It’s hard to resist bees. The most complex and sophisticated of insects, they live in well-organised social structures, defend themselves and their queens to death, and cluster together to keep warm throughout the winter. In worrying decline due to intensive farming practices, they are invaluable workers, pollinating 80 per cent of our food – to the tune of about £1.8 billion annually in the UK alone. And then, there’s the honey… Honey, how I love thee.
When you are as big a honey fiend as I am, it’s quite tricky to be cool about it. There was the holiday in Provence as a teenager when I first ate lavender honey, and then ate it and ate it, by itself, all day long, straight from the pot, a whole pot a day, until I put on half a stone. Then there were the honey-in-tea years, when I would scour the world for cafés that made it available as a sweetener (few, reader, few). And the honey-with-Pecorino-as-starter-or-pudding years, which did dinner guests’ outfits no favours but never failed to delight me.
We have been entranced by the sticky stuff since the dawn of time. Cave drawings of honey being harvested by humans dating from about 10,000 years ago suggest that it has been cultivated from the very first days of agriculture. Pliny the Elder referred to it as ‘the sweat of the heavens’ and ‘a saliva emanating from the stars’; in the Roman Empire, it was sometimes used instead of gold to pay taxes.
Honey has always straddled the line between ingredient and medicine. It has antimicrobial and antiviral properties, and is antioxidant-rich. Aristotle believed consuming it prolonged life, while Hippocrates was known to prescribe honey to tackle many ailments, even favouring it to counteract baldness. Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman army surgeon, noted that it ‘could be used as treatment for stomach disease, wound with pus and… to stop coughing’.
And there’s little that sparks more interest these days than remedies for coughing. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence currently recommends honey as a first port of call before antibiotics for acute coughs caused by upper-respiratory-tract infections. And Misr University for Science and Technology in Egypt plans to roll out clinical trials using it to treat Covid-19.
Much of the science behind honey-as-cure is still patchy, but it’s well established in alternative and folk medicines. None more so than in apitherapy, long popular in China, which focuses on bee products. At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, none of 5,115 beekeepers surveyed showed any symptoms of the virus, and neither did any of the five Wuhan-based apitherapists interviewed or their 121 patients. The latter had been administered bee venom – this involves being stung by the insects through a fine mesh – which affects the stress response of the body’s immune system, enhancing the differentiation of the human regulatory T cells that play an important role in managing coronavirus infection.
A slightly more gentle treatment for respiratory problems offered by apitherapists is to use the whole hive as a nebuliser. The active ingredient is propolis, essentially a glue that protects the hive from bacteria, viruses and fungi. One end of a screened tube is inserted into the hive and the patient then inhales the air and its protective cocktail of pollen and nectar, coating the lungs with tiny particles of propolis. The sticky, resinous substance is also available in more conventional formulations to combat the common cold and nose, throat and flu-like illnesses, and to soothe wounds, burns, acne and neurodermatitis.
One note about bee products: the more natural – look for ‘raw’ and ‘unprocessed’ – the better quality healing they deliver. Any higher than room temperature and the goodness begins to break down, so many commercially manufactured honeys are basically just sugar. Disappointingly, this means the age-old honey-and-lemon drink should be lukewarm rather than the heartening hot brew it has become known as. Like Winnie-the-Pooh (and me), it’s best to just go for it straight from the pot.
Drinks to make with honey
Chinese pottery vessels dating back to 7,000 bc thought to have been used for honey fermentation suggest that mead was probably the first alcohol made deliberately by humans. Gosnells of London has brought it bang up to date as a craft drink, with signature and session meads available at its taproom in Peckham and by post. I can’t resist the signature blend – light and crisp with floral notes and low enough levels of alcohol for its moreishness to be guilt-free.
HONEY AND LEMON
A folk panacea for coughs and colds since time immemorial: lemon juice, with its high levels of antioxidant vitamin C, combined with honey in a concoction that has become as much comfort as remedy. For a heavier-hitting tonic before bed, turn it into a hot toddy by adding a dram of whisky to aid drifting off and spices such as ginger, which has anti-inflammatory effects.
A tincture containing raw cider vinegar and honey, made famous by Sir Ranulph Fiennes whose arthritis was apparently eliminated with a daily dose. Thousands credit it with a successful return to health, though it’s scientifically unproven. Also excellent for boosting digestion and the gut. Surprisingly good with ice, sparkling water and a sprig of mint.
HONEY AS MEDICINE
Indigenous to New Zealand and parts of Australia, the manuka bush powers the most famous of the remedial honeys. The product has its own grading system, shown as UMF 5+, UMF 10+ and so on, representing its concentration of active ingredients. With its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, it is recognised primarily for the treatment of wounds.
Used by Mexico’s Mayan community, this honey from stingless bees has antibacterial qualities, alleviating everything from eye infections to digestive issues. Drop it directly into the eyeball for immediate relief or add it to yogurts and smoothies. Melipona is largely produced on the Yucatán Peninsula – all the more reason to visit Tulum.
THE BEST HONEY PUDDING RECIPE
WHIPPED FETA AND HONEY CHEESECAKE
This is adapted from the signature pudding at London’s Honey & Co and Honey & Smoke restaurants. The saltiness of the feta is offset by the sweetness of the honey. To simplify, try replacing the pastry with a more traditional crushed-biscuit base, or simply serve the whipped-feta mixture with shortbread.
- For the base
- 25g melted butter
- 50g kadaif pastry (or shredded filo)
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
For the cheesecake cream
- 160g full-fat cream cheese
- 160ml extra-thick double cream
- 40g icing sugar
- 40g honey of your choice (a grainy one works best)
- 50g feta, smooth and creamy
- Seeds from half a vanilla pod (or 1 tsp vanilla essence)
For the garnish
- Raw, runny honey
- Fresh oregano or marjoram leaves
- Handful of whole-roasted almonds, roughly chopped
- Mellow-flavoured seasonal fruit (white peaches or blueberries are best; also raspberries or apricots)
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Mix the melted butter with the pastry and sugar in a bowl.
- Fluff the pastry by pulling it and loosening the shreds with your hands so it gets an even coating of sugar and butter.
- Divide into four equal amounts and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 12–15 minutes or until golden.
- Allow to cool and keep in an airtight container until ready to serve.
- Place all the cheesecake-cream ingredients into a large bowl and combine with a spatula or big spoon, using circular folding motions until it thickens and starts to hold the swirls. Don’t use a whisk: it’s vital to not add air to the mixture as the texture is key.
- To assemble the pudding, place a pastry nest on each plate and top with a generous scoop of cheesecake-cream mix. Sprinkle over the herbs and chopped nuts, add a few blueberries or a couple slices of peach, and drizzle with raw honey.
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