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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Miel de Cerises (Cherry Blossom honey), Auxerre, L'Yonne, France

My cherry blossom honey came to me from my aunt Stéphane (merci Stéphane!) whose friends, Nadia and Bruno Poissonnier, harvested it.

honey bee on a cherry blossom
If you haven't seen cherry blossom honey before, I'm not surprised; it is a relatively rare honey. This is not because cherry blossoms don't produce nectar or bees aren't attracted to them, but because of timing. Cherry blossoms bloom early in spring (as early as March in the Northern Hemisphere) and they are one of the first available nectar sources of the year. Unless the colony is very robust, honey bees tend to use the nectar gathered for expansion of hive numbers rather than making honey. Nectar collection also depends on the weather, with rainy or cold conditions-which can be the case in early spring- producing a poor harvest. Cherry blossoms are then followed by an explosion of other floral sources so the window for a mono-floral source, cherry blossom honey closes quickly.

Morello cherry (sour cherry cultivar)
Cherries that most people eat or use in cooking come from a limited number of species that have been cultivated (i.e. are cultivars) from either the sweet cherry (Prunus avium) or the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus). According to Wiki, Prunus avium is thought to be one of the parent species of Prunus cerasus by way of ancient crosses between it and Prunus fruiticosa (dwarf cherry). All three species can breed with each other but Prunus cerasus is now a species in its own right having developed beyond a hybrid and stabilised.

Both sweet and sour cherry species originate in Europe and western Asia. Evidence suggests that humans have consumed wild cherries for thousands of years: cherry pits have been found at Bronze age settlements throughout Europe (circa 2,000 B.C.).  The cultivation of cherries began around 800 B.C. in Asia Minor. As far as I can see, cultivated cherries differ from wild ones mostly by having larger fruit. This practice spread and around 300 B.C. cherries were also being cultivated by the Greeks, Persians and Romans. The Romans introduced cultivated cherries into Britain in the first century A.D. where they became very popular in the 16th century with a number of Kentish growers creating an abundance of new cultivars. In fact, the sour cherries that came with the first colonists of Massachusetts originated from the region and were called "Kentish Red." 

The department of Yonne (red), France
Cherry trees are somewhat fragile. They do not tolerate wetness and are prone to a number of pests (e.g. the black cherry aphid and the cherry fruit fly); and fungal, bacterial and viral infections (e.g. canker, cytospora canker, brown rot, and root rot). Of interest, all parts of the cherry tree except for the ripe fruit contain cyanogenic glycosides making them slightly toxic.

Most sweet cherry trees require cross pollination; they need pollen from a different but compatible cultivar to produce fruit, whereas sour cherry trees are self-fruiting (i.e. they can be pollinated from the same cultivar to produce fruit). In both cases, very few cherry blossoms are wind-pollinated so pollinators (i.e. honey bees) are essential.

Auxerre on the river Yonne
 My cherry blossom honey comes from Auxerre, France in the department of Yonne. The department of Yonne is one of the four departments of Burgundy and is located near the center of France. The department is named for the Yonne river, a tributary of the Seine, that flows through it, and Auxerre is its capital. This region has been inhabited for a very, very long time (some estimate 200,000 years). Palaeolithic hunter-gathers, Celtic and Gallic tribes, and Romans have all called it home.

Printemps by Georges Hosotte (flowering cherry trees)

The area round Auxerre is a beautiful region of France. It is an agricultural area. While better known for its vineyards (just 15 km east of Auxerre is Chablis, famous for its white wine), it also has impressive orchards of apple and cherry trees. In spring it must be a glorious site to see them all in bloom. Local artist  Georges Hosotte has immortalized the beauty of the surrounding landscape, including cherry trees in bloom, in many of his paintings.

My cherry honey is a dark, red-brown prune color, much like the color of cooked cherry juice. It has a medium thickness, and has a slightly earthy, cooked fruit smell, but it isn't that fragrant. Cherry blossom honey is a slow crystallizer but I understand that when it does crystallize the color changes a little, taking on yellow tints. My honey was collected this spring and hasn't begun to crystallize at all.

Miel de Cerises, Auxerre, France
As for taste, it has an uncomplicated cooked cherry or prune like flavor over a more traditional honey flavor. It is not very sweet and almost has a watery quality about it. Imagine the flavor of a prune compote with a bit of cherry juice and honey, and you get the idea- but it is clear, deep red-brown, and a little watery. Very unusual and tasty! I think it is too special to bake with, but on hot buttered toast it would be divine.

Nadia and Bruno Poissonnier's honey is not commercially available (I understand it is collected in very small batches, and for family and friends only) but I did find a few online sites that sell cherry blossom honey, so with only a few clicks you might also enjoy this rare and flavorful honey.   

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