-floral honey. Floral sources are those naturally found in the landscape: dandelion, salix (willow), blueberries, arctic angelixa, millefolium, white clover, and heather. With so few hives making a very limited amount of honey, Icelandic honey is not easy to find- it is only sold  in a few shops and markets- and is expensive when you do. However, you may be able to buy some by emailing the Beekeepers Association (

I bought my honey at the gift shop at Gullfoss falls in September (2016). It is a tiny jar (30 mls)- perfect for a souvenir- and was about 14 Euros.  It is Rima Villihunang (wild Icelandic honey) from Rimi, Grimsndsi (not sure of the spelling) in South Iceland and distributed by Urta Islandica, Hafnarfjordur. The tag on the jar says that the floral sources are wild berries, willows and heather and that the honey is raw and unrefined.  

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang)
It is a mellow, opaque, yellow color. It has already crystallized all the way through (although best before October 2019). It has a strong, warm floral scent (the scent of summer). The crystals are medium to small, and dissolve quickly. It is not overly sweet with a floral, fruity flavor, a little like summer ripe black grapes with a tangy, almost salty after taste. Unusual and very nice indeed. Well worth the price! Next time I'm in Iceland I'll make a point of getting a larger size(!) 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mint Blossom Honey, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam

Mints (Lamiacae Mentha) are part of a (very) large family (Lamiacae) of mostly melliferous (i.e. nectar producing) aromatic herbs, some small shrubs and a few trees (e.g. Teak (Lamiacae Tectona grandis)). It seems that all of the “staple” herbs belong to this family: basil (Lamiacae Ocimum), oregano (Lamiacae Origanum majorana, Origanum vulgare), rosemary (Lamiacae Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Lamiacae Salvia), thyme (Lamiacae Thymus vulgaris), lemon balm (Lamiacae Melissa officianlis), and lavender (Lamiacae Lavandula angustifolia), to name a few.

Mint is named for the nymph, Minthe, who was seduced by the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto. As the story goes Pluto’s wife, in a jealous rage, trampled the nymph to dust, and Pluto turned her into a mint plant, an herb that becomes more aromatic when trampled on.

Mints, like most of the Lamiacae family, are almost exclusively perennial, are widely distributed throughout the world and thrive in many environments. On the whole, however, mints tend to prefer wet soils and partial sunlight. Mint is native to Europe and many varieties are found in the Mediterranean region. It is currently cultivated in Italy, the US (principally in Oregon, Indiana, Idaho, Ohio and Michigan), Japan, China, Australia and the UK (among other places).

It may go without saying but mint is generally easy to grow. The best way to propagate it is by using plant cuttings (i.e. put a mint cutting in water. roots will develop after a time and then you can plant the rooted cutting in soil). If you’ve ever had mint growing in your garden you will know that it are hardy, fast growing, extends its reach through runners, and has a tendency to become invasive.

spearmint with blossoms
There are many types of mint and classifying them is somewhat of a challenge. They cross breed with abandon, even from one species to another, and this results in many unique cultivars and a confusing roster of “scientific” names for the same cultivar. An example of crossbreeding is peppermint (Mentha piperita), which is a naturally occurring mint hybrid: it is a cross between watermint (Mentha aquatic) and spearmint (Mentha spicata).

To make it a bit more confusing, some plants are called “mint,” mostly because they have an appearance or scent reminiscent of mint, but do not belong to the mint family. In addition, the name used for a mint may also be used for another, completely different plant. An example is ‘Vietnamese mint’, which can refer to Lamiacae Elsholtzia ciliate, a member of the mint family or to Persicaria odorata, a member of the Polygonaceae family that contains smartweeds and pinkweeds.

Mint has been used throughout history for a variety of things; there is quite a bit of documentation about how the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used mint, mostly peppermint. It can be found in food, medicines and other products. It is used in teas, drinks, jellies, syrups, candies (i.e. mints), liqueurs and ice cream. Mint sauce goes hand in hand with some lamb dishes. It has also been used medicinally to treat stomach ailments and chest pains, and via aromatherapy to treat nausea. Mint essential oils are used as flavorings in breath fresheners, drinks, mouth washes, toothpaste, and chewing gums, and in air fresheners. It is also used as an ingredient in insecticides against wasps, hornets, ants, fleas and cockroaches. Its insect repelling qualities have also been put to use by planting it as a companion plant next to other plants that are susceptible to insect attack. In past times, mint was strewn across dirt floors to freshen the air as people walked on it.

While mint is often in the mix in wild flower honeys, it is rarely so abundant to be the sole floral source as a monofloral honey. Therefore, mint honey is generally a side product of large scale mint cultivation that is done for its essential oils (mints began to be cultivated on a large scale in the 1800s). To find mint honey, therefore, you should look to places that are known for their mint oil production and cultivate it on a large scale. The most commercially cultivated mints are peppermint (Mentha piperita), native spearmint (Mentha spicata), Scotch spearmint (Mentha gracilis), commint (Mentha arvensis) and apple mint (Mentha suaveloens).

My mint honey, courtesy of my friend Barbara who recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, is from a local supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City. It is packaged and distributed by Fire Phoenix and was collected in May of this year. I tried to find out more information about Fire Phoenix, mint cultivation in Vietnam and Vietnamese mint honey, and came up empty handed. So, I don’t have much information about this honey. In particular, I don’t know what kind of mint was the source of this honey, or even if the flower source was mint at all (and not a member of the Polygonaceae family!). The label just says it is “pure mint blossoms honey.” However, Vietnam is a producer of spearmint essential oils, so there is a good chance that this is spearmint honey.

Mint Blossom Honey
It is a medium thick, clear, yellow/orange honey that has a meady, somewhat fermented fragrance, and a mellow, somewhat musky flavor that subtly reminds me of a yeasty, white wine. It is not overly sweet, and doesn’t have a complicated taste. There is no after taste. It has the right consistency to be a good choice to drizzle over thick, plain yogurt, and would work well with creamy, milk cheeses. It would also do well in herbal teas, and hot cereals. I’m not sure where you can find it. You just may have to take a trip to Vietnam and hunt for it in local supermarkets! 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Raw Jungle Honey, Oaxaca, Mexico (Bidoo Collective)

I bought this raw Jungle honey from Follow The Honey, a honey specialty store in Cambridge, MA. This honey is from the jungles of Oaxaca, Mexico, and is the result of efforts of the BIDOO Collective, an organization that provides incentives to rural farmers and beekeepers to conserve natural habitats.

Oaxaca state, Mexico
Oaxaca (pronounced waˈhaka), a state in Mexico comprised of seven regions, is located in the south of Mexico. As a state it was established in 1824 and currently has a population of about 4 million. Its capital is Oaxaca City and it is home to a third of Mexico’s indigenous people who are from a number of different indigenous groups, with the Zapotecs and Mixtecs accounting for about 50%. 

It is an area rich in history, with evidence of human habitation dating back to 11,000 BC. The ancient city of Monte Alban (which flourished from 500 BC to 750 AD) and the religious center of Mitla, classified in 2010 as a UNESCO world heritage site, are both found in Oaxaca. 

Oaxaca mountains
Oaxaca has one of the most rugged terrains in Mexico with several mountain chains (Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and Sierra Atravesada) converging on each other, creating a series of narrow and not-so-narrow valleys between them. Many people live in isolated communities as a result. 

Climate varies with altitude. While it is within the tropical latitudes regions range from being hot and humid  to being temperate. It is thought to have the greatest bio-diversity in Mexico, with >8,000 species of flora and >4,500 species of fauna.

Its economy is based primarily on agriculture, even though only 9% of the land is suitable due to its mountainous terrain, mining and tourism. Principal crops include grains, cocoa, peanuts, mango, corn, sugar cane, coffee, sesame seed, and pineapple. 

Oaxaca rainforest
Beekeeping has been practiced in Mexico for thousands of years-and in Oaxaca for just as long. The ancient Mayans harvested wild honey from log nests and, later, wooden hives were used to collect it. It is used as a sweetener, an antibiotic and to make a fermented drink, “balche,” similar to mead. In fact, a surviving Maya book, The Madrid Codex, is all about bees and beekeeping, showing how important beekeeping was. Up until about 50 years ago, the stingless melliponine bee (Apidae melliponinaea native of the tropical forests of the Yucatan peninsula was the major honey maker. However when Africanized bees were introduced they soon took over and honey production is now principally from these bees. 

The jungles of Oaxaca are rich in floral diversity, including floral sources from mango, lime, lemon, avocado, coffee, sesame, almond, orchid, and wild fennel, to name a few. These are reflected in the region’s honey. If you are interested in the the floral diversity of Oaxaca honey, Ramirez-Arriga et al., have made a study of it using pollen analysis to identify the sources of Oaxaca honey.

Raw Jungle honey, Oaxaca, Mexico

My honey, which is organic and free of any pesticides or antibiotics, is a mellow, brown/mustard opaque color. It has crystallized a bit since I got it and is on the thick side. The crystals give it an very interesting texture, more like a puree than a crunchy or grainy texture. The taste is really unusual. Sweet potato, pineapple and cooked plums come through, with a slightly minty menthol aftertaste. It also have a bit of a final kick with a clove flavor. This honey is too unusual and interesting to bake with. It might be best eaten it right out of the jar, with a mild, creamy cheese, or on thick, plain yogurt. If you have no plans to visit Oaxaca anytime soon, but want a taste of this, Follow the Honey sells it online.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Jamaican hibiscus & sorrel honey

Jamaican hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa (race ruber)), also known as “roselle” or “sorrel,” is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) that is native from India to Malaysia but thought to have originated in West Africa. This genus is quite large (made up of hundreds of species), likes warm places (i.e. found in subtropical and tropical regions), is very sensitive to frost and is known for their showy flowers. Think Hawaiian hula dancer with a flower in her hair, and it will be an hibiscus- not Hibiscus sabdariffa- but a close relative. Hibiscus sabdariff ‘s flowers are a little smaller (3 to 4 inches in diameter) and the flowers are white to pale yellow- a little different compared to the red, Hawaiian hibiscus that comes to mind. The flowers are sometimes called “roselle.” They also have a robust, fleshy calyx (plural calyces- a collective term for sepals of a flower- the bits that enclose the flower, usually green but in the case of Hibiscus sabdariffa they are red ). The calyx has many culinary uses (see below). While China and Thailand are the largest producers of Hibiscus sabdariffa, it is grown commercially in Jamaica, where my hibiscus & sorrel honey comes from.

Hibiscus sabdariffa
There are many uses for different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa. As a plant it is primarily cultivated for the production of base fiber (from the stem) which can be used as a substitute for jute in making burlap (this was news to me). The calyx is a source of red food coloring (very popular in this age of “natural” dyes), is eaten like a vegetable, and is used to make a syrup (i.e. sorrel syrup), sweet pickle, jelly or jam (that tastes like a tangy plum jam). Its green leaves are akin to a spicy spinach (particularly known in the Senegalese fish and rice dish “thieboudienne,” the Andhra dish “gongura pacchadi,” and the Philippines chicken stew “Tinola”). Of interest, there is a proverb in the southern part of Myanmar that translates as “Cooking roselle too long, taste is bitter, and staying in bachelor life too long, life is bitter.” So, be warned about overcooking it or staying single for too long.

In the Caribbean, a cold drink (“sorrel,” “roselle,” or “aqua de Jamaica” in Mexico, among other names), which was introduced by Akan slaves to the islands in the late 1600s, is made from the calyces. You boil them in water until the water turns red, add sugar and then serve it cold. Variations on the recipe add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mint, lemon, lime, bay leaves and/or rum. In Jamaica sorrel, typically with rum, is a Christmas treat served with fruit cake or potato pudding.
Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces

You can also make a hot tea with the calyces. You may have seen an herbal hibiscus tea at the supermarket (e.g. Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger” tea) Hibiscus sabdariffa is what gives it its red color and tangy flavor. If you combine the calyces with beer you get “Shandy Sorrel” a Caribbean treat. In 1904 Hibiscus sabdariffa seeds were planted in Miami with the hope that the crop of calyces would be a southern substitute for cranberry; jelly made from the calyces (called roselle jelly) is almost indistinguishable from cranberry sauce. It never really caught on.

You may have also seen dried Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces sold in bags at the health food store (a popular name is “Flor de Jamaica”- which is a misnomer as it is the calyces that are sold, not the flowers).  You can fill these with goat cheese and serve them on baguette slices for swanky garden parties, use them in to tea, jams, jellies, etc. or just eat them out of the bag.  

Apart from different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa being good to eat, Hibiscus sabdariffa has some medicinal qualities; it is considered to be a mild diuretic and laxative. It has been assessed as an anti-hypertensive, but results were inconclusive. It is currently being assessed in cancer treatments. It has antioxidant properties, and is a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron and magnesium.

As I’ve said, my honey comes from Jamaica. Beekeeping is a relatively recently established commercial activity in Jamaica. In 2008, a bee industry census showed that there were 1,200 farmers that kept bees (of which 137 are women) with 31,400 hives. These produced 166,500 gals of honey, 56,800 lbs. of bees wax, 48 oz. of Royal Jelly, 205 lbs. of pollen, 16 oz. of propolis, and 32 oz. of venom (a.k.a. apitoxin- the liquid that bees inject via their stinger that is medicinally used in treating arthritis). Common nectar sources were mango, ackee and logwood. Not surprisingly, I suppose, there is a Jamaican Apiculture Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries department. An import permit is needed to import bee products (i.e. honey and pollen).  This is all regulated under the Bee Control Act that states that no bees, honey or beekeepers’ stock can be brought within the limits of Jamaica without with the permission in writing of the chief plant protection officer. If anyone does they run the risk of the stock being seized and destroyed by customs.
Hibiscus & sorrel honey

My honey is harvested and packaged by Ivyees Honey. Ivy Lawson is the force being Ivyees Honey, which is head- quartered in Randolph, MA. She founded a honey operation in Jamaica (owns and manages her own hives) that produces a few varieties of organic honeys: “floral & ginger,” “logwood” and “hibiscus & sorrel.” The honey is packaged in Whitehouse, Westmoreland, Jamaica and then distributed in the US to specialty stores, mostly in New England. I got my Hibiscus and Sorrel honey at my local Whole Foods Supermarket.

My hibiscus & sorrel honey is a mellow caramel color. It is very (very) thin, and very hard to get on a toothpick. It is a perfect consistency to drizzle over yogurt or hot cereal.  It has a rich, slightly bitter, floral, spicy flavor (if it had a color it would be a rich, brown rum sort of color) with a refreshing subtle tangy menthol after taste. Very tasty! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

(Heavenly Organics) Neem Honey, Central India

Neem (Azadirachta indica), also known as Nimtree and Indian Lilac, is a drought  and heat resistant tree in the mahogany family (Meliacaea) that is native to tropical and semi-tropical regions. It grows in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran, among other places. It can become a large tree (heights up to 40 meters) and one of a few shade-giving trees that thrive in drought-prone areas (e.g. southern districts of India and Pakistan). As a result, it is commonly planted for shade along streets, around temples and in other public places in India. It was exported to other dry areas as a shade tree (e.g. Australia) and has become invasive in some non-native areas. As a result, it has sometimes been classified as a weed. In Australia, for instance, it is illegal to buy, sell or transport Neem plants or seeds, and its spread is actively being controlled.

Neem flowers
The Neem tree has white, fragrant flowers that produce an olive like fruit, which when ripe is half and inch to an inch long and about half an inch wide. The fruit skin is mostly bitter and fibrous, but each fruit contains 2-3 seeds that are the source of Neem oil.

One of the most important uses of neem is as a bio-pesticide. Neem seeds are ground into powder, soaked in water, and sprayed on crops. The neem spray acts as an anti-feedant (substance that adversely affects insects that eat it), insect repellent and egg-laying deterrent. It also suppresses the hatching of insect eggs. In 1962 it was successfully used to protect crops against migratory desert locusts. The anti-insect properties are also found in neem leaves. In India, neem leaves are dried and used as an insect repellent in cupboards and between the folds of clothes, or burnt to keep away mosquitoes.

Neem fruit

Neem has other uses as well. Neem oil has been used in cosmetics, soaps, balms and creams, and as a lubricant. Neem gum is used as a bulking agent in foods. In parts of India, Africa and the Middle East neem twigs (called datum) are used as toothbrushes: if the ends of the twig are chewed they turn into soft bristles that can then be used to clean teeth. Neem cake is used to fertilize crops and protect plant roots from nematodes and white ants. Neem bark is a source of tannin and yields a coarse fiber that is used to make rope.

You can also eat neem (the tender, new shoots and flowers), but it is bitter. Consuming or otherwise using neem leaf, bark and/or flowers is associated with many Hindu festivals. Furthermore, Siddha and Ayurvedic practitioners use neem products medicinally.  In fact, in Sanskrit the word for neem, “Arishtha” means “reliever of sickness.” And there is evidence that neem has medicinal uses. In 1993, a Neem Foundation was established to better understand how Neem might be used. Be aware, though, if consumed in large quantities, neem oil can be toxic.

Neem flowers are also a source of honey. My neem honey is packaged and distributed by Heavenly Organics. Heavenly Organics neem honey comes from the forests of northern and central India and parts of the Himalayan Mountains (e.g. Kashmir, Uttarakhand). It is “wild” honey collected by honey hunters who then sell it to Heavenly Organics. As a result the honey is chemical-free, organic, raw and unheated, maximizing its taste, and enzymatic, vitamin and mineral properties.

wild honey hive
Heavenly Organics is the brain child of Amit Hooda. In 2004, after Mr. Hooda completed his Master’s degree in computer science from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, he collaborated with his father and Edward Malloy to create a worker-owned cooperative to foster long-term partnerships that mutually benefit both farmers and consumers. Heavenly Organics is part of the authentic fair trade movement. Mr. Hooda's father, Dr. Ishwar Singh Hooda, is an agronomist and former teacher at Haryana Agriculture University in India. Dr. Hooda has promoted sustainable organic farming methods and sustainable, bee-friendly methods of harvesting wild honey, in rural communities in India for over 35 years. Edward Malloy, the mayor of Fairfield, Iowa, is the US Director of the operation. Currently the cooperative supports nearly 600 family farmers (hoping to expand to 5,000) and produces honey, cane sugar and a variety of different kinds of chocolate honey patties.

Heavenly Organics neem honey
My neem honey has already crystallized in fairly large crystals. It has a caramel, toffee, maple syrup smell about it, and is a warm, toffee color. It has a rich, subtly spicy taste (gingerbread spicy) with hints of caramel, maple syrup and floral tones, and has a slight bitter, smoky after taste. It is a warm, robust tasting honey and would be good on buttered toast, in black tea, baked goods or hot cereal. I got mine at my local Whole Foods supermarket. The Heavenly Organics website has a store locator to help you find it locally as well.