Edible histories: honey

Categories: History of food

Baby tombs, booze production and Norse myths: the remarkable history of honey

Words: Mark Riddaway

When God, accompanied by an impressive display of pyrotechnics, first pitched to Moses the idea of the whole ‘exodus’ thing, he knew the perfect way of promoting the promised land to his terrified subject.

Follow me, said God, and I will lead the Israelites from Egypt and take them “unto a land flowing with milk and honey”. Not gold and jewels. Not wine and caviar. Milk and honey. With a promise like that, how could Moses possibly say no?

In the ancient world, honey was much more than just a topping for toast. It was viewed as something miraculous, often divine, wrapped up in mythology. And it’s easy to see why. For the most part, creating beautiful food takes blood, sweat and patience: ploughing, pruning, feeding, hunting, butchering, grinding, chopping, cooking.

Utterly mysterious
But honey is just there, fully-formed and utterly mysterious, tasting of paradise. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder put it best. Honey is, he wrote, “the sweat of the heavens... a saliva emanating from the stars... a juice exuding from the air while purifying itself.”

Humans have probably been eating this heavenly perspiration since before they were even really human: other apes use crude tools to extract honey from wild hives, and it is likely that our common ancestors did too.

The earliest evidence of our love affair with honey comes from Palaeolithic cave paintings, the most spectacular of which, found at La Araña in Spain, is a vivid illustration of a man collecting honey from a cliff-face hive, his head surrounded by angry-looking bees.

Hittite law code
Hives and honey appear in some of the oldest surviving written sources. One of these, a Hittite law code, set out a series of monetary fines for people caught stealing beehives. The clause in question made clear that a previous punishment for the same offence had been far more poetic and far more painful: exposure to bee stings.

As well as its ambrosia-like flavour, honey has remarkable antiseptic and preservative qualities, making it an important resource for medicine and funerary rituals. Abd al-Latif, one of the great Arab intellectuals of the medieval period, recounted the story of a group of Egyptian explorers.

While turning over an ancient tomb, they came across a sealed vessel filled with honey. They opened it, found it to be perfectly edible, and were tucking into it with relish—until they uncovered the preserved corpse of a small child buried within.

Man-made hives
Quite when the first man-made hives were constructed is unclear, but it was certainly a long time ago. A dig at an Iron Age site at Tel Rehov, Israel, uncovered a vast 3,000-year-old apiary containing hundreds of hives, made of straw and unbaked clay and lined up in orderly rows.

In ancient Greece, Pythagorus and his followers attributed their good health and longevity to the constant consumption of honey. According to Athenaeus, “bread and honey were the chief food of the Pythagoreans”.

The philosopher Strabo, meanwhile, produced something akin to a TripAdvisor review of Hellenic honeys: “All the honey produced in the islands is, for the most part, good and rivals that of Attica,” he wrote, “but the honey produced in the islands of Leros and Calymnos is exceptionally good.”

Menstruating women
In Rome, Pliny was similarly concerned with the character and provenance of the honey he consumed. “The peculiar excellence of honey depends,” he wrote, “on the country in which it is produced; the modes, too, of estimating its quality are numerous.” He was perhaps less strong on some of the entomology. Bees, he reckoned, “have a particular aversion” to thieves and menstruating women.

Honey flowed through the 4th century Roman cookbook of Apicius. The author used it to sweeten cakes, drinks, salad dressings, a wine sauce for truffles, a cumin sauce for shellfish and a cucumber stew with boiled brains. He used it to preserve fruit, vegetables and meat (“cover fresh meat with honey, suspend it in a vessel, use as needed”).

And in a shameless piece of advice to market traders, he even offered an opinion on how best to deal with honey that had spoiled: “How bad honey may be turned into a saleable article is to mix one part of the spoiled honey with two parts of good honey.” That sound you hear is Borough’s stallholders tutting in disgust.

The Domesday Book
The British have always been keen beekeepers. Honey was highly valued: records in the Domesday Book suggest it could be used as a form of rental payment, and it provided a solid source of income for the monks who were its main producers.

It did have some culinary uses—one 11th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript mentions “pure honey, such as is used to lighten porridge”—but the British being the British, the main function of this beautiful nectar came in the production of booze.

Mead is thought to be the most ancient of all alcoholic drinks, pre-dating wine and beer. The word can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European language from which so many of the world’s languages evolved, and its consumption was pretty much universal.

Honeyed charms
It was popular in Persia, India, Egypt, Greece, the Baltic, Russia and Scandinavia. The Vikings loved it, with one famous Norse myth recounting the tale of the Mead of Poetry: those partaking of this drink’s honeyed charms were transformed into brilliant poets. Then again, we’ve all felt like that as last orders beckons.

The 17th century cookbook of Sir Kenhelm Digby offers clear evidence of the British view of honey. Nothing in his book implies that honey might be used as a food, but he includes more than 100 recipes for mead and metheglin (flavoured mead).

One of these, called ‘metheglin composed by myself out of sundry receipts’, contains “eye-bright, liverwort, agrimony, scabious, balme, wood-bettony, strawberry-leaves and burnet”, as well as a gallon of honey. Digby eventually got so bored of coming up with names for his mead recipes that a few are simply titled ‘another’.

Dry open countries
For Digby, the source of the honey in his booze mattered greatly: “The honey of dry open countries, where there is much wild thyme, rosemary, and flowers, is best,” he wrote. He recommended Hampshire and Norfolk in particular.

William Harrison, the Elizabethan writer, warned of the dangers of mucky foreign honey: “Our honey is reputed to be the best, because it is harder, better wrought, and cleanlier vesselled up than that which cometh from beyond the sea, where they stamp and strain their combs, bees, and young blowings altogether into the stuff.”

The mass consumption of mead was, by this time, already on its way out in Britain, overtaken by the more economical charms of hopped beers. And honey has never really gained much traction as a cooking ingredient, in stark contrast to much of the world, where it remains a major sweetener: the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, India.

Waxing lyrical
In Mrs Beeton’s book, a great repository of British culinary culture, its only appearances came in a simple honey cake and as a rather redundant addition to a marmalade recipe. We still spread it on toast and stir it into porridge or yoghurt, and the quality of honey bought by shoppers at Oliveology, The Golden Company and From Field and Flower would have Pliny waxing lyrical.

But if God wanted to spark a British exodus, he’d probably have to offer us a land flowing with milk and cane sugar instead.