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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Oak Forest Honey, Aley, Lebanon (Jabal el Sheikh Honey)

Lebanon (officially known as the Lebanese Republic) is an eastern Mediterranean country that borders Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.


Lebanon has a long history of human settlement, dating back thousands of years. It was home to the Phoenicians (1550 to 539 BC), and then later (64 BC) was part of the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire also ruled it for many centuries, after which the French governed it (post WWI). It finally gained independence in 1943.

Given its maritime tradition and history, it has an interesting cultural and religious heritage that is reflected in the diversity of the people who live there. For instance, the Maronites and the Druze call it home.

It is a rather small country, roughly 217 km by 80 km, that has the Mount Lebanon mountain chain running through the center of it. These mountains rise from sea level to about 2,100 meters and contain a wealth of micro-ecosystems and biodiversity.

The Mount Lebanon mountain chain is known for its forests, especially the Lebanese cedar forests. In fact if you think about "forest" in Lebanon, the Lebanese cedar probably comes to mind. This is not surprising since forests above 1300 meters are dominated by the Lebanese cedar. In fact, the Lebanese cedar is  a symbol of Lebanon and appears on the Lebanese flag.
Lebanese Flag showing Lebanese cedar
But Lebanese forests have more than just Lebanese cedars. Of note, and of particular interest for this blog, oak (Quercus spp.) also grows there. 
There are a lot of different kinds of oaks, over 600, in fact. I tried to figure out what kind of oak might be growing in Lebanon; there is a Lebanon oak (Quercus libani) which seems like a safe bet. 
Quercus libani

When you think of how bees make honey you probably think of them flitting from flower to flower collecting nectar which they then transform into honey. While this is how bees make honey from floral sources, it isn't how they make  honey from forest sources, like oak. In fact, honey from forest sources is made from "honeydew" which is collected by aphids (most usual) or other sap sucking insects/caterpillars (less usual). Aphids excrete honeydew, a sweet substance, as a byproduct of consuming plant sap. Bees then collect it, process it with enzymes, and make honey. Honeydew, however, is chemically different from nectar and results in a honey that is darker, more aromatic, and has a higher mineral and antioxidant content. In fact some honeydew honeys reportedly have one hundred times the level of antioxidants as a cup of green tea. It is not surprising that medicinal qualities have been attributed to honeydew honeys.
There are many different types of honeydew honeys depending on the sap source and type of aphid (or other creature) that collects it. For oak honeydew honey, the most common aphids are Tuberculalus annulalus, and T. borealis.  In the hierarchy of honeydew honeys, spruce and silver fir, however are thought to produce the best quality of honeydew honeys.

Mountainous Oak Forest Honey, Lebanon
The oak honey that I have is produced by Jabal el Sheikh out of Aley, Lebanon. They have a lovely website but mostly in Arabic, so I'm not able to glean much about their operation other than they produce a variety of honeys and honey products (e.g. pollen).

I have one of the itty-bitty sampler jars of their Mountainous Oak Forest honey. It is a deep, warm amber color and of medium thickness. It is an uncomplicated honey- true sweetness with no changes in flavor throughout. It is somewhat floral, however, which surprised me. I was expecting a more smokey, rich flavor of other forest honeys that I've had. It does have a warm, herbal undertone though, so it isn't completely "simple." Overall, I'd say it was a tasty honey. It isn't strong, so would be good in tea, hot cereal or on yoghurt, or used in cooking or baking.


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