Christina and I (and husbands) spent nearly two hours in the village of Pianiano yesterday afternoon learning to taste honey. It turns out there is quite a process for distinguishing the various flavors of this natural food that has been popular in Italy for more than 2,000 years (according to this source, Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), wrote about bee farming in the third volume of his famous, “De Re Rustica.”)
The tasting took place in a church, where about 20 of us sat obediently in pews as our authoritative guide took us through the many steps involved in learning to fully appreciate the flavors and textures of various honeys.
We had five types of honey to taste, in order: acacia (clear, light and liquidity); lime trees (the street tree, not the fruit, with honey that looked like lemon gelato); sunflower (thick and golden); honeydew (from bees that eat the excrement of aphids in oak forests); and chestnut (dark and thick).
The first and second step to tasting honey involves smelling it. One takes the cup of honey and smells it closely, inhaling deeply to catch the aroma and identify it. After doing this for a sufficient amount of time, one then takes a small honey stick and stirs the honey, releasing more aroma and requiring additional deep inhalations.
Smells in Italy are apparently classifiable to a remarkable degree. Our enthusiastic guide asked us to name the aromas we could identify for each honey. When Scott said the acacia honey smelled like honey, she let him know this was not an unacceptable answer. He clearly was not using his nose or imagination sufficiently. When Christina suggested the sunflower honey had a slight mint fragrance, our honey priestess allowed that it might, but when her assistant then suggested it smelled like lemon, she was visibly disappointed that he wasn’t more discerning.
The lime tree honey had an unpleasant smell which Richard suggested reeked like urine. I thought this was fairly descriptive but she didn’t agree (she said a lot of things about “animale” in response, which I couldn’t follow). However, when we arrived at the honeydew honey and Scott said it smelled like “caramel” she was very pleased and he had clearly redeemed himself. “Caramel” was the right answer! (This was also my favorite honey, as long as I didn’t think about it too much.)
The chestnut honey took a lot of conversation and after a number of wrong guesses, our honey guide announced that it had the smell of “dirty hair.” Scott and Richard thought “locker room” was more descriptive but that didn’t translate well. Dirty socks was also suggested as a possible answer; I wouldn’t put this honey on anything but the plate of someone I didn’t like. It is however, listed as one of the top 21 honeys in Italy. (Chestnut seems to be an acquired taste that I think is related to starvation during the world wars.)
The third step in the honey tasting process is to take a bit of honey, spread it across your tongue and then hold your nose. This is surprisingly difficult to do as I discovered it’s impossible to swallow while holding your nose, so you have to have honey in your mouth and not swallow, concentrating instead on the four tastes that honey can hold: sweet, acidic, bitter and salty. We had to identify the dominant taste of each honey for these four characteristics. I found it was actually useful to close my eyes, hold my nose, count to five and let go. The flavors in my mouth then did feel especially pronounced which was a fun discovery. Who knew?
After two rounds of smelling and the holding-your-nose step, one arrives at the actual tasting step. It was quite a relief to be able to eat the honey and savor the sweetness, texture and flavors. We looked a bit like a room full of Winnie-the-Poohs with our own personal honey jars at this point, although by the fifth cupful (which fortunately was the worst tasting) everyone looked decidedly less enthusiastic.
At this point our guide announced we had reached the last and final step: to taste the honey with cheese. To our knowledge, Italy (perhaps along with Bulgaria) is one of the few places where people regularly pair honey with cheese. It’s an incredibly delicious combination and everyone was anticipating this culmination of more than an hour of careful honey consumption instruction. One of the young assistants arrived with a bag which he carefully untied to reveal a large bowl of fresh ricotta. Slices of moderately aged pecorino were already prepared and our guides carefully passed around plates of cheese for each worshipper.
Steeling ourselves for more instruction, there was a a definite change in mood when everyone realized that the only directive now was to pair the cheese with whatever honey we fancied. Everyone began to chat as our host and hostesses poured more water, shared extra cheese and the event, like most Italian gatherings, turned into a party. We shared smiles with those behind us and the grandfather of the young assistants showed up with his adorable toddler granddaughter. Everyone slowly emptied back into the narrow cobblestone street which had been blocked off for the weekend garden show and filled with flowers. A perfect way to end our first full day back in Italy.
For the proper Italian names of each of the honey we tried, courtesy of The Honey Traveler:
- Acacia – ‘Miele di acacia’ (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)
- Lime Tree (aka Linden or Basswood) – ‘Miele di tiglio’ (Tilia spp.)
- Sunflower – ‘Miele di girasole’ (Helianthus annuus L.)
- Forest Honeydew – ‘Melata di bosco, Melata di metcalfa’ (Insect: Metcalfa pruinosa (Say))
- Chestnut – ‘Miele di castagno’ (Castanea sativa Mill)
A final bonus: “La vita delle api” — The life of the bee (to be said with rhythm: la vee ta della a pee).