When most of us think of terroir — loosely translating to “a taste of place” — we think of wine. The term refers to the soil, climate and grapes that create a bottle representative of the region in which it’s produced. But as we’re learning, terroir is every bit as applicable to honey as well. So why not turn the tables on your next wine tasting and include a honey tasting as well?
For tips on pulling it off, we turned to Marina Marchese, beekeeper, founder of Red Bee Honey and author of the new book The Honey Connoisseur, to be released in June. Marchese is changing the way people think about honey, celebrating the philosophy of terroir and honey’s diverse flavor profiles. She even coined the term “honey sommelier” in her first book, Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper. Here, she tells us how to create the perfect honey tasting at home.
First, it’s important to understand why different types of honey can look and taste so distinct from one another.
“Honey is made from the nectar of flowers, and around the world there are thousands of different honey plants producing nectar,” says Marina. “That means you will only find certain varietals of honey harvested in certain regions: blueberry honey is produced in Maine or Michigan, while Tupelo is produced in Georgia or northern Florida. That’s terroir at work: a color, aroma and flavor profile that is truly a reflection of a specific region.”
As Marina explains, consider apple blossom honey. The tree’s flowers bloom early in the spring but only for a few short weeks. If the temperature is too cold, the honey bees will stay in their hives instead of pollinating the apple trees and gathering nectar. Thus, we can miss an entire apple honey harvest. However, if the conditions are just right, bees will pollinate the flowers and produce apple blossom honey. The bees’ behavior, combined with the region and its environmental conditions, will determine the quality and quantity of a honey harvest, as well as the unique characteristics of the resulting honey.
That’s one of the reasons a honey tasting can be so fun and informative — the colors, aromas and flavor profiles of each varietal are endless. When it comes to choosing honey for tasting, definitely select a range of varietals. Marina recommends purchasing honey close to the source.
“If you can’t get honey from a local beekeeper or harvest it yourself, go to the farmers’ market and talk to the people selling it,” advises Marina. “Ask them about their bees and the types of honey plants blooming in their area.”
Also, she notes, pure honey is rarely perfectly clear and transparent. It should be a little foggy, which means the pollen hasn’t been filtered out, maintaining its original purity. Most importantly, good honey will have layers of flavor. While sugar and other sweeteners are simply sweet, honey can express floral, grassy, fruity or woody flavor notes.
“If all you’re tasting is sweet, it may not be true blossom honey,” says Marina.
Red Bee offers their own Honey Party Tasting Kit, a collection of four hand-harvested honeys with unique flavor profiles, plus a honey tasting wheel, color chart and and scorecards. We asked Marina to pair each honey with foods that will highlight its characteristics. Here, she picks a cheese and wine for each one, along with more of her favorite suggestions.
“Alfalfa is a legume,” says Marina. “You’re going to find warm, grassy notes, dry, spicy hay, and true vegetal flavors reminiscent of the plant itself.”
Pair it: Serve alfalfa honey with an earthy Brie cheese, flatbread crackers and a glass of Pinot Blanc. It’s also delicious drizzled over warm cornbread, polenta or grits.
Grassy but still floral, clover honey has notes of butterscotch and beeswax. “Clover has distinctive notes of vanilla and toffee, depending on the region in which it was produced,” says Marina.
Pair it: Clover honey is delicious with a Pecorino cheese, but Marina also recommends drizzling it over tapioca pudding with cardamom and pecans (think butter-pecan ice cream).
Deep and rich, buckwheat honey has notes of chocolate and cherries, and it’s musty on the nose. “People either love it or they don’t like it at all,” says Marina.
Pair it: A nutty cheddar or hardy stilton cheese pairs well with buckwheat honey, along with a dessert wines such as Banyuls or tawny port. It’s also a great substitute for maple syrup. Drizzle it over mascarpone-filled crepes, pancakes or waffles, with bacon.
“Wildflower honey will change its color, aroma and flavor profile depending on the region it was produced,” says Marina. “Honey bees gather nectar from many different flowers, and every region has its own unique flowers. Wildflower honeys, like all honeys, will change by season and region.” Red Bee wildflower honey is dark in color with caramel and maple flavor notes.
Pair it: A strong blue cheese like Valdeon and red wine, such as Chianti, will complement this honey. It’s also great drizzled over freshly sliced figs and walnuts.
You only need a few things to host a honey tasting party: a Red Bee tasting kit (or your favorite selection of honeys), a group of friends, food accompaniments and beverages.
“The idea is to have fun and get people excited about honey, while also learning about its vast flavor profiles,” says Marina. “Tasting honey opens up conversations about honey bees, pollination, travel, honey plants and where our food comes from.”
Serve a variety of cheeses. Gather a selection of cheeses from your local cheesemonger (the ones described above are a good starting point). Marina recommends four honeys paired with four cheeses. It’s a good idea to taste the cheeses first before pairing them with honeys.
Consider your accompaniments. Crusty bread, crackers, and fresh and dried fruits are delicious with cheese and honey. Include different nuts as well, or even roll the cheese in nuts to add a crunchy texture. Vegetables like simple crudités, sundried tomatoes, and olives can work well, too.
Offer a selection of wines. Marina suggests a sparkling Prosecco, Cava or Champagne, plus a variety of red and white wines to complement the cheeses and honeys.
Set a beautiful buffet table. Arrange cheeses on a large, white platter. Pour honey into white or clear glass bowls, or stemmed glasses for an elegant presentation, so you can see the different colors of each one. Set out plenty of spoons to serve the honey and encourage guests to help themselves, slicing cheeses and drizzling honey as they please. Don’t forget napkins — it can get sticky!
Include talking points. Marina’s honey tasting kit comes with a honey aroma and tasting wheel, similar to the ones you see for wine. Place it out on the table to give people a starting point for talking about honey’s characteristics and flavors. You can also include pairing suggestions and notes about the floral source and the region where each honey is produced.
Most of all, have fun and enjoy the honey tasting experience!