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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rata honey, Otira Gorge, New Zealand

The Rata honey I have is from New Zealand. It is processed and distributed by Airborne in Leeston, which is located southwest of Christchurch. Airborne were early New Zealand honey producers (1910-1997) but now concentrate on processing and distributing other apiarists' honey. The company was started with 50 hives in 1910 by William Bray and Alfred Barrett. In 1997 they had grown to having 6,000 hives but then decided to shift the focus of the company to processing, marketing and distributing other people's honey. From their website, they state that they are now one of the largest honey processing and exporting companies in New Zealand. They have a wonderful website with a great history of the company: They process a lot of floral honey, but from flowers I've never heard of: Vipers Bugloss (must look out for this one!), Kamahi, Rewarewa, and Tawar to name a few. They also make honey lozenges with anti-bacterial properties from Manuka and honeydew honey varieties. Apparently Manuka, Honeydew and Thyme honeys contain higher levels of antibacterial activity and antioxidants than most other varieties, making them of interest to health conscious people. They also produce a special line of honeys designed to be used in tea(?) and another in coffee(?). I'm not sure what this is all about (if you know, please leave a comment!).
The Airborne website states that Rata Honey is produced mostly from the Southern Rata on the West coast of New Zealand's South Island. There are, apparently, eight species of Rata, but Southern Rata is the main source of honey. The Rata (pronounced RayTay) is endemic to New Zealand and grows up to 15 meters high. The Rata flower looks like a red sea anemone - truly beautiful. It blooms from January to March but has good and bad (to no) bloom years, so it doesn't lead to a very reliable honey source. However this is apparently offset by good bloom years that produce such an abundance of honey that the bad years are forgiven. Of interest, Rata honey has the reputation of being a fast crystallizer. This can be a real problem when extracting it- it has to be done quickly. This is a lot like Rapsflower honey (see April 2012 blog).
For a honey to be designated as Rata honey, it has to be made up of at least 45% Rata pollen. The Airborne folks take a lot of pains to really understand the honey they process. They have a laboratory on site and, judging from all the information on their website, they closely monitor all sorts of honey-related variables. On the label of my honey, I have the rata pollen percentage (69%- so definitely Rata honey; whew), the batch number, and when it was packed. This is more information than I've ever seen on a honey label before. Alas, my honey has crystallized. I guess this isn't so surprising from a Rata honey. There is a top layer of liquid honey, though. It is a mellow brown-caramel color. The liquid part is very (very) thin. It barely even clings onto a toothpick. What is most unusual about it it is its texture- silky and very light. It has a rich first taste- with a hint of molasses, and then a floral aftertaste, with a very thin, subtle sweetness. The molasses flavor was a little unexpected. I guess I associate the taste with thicker honeys. The crystallized part is unusual too. The crystals are very, very fine, so the texture is smooth but with some body. It is almost like having a very fine cream of wheat mixed in, but one that dissolves with the honey.I have read that Rata honey is sometimes described as being salty. I didn't notice any salty taste (and I was looking for it).
If you are interested in buying Rata honey, or any other Airborne honey, their website lists sellers:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Almond Honey, Mount Airy, MD (The Bee Folks)

I got this honey online from The Bee Folks ( out of Mount Airy, MD. I've blogged about honey I've bought from them before (see Radish honey). They have a great website and sell LOTS of different kinds of honey (as well as other things related to honey and bees). It is a family affair that started in 1997 with two hives in their backyard and has now grown to 2 acres and a small business. If you are looking for quality honey that you may not be able to easily find elsewhere, I'd recommend them (I've never seen (American) bamboo, or meadowfoam honey anywhere else). Almond honey, not surprisingly, comes from almond tree flowers. According to Wiki, almond trees are part of the Prunus family- the same as peaches, plums and cherries but rather than have a fleshy fruit it has a a seed coat (the hull) containing the edible kernel (what we think of as the almond nut). Being part of the Prunus family the almond is not truly a nut at all, but a 'drupe', along with peaches, plums and cherries. A drupe is a fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a shell (the pit) of hardened endocarp with a seed (kernel) inside; although for the almond you have to use your imagination a little for the fleshy fruit bit as mentioned above. So now you can impress you friends and family by using 'drupe' in a sentence ("Can't wait for the hot days of summer when drupes are at their peak ripeness.").
But back to almonds. There are two general types of almonds- sweet and bitter. Conveniently, sweet almonds often have white flowers and bitter almonds have pink flowers. What differs between sweet and bitter almonds is the amount of fixed oil and emulsion, and the presence of a ferment emulsion. Sweet almonds have a lot of fixed oil and emulsion and little/no ferment emulsion. The ferment emulsion of bitter almonds interacts with water and produces bensaldehyde (making the almond bitter) as well as cyanide (in the form of prussic acid, a.k.a. hydrogen cyanide) and other things. Extract of bitter almond, not surprisingly, can be deadly in large doses.
The almond tree is thought to be have originated in north Africa or southwest Asia, but since it has been cultivated in so many places for so long, its origins are obscure. Nowadays if you eat an almond, chances are it was grown in California. The Almond Board of California claims that 80% of the world's supply is grown in the state's central valley. They have a great website with all sorts of information (and recipes) about almonds: According to their site, Californian almond trees bloom in late February and early March and given the scale of the production, this must be truly a wonderful sight to see. Apparently almond trees are not self pollinating so bees are brought in for the job and they have a fairly narrow window of time to get the job done. The pollination of the California almond crop is touted as the largest annual managed pollination event in the world. According to Wiki, close to a million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the US) are trucked in to the almond groves, and this is all organized by pollination brokers who contract with migratory beekeepers. Being such an important crop for California they take all things almond very seriously, and track all things almond in the "Almond Almanac"- which is available as a pdf on the Almond Board's website. Cultivation of almonds goes way back. They were used in wedding ceremonies by the Romans in 100 AD (and are still used in France as wedding treats (dragees, or sugar coated almonds) to symbolize the bitter sweetness of life, and travelers on the silk road in 600 AD packed them for food along the way.
The almond honey I have (which was harvested in California) is a warm brown/orange/red color. I've had mine for a little bit so it has crystallized in large chunks. It has a mellow, slightly nutty flavor that becomes more pronounced, and then becomes a little bit like molasses and a little bit like caramel in the aftertaste. I can see why this honey might be a good choice for baking, especially if nuts are in the recipe. I think it would also be good in hot cereal or on hot buttered toast.