Product of the week: vanilla fir honey

Categories: Product of the week

A rare Greek honey from the Mainalon mountains

“It’s always special when we have vanilla fir honey to offer,” says Marianna, owner of Oliveology, purveyors of foods from the highways and byways of Greece. “That is because it is quite rare. So much so that there are some years when you cannot get it at all.”

The reason for this scarcity lies in the nature of the honey itself. Vanilla fir honey is an example of a ‘forest’ or ‘honeydew’ honey, meaning unlike the majority, it is not made from blossom nectar. The main raw material is sweet secretions that insects, typically aphids, leave on fir trees. The bees use that sweet substance, along with nectar from the surrounding wildflowers, to make their honey. This creates a honey that can only be found in the fir forests of Mount Mainalon in the Peloponnese. Such is this honey’s uniqueness that it has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

“That is the only place in the world where you can get it,” adds Ifigeneia from behind the Oliveology counter. “Vanilla fir is a thick, earthy, creamy honeydew honey which is much lower in sugar than other honey. It has this lovely pearlescent effect in the light and has a flavour with hints of vanilla or caramel. As with all honey, it changes slightly from year to year depending on what the bees collect.” Despite the name, there is no vanilla added to it. “It is raw and unpasteurised like all the honeys we sell. It gets its distinct flavour from the sweet sticky substance that the bees collect.”

The black pine forest
Those aphids are key to the nature of the honey and, alongside the geographical limitation, are a significant part of the reason the PDO was granted. It states that vanilla fir honey must contain at least 80 per cent of those sweet insect secretions and they have to have been collected from the black pine forest; the nectar can only be from wildflowers that grow in the region around it, and must not exceed 20 per cent of the final honey.

“Each hive only produces enough honey to harvest every two to three years,” Ifigeneia continues. “The beekeepers can take 15kg from each hive, each harvest, so even though there are always some producers with honey, it is only a small amount. Marianna is always on the lookout for suppliers and will buy it whenever she can.” With such a rare and sought-after product, knowing the provenance is crucial: the relationships that Marianna has built up means she has a network of trusted suppliers and knows it is a genuine product, not mixed with other, cheaper honey.

A special honey
“For me this is such a special honey, you should use it in ways that allow the flavour to really stand out. I do not really recommend using it in your cereal or over fruits at breakfast where the delicacies of the flavours could be lost,” Ifigeneia says. “I think it goes really well with a cheeseboard. Because it is so much lower in sugar and has such a unique flavour, it is really nice to try it out in different combinations with cheeses that you may not usually use, which is fun. And of course, it is wonderful on toast. This is a honey for when you want to sit down with some friends, relax and indulge yourself.”

Be warned—you need to be quick if you want a taste of this particular honey. According to Marianna, it has built up a dedicated following. “It is very popular when we get it in. People will come on a special trip to the Market to buy it—and when it is gone, it is gone.