Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Eswatini Swazi Kitchen (Heavenly) Honey, Swaziland

I've never been to Swaziland, but my friend Lauren has and she recently brought me back some local honey. According to Wikipedia, Swaziland is a small, landlocked kingdom (roughly the size of New Jersey) in Southern Africa surrounded to the north, south and west by South Africa, and to the east by Mozambique. After the Anglo Boer war (1902) Britain made Swaziland a protectorate under its control, and it wasn't until 1968 that Swaziland gained its independence.

There is evidence that Swaziland has been inhabited by humans (or our ancestors) since the early Stone Age (200,000 years ago). Descendants of Bantu tribes people (known as the Swazis) make up most of the current population. Many of these are subsistence farmers and herders, although there are also significant industries in forestry, mining and manufacturing (textiles and sugar processing) in the country.

For such a small place the geography is quite diverse. There are mountains along the Mozambican eastern border and rain forests in the northwest. Climate and terrain can be roughly grouped by altitude above sea level with the country divided into Highveld (altitude of 1200 meters), Middleveld (altitude of 750 meters) and Lowveld (altitude of 250 meters). Rainfall is highest and temperatures are coolest in the Highveld regions; the Lowveld areas are the driest (and hottest) and this is where you find the thorn trees and grasslands.

It is hard to say what flower source the Swaziland bees used to make this honey; the label doesn't say. Although it does give an address in Manzini, the principal commercial and industrial city, which is found in the Middleveld. It also says that the honey is produced by the Eswatini Swazi Kitchen (ESK) and that proceeds from the honey support rural beekeepers across Swaziland.

I did an online search for the Eswatini Swazi Kitchen and found that they also make jams and chutneys, among other things. Processing honey is a relatively new addition to their kitchen that was supported by Missionary Development Funds from the Salesian Community in Swaziland (an Irish mission organization), to the Manzini Youth Care, an organization that promotes income generation projects. If you're interested I found an article describing it:

Another search to identify honey flower sources in Swaziland suggests that major sources of honey in the country include acacia, African Red Beech, Forest Ironplum, and Sagewood, among others. I have never heard of most of the sources and suspect that this honey may be quite different depending on the season and the batch.

Needless to say, given the mystery of the flower source and the exotic list of potential sources, I was eager to try this honey. It has a rich, dark amber color. And even at warm temperatures it is slightly crystalized, giving it a crunchy texture. It is sweet, but not too sweet and has a robust, and unexpected tangy flavor- a little like black tea. The after taste is smoky, again like a mild Lapsang Souchong tea. Very unusual and tasty. I like this honey. I think it would be very nice on nutty bread or in hot cereal, but probably not so good in tea, as it would change the flavor too much.

I understand from a website that ESK products are sold to customers in France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria (Oxfam), U.K. and Sweden. So you may be able to find this honey outside of Swaziland. If not, the label gives their email address as:, so you might be able get some directly.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thyme Honey from the Balos Lagoon, Crete

On the North-Western side of Crete is the Gramvousa Peninsula, a rocky, dry bit of land that has a dusty (but passable) road that ends at the northern tip of it, surprisingly at a parking lot with a cantena. This, the only road, hugs the Eastern coastline, and the views of both the mountainous interior (Mount Geroskinos) and the deep blue sea, are spectacular. Along the bumpy way you may also encounter goats and see colorful boxes arranged in groups among the mountain herbs. These boxes are beehives; Anastasios Stathakis' beehives. Mr. Stathakis and his family harvest and produce honey from this peninsula, which has an abundance of wild thyme. You can buy his honey at the cantena. In fact the photo of Creten honey on this blog is of Mr. Stathakis' honey.

The label on the honey says "Honey from Thyme from Balos Lagoon." The reason for this is that the only real attraction to make the trip to the end of the Gramvousa Peninsula (buying honey aside) is to hike across and down Mt Geroskinos, single file, to the west side of the peninsula, where you'll find the spectacular, and visually unexpected Balos Lagoon. Imagine a brown and gray landscape with fragrant herbs underfoot, and the sun beating down. The sound of cicadas fills the air, and now and again goat bells break in. You trudge along, following a well worn path. The scenery is much the same for some time. Then you crest a sandy cliff and see a lagoon with brilliant gradations of azure and turquoise far below you, and a beach with the whitest sand. The contrast between the neutral colors of the mountain and the brilliant colors of the sea are breath-taking. And from your vantage point, high on the cliff (there is still a 30 minute hike in front of you to get to the lagoon), you can see past the lagoon to islands off shore and then to the deeper, black-blue waters of the Mediterranean. And to think that in the midst of all this, the bees of the peninsula are busily make honey, and Mr. Stathakis (bless his heart) harvests it.

Mr. Stathakis' honey is a warm, golden color (dare I say honey-colored?). It has nearly no aroma, just a slight smell of sweetness. It is a thin honey that runs easily. It has a smooth and very sweet taste with just a whisper of something herbal, something subtly smokey. Its final taste is delicate, uncomplicated and fleeting. I would not categorize this honey as odd- it tastes like what you expect honey to taste like; The aromatic herbal undertones are subtle and linger only briefly.

I like this honey but was expecting something more dramatic- a fragrant blast of thyme, for instance. After the initial let down, however, I do appreciate the delicate flavor. Although I haven't yet tried it in tea, I suspect it would work well. It wouldn't be my first choice to spread on buttered bread, though,- unless the bread was really nutty, in which case the honey might compliment it nicely without competing with the nuttiness.

Jars of 450 grams are 6 Euros, and those of 900 grams are 12 Euros, available at the cantena.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Miel de Caféier (Coffee Honey), L'ile de la Réunion

One of the more unusual honeys I have in my collection is a coffee honey (miel de caféier) that I got in Gourdon, France. It isn't local to Gourdon but comes from l'Ile de la Réunion (or La Réunion). This island is formally known as Bourbon Island (but this was a very long time ago). According to Wikipedia, l'Ile de la Réunion is a smallish (slightly smaller than Rhode Island) French, volcanic island that is located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. It was first named by the Portuguese in the 1500s- Bourbon Island- (at which time is was uninhabited) and then colonized by France in 1665. It became a département d'outre-mer (overseas départment) of France in 1946.* It has a tropical climate much like Hawaii's, with similar crops (sugar cane, pineapple, etc.); Coffee was introduced in the 1800s and became an important crop, although not its most important (that would be sugar cane).

I had never heard of coffee honey before I bought it in Gourdon. It is one of the darkest honeys I've ever seen, dark like molasses. Or, maybe dark like coffee. It has a distinctive aroma that is not honey-like at all. It smells a little like molasses. It tastes like honey, though, but has a rich, deep, warm brown kind of taste (if you know what warm brown tastes like). It isn't too sweet, and has a smooth rich honey 'final' taste. What I mean by 'final' taste is that when you swallow, the taste- presumably related to the location of different taste receptors- can change. Sour and bitter receptors are at the back of the tongue, so a 'tangy' honey might have a very different 'final' taste as you swallow it than when you first put it in your mouth. For some honeys the final taste is very fragile and transient. This honey has a very robust final taste.

I like this honey. It is very nice on toasted, buttered, thickly-sliced German bread (spread thick- with the melting butter and honey blending together). It is less nice in tea; it changes the taste of the tea too much. I haven't tried it in baking, but I expect it might be good in whole grain bread. It also might be a good substitute for molasses or brown sugar (on oatmeal or in thick, plain yoghurt, for instance).

I can't say for certain if they still sell this honey in Gourdon, France; I bought it a few years ago, but I expect they do. Gourdon is a beautiful village (one of the 'most beautiful villages of Provence') and worth a visit if you are in the area, even if they don't. It is perched on a rocky cliff and has a spectacular view of the surrounding area. It also has interesting and unique craft shops (in addition to honey I found some very high quality soap and lavender oil there). Apart from this coffee honey, shops in Gourdon also sell honey (both local and from other areas) that have different flower sources. If you are a honey junkie, you've probably already heard of Gourdon.

*a piece of trivia is that given its time zone Ile de la Réunion was also the first region in the world where the euro became legal tender.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why Honey?

I wasn't always into honey. It happened by accident. I was on vacation in France, in the Chateau Cheverny gift shop, actually. There was a display of local honeys and I bought one: miel toutes fleurs (wild flower honey). When I got home I tried it- Wow, what a honey. Fragrant, sweet, complicated. Like no honey I had ever had before. When the jar was done it attained mythical proportions in my household. 'Remember that miel toutes fleurs?' and we'd all pause and remember how good it was. Almost too good to spread on bread or put in tea (almost).

It was after that that I started paying attention to honey. Buying local honey from farmer's markets and seeking out odd honeys from different countries. Who knew there were so many kinds of honey? And that the taste could be so different one from the other? Honey became a standard souvenir if I visited anywhere, and if anyone asked if I wanted anything from 'X' country, I'd ask for honey (it really is a good souvenir- relatively cheap, small and non-perishable- and most places have locally produced honey).

So, fast forward a few years, and here I am with a rather large, bordering on unhealthy, collection of honey. What to do with it all? I do use it- on bread, in tea, in recipes. But why keep it to myself? There might be other honey wackos (pardon, aficionados) out there who might be interested in reviews of honey from around the world- so for anyone out there who is at all interested, I'll rate, review and generally go on about the honey in my life.