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Monday, June 30, 2014

Sulla honey (Miele fior di Sulla), Zafferana Etnea, Italy (Sicily)

Mt Etna at 2,700 meters, erupting

We were recently in Sicily and one of the highlights of the trip was hiking on and around Mount Etna. We were there for the June 17th eruption so couldn’t go to the summit but, with the help of a hiking map, did other hikes at lower elevations on the southern and western slopes. The diversity of terrain and flora was astounding. From barren black landscapes pocked with craters at upper elevations, above the tree line, to lush forests of ferns to mature oak and pine forests at the lower elevations.  The temperature and wind conditions also varied significantly over short distances, based mostly on elevation.  At 1,200 meters (where we were staying at Zafferana Etna) it was warm (830F), slightly breezy and sunny. As we climbed it became gradually cooler, cloudier and windier. At 2,700 meters (the highest we could go safely during the eruption) it was ‘take your breath away’ windy, and about 400F not factoring in wind chill. If you ever go up, my advice is wear layers, fleece and a solid wind breaker.  There is also quite a lot of variation around rainfall depending on where you are. My impression was that the southern slope, at lower elevations, got a lot more precipitation than the western slope, making the plants quite different from one slope to the next.    

Hiking through ferns, Mt Etna
We hiked through oak forests, beech trees and ferns on the southern slope and mostly pine forests on the western slope. And, of course, recent (and not so recent) lava flows have a biodiversity all of their own with lichens, small shrubs and wild flowers emerging after a time. All this to say that if you ever have the chance, hiking on and around Mount Etna is a real treat, and that from a honey production point of view, it is a gold mine. 
A beech tree we saw on a hike, Mt Etna

This gold mine has not gone unnoticed! I learned that honey production is big business in this area of Sicily. I heard that 20% of all honey consumed in Italy originates from the Mount Etna area. In fact, Zafferana Etnea is called the ‘town of honey’ and there is no denying it. I’ve never seen a town have whole stores devoted to honey (and honey products), or road side trucks that sell only honey. To say the least, I was in my element and came home with a lot of Sicily’s liquid gold. I did try to limit myself to either types of honey that I’d never come across before (e.g. the Sulla honey that I’m reviewing here) or those that were tied to the unique floral diversity of the area (e.g. wildflower or mountain honeys). I'm a little embarrassed to say this resulted in me coming home with seven jars! 

The apiarist whom I spoke with
 I also had a chance to speak with one of the apiarists that produced some of the honey I bought- the Sulla honey was one of hers. Well, I use "speak" rather loosely since I don't know Italian and she spoke no English. I was trying to ask her what plant 'Sulla' was. She tried to describe it but I couldn't figure it out. All I know was that it grew locally and had red flowers. Out hiking I took photos of red wildflowers with the hope that it was Sulla, but it wasn't.
The red wildflowers that I thought might be Sulla- they aren't.

It took me coming home and searching on the internet to find out what exactly I was dealing with. I now know that even if the apiarist had spoken perfect English I would not have been the wiser- the Sulla plant was a complete unknown to me.

This is what I found out about the Sulla plant (Hedysarum coronarium): it is also known as French honeysuckle, Italian sainfoin, and cock’s head. It is from the Fabaceae, or Pea family.  It is drought (but not cold) resistant and likes hilly or mountainous terrain up to elevations of about 1,200 meters.  It is native to Sicily but also found wild around the Mediterranean basin, and in Australia and New Zealand. It is mostly used for animal fodder (hay) and honey production, but has also been used in human herbal remedies (it is thought to have astringent and cholesterol-lowering properties) and to reduce gastro-intestinal infections in sheep. 
Real Sulla flowers, courtesy of the web
I think it is a rather attractive plant and it is purported to have fragrant, red flowers, which look a little like lupin flowers to me. Its Latin name, as mentioned before, is Hedysarum coronarium. The 'coronarium' part refers to the fact that the petals form a 'crown.' It has deep roots, grows 2-4 feet tall, and is branchy. I’d call it a shrub. Usually a plant this attractive that has multiple uses would be mentioned in some ancient source or in poetry. Alas, the Sulla seems to have been taken for granted; I could not find any reference to it from any notable source. 

Sulla honey

The Sulla honey I have is a soft, cloudy yellow with a layer of clearer honey on top. The cloudy bit is due to crystal formation that makes it thick and gives it a very granular taste experience. I understand that Sulla honey is a fast crystallizer, crystallizing within a few months of harvest. I didn't think it had a particularly strong smell, but I've read that others have noted a faint floral and slightly hay-like scent. It is a sweet and uncomplicated honey with slight floral undertones. I think the most unique thing about it is its texture. It would be good in tea, even delicately flavored teas, and quite nice just out of the jar.


  1. Ran across this in central Sicily just this week. Delicious.

  2. Just bought one bottle of sulla honey made from Italy here in HongKong and got curious about what sulla honey is. Saw your article. Very nice. It smells good with floral scent, just like what you described. Here in Hong Kong and mainland China, a lot of people like to make edible enzyme by mixing water, honey and fruits with the ratio of 10:1:3. After 6 month in warm weather, the enzyme will come out from the mixture. So good honey is a key element.

    Sicily is on my to go list. Your writing just ignite my desire to go again. Honey and hiking, both are my favorite. Thank you for your sharing

    1. If you are a honey lover and a hiker, Sicily is a great place to be! I'm impressed that Sulla honey made it to Hong Kong, but I guess you can probably find anything in Hong Kong if you look for it :)