STYLE

Honey season beckons sweet tooths with promise of delectable nectar

04/30/2012 01:25 EDT | Updated 06/30/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON, Ont. - While most Canadians probably think of honey as something you can buy off the grocer's shelf any time of year, true aficionados are anticipating the new honey season with the same enthusiasm seen in strawberry lovers just before the new crop is harvested.

"So many people think that honey is all the same, but it's not," says Lynn Ogryzlo of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., author of three cookbooks, food writer and one of those aficionados. "It's seasonal, just like all the other (homegrown) products out there."

"Canadian honey in the spring is the lightest and as the summer goes on it gets a little stronger and in the fall it's the strongest."

In much of Eastern Canada, honey season runs from April to October. In the three Prairie provinces, which account for about two-thirds of the roughly 34 million kilograms (75 million pounds) of honey produced annually in the country, the season is May to August.

Canada is the fifth-largest honey producer in the world, with about 7,000 beekeepers operating a total of 600,000 honeybee colonies, says Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, based in Sherwood Park, Alta.

We consume about one kilogram (2.2 pounds) per capita annually, although this falls short of the sweet-toothed Australians, who have the highest per capita consumption at 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds).

Liquid and creamed honey is graded based on clarity, colour and moisture content and the key to the taste is the colour: The darker the honey, the stronger the flavour.

"The predominant pollen source will create the colour," Scarlett says. "But different pollen sources give honey a different taste. Canola honey tastes different than clover honey. Fireweed gives a distinctive flavour."

White honey may come from clover, basswood or canola, and golden honey from goldenrod and other fall flowers, according to the Ontario Beekeepers' Association. Buckwheat is one of the primary sources of amber or dark honey.

So how do you wrangle a bee to collect pollen from only one type of flower? Scarlett chuckles.

"Nothing is guaranteed because you don't have fences to hold them in. However, bees travel maybe two square miles (five square kilometres), so if you've put them in a clover field where they're able to get a sufficient amount of pollen, chances are they're not going to go too far," he says.

"But if there's a dandelion off in the ditch, it's not to say a bee doesn't go to the dandelion."

Ogryzlo uses honey instead of sugar as much as possible because it's more "natural." She prefers strong, dark honey as a sweetener for her tea but in baking uses mainly light honey because the taste of the darker honey would overwhelm the other ingredients.

Making substitutions in a recipe is a bit of a guess, she says, but as a general rule, "you want to reduce the liquid if you're using honey (instead of sugar) and then reduce the amount of honey as well" because it's sweeter than sugar.

The Ontario Beekeepers' Association advises using the same amount of honey but cutting the liquid by one-quarter in a baking recipe or, in a straight honey-for-sugar substitution, reducing the amount of honey by one-quarter from the amount of sugar called for.

One of Ogryzlo's favourite applications is in apple pie, drizzling honey over the apples instead of using sugar. It doesn't hide the taste of the apples, as sugar can do. But she says even light honey doesn't work well in sweet breads such as banana bread or zucchini loaf. It is too strong.

She also likes to baste or even marinate meat with honey and says it works particularly well with pork tenderloin. When you use a honey baste — just enough to moisten the meat — at the beginning and halfway through baking, "the honey caramelizes and gives a little bit of crunchy sweetness to the meat."

One marinade she likes is honey with hot chili pepper flakes added to it. She wraps the meat in cheesecloth to make sure the honey doesn't slide off, marinates overnight in the refrigerator and sears the meat in a frying pan to caramelize the honey before finishing in the oven or on the grill.

The health of Canada's bee population has been a concern in recent years due to an infestation of mites. In the last seven years or so, Scarlett says, the over-winter loss rate of hives has fluctuated between 20 and 30 per cent. Prior to that, it was generally five to a maximum of 15 per cent. There is also a worry the mites will become resistant to the products used to treat them.

But this year, so far, so good, he says. Although it's still early in the season, anecdotal reports from beekeepers and provincial apiarists across the country indicate "this spring, the survival rate for bees in Canada seems to be fairly good."

It could be because beekeepers are "addressing the mite problem better than they have in the past" and it could be a function of the mild winter across much of the nation.

Either way, it's good news for honey fans.

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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