This time I take the stand:
There is honey, and there is honey. On the one hand, the stuff sold in cute bear-shaped squeeze bottles in the supermarket, which is often a mixture of honeys from various sources, and on the other what one might call Virgin honey, which comes direct from the beekeeper, and is generaly from one spot, and often primarily from one sort of flower or plant.
I say might call, because Virgin honey (Miele Vergine) is an Italian labeling term introduced to distinguish artisinal honeys obtained simply by centrifuging the combs, without applying heat or other treatments, and in the late 1990s the EEU, while ruling that honey labels should say where the contents of the jar is from, forbade the use of the word Virgin, and an article published on honey labeling in 2009 by the Rete Rurale Nazionale says it is still forbidden. Therefore, Virgin, or Vergine Integrale, is more of a concept than a recognized entity.
And what makes it interesting? Since the bees of a hive tend to concentrate on a particular flower until it goes out of season, many virgin honeys are also single-flower honeys that reflect the characteristics of their source flowers; for example honey from orange groves has a delicate orange scent and slight citric acidity that gives definition to the sweetness. If there isn’t enough of a particular flower to meet the bees’ needs they will, of course, visit other blossoms, and at this point the honey is called millefiori, which means thousand flowers.
Despite the name Millefiori these honeys tend to be quite distinctive because they still reflect the plants growing where the bees live; for example large sections of the Alps produce a millefiore honey that combines the bitterness of chestnuts with the minty overtones of linden trees. This Alpine honey will also have resinous and caramel notes whose intensity will depend upon the amount of honeydew the bees used; honeydew is sugar not from flowers, but rather from aphids and other insects that suck sap from the plants (in this case lindens) and excrete the sugars they take up in excess.
That bees use the excretions of other insects to make their honey might come as a surprise — at least it did to me — but in areas with few flowers they have no other choice. Indeed, much of the honey from northern climes is from honeydew rather than from flowers.
If you think about it, the potential number of Virgin honeys is almost infinite. And what is honey?
All honey is primarily sugar, up to about 80%, with the remaining 20% primarily water and the trace elements that give a given honey its characteristic aromas and flavor. As it comes from the comb it’s a liquid, but a supersaturated liquid, and with time most honeys with the exception of acacia, chestnut and honeydew will crystallize; crystallization has no influence on the taste of the honey, though it does change its mouthfeel, because the crystals absorb warmth as they melt on the tongue and thus make the honey feel more refreshing.
To reverse the crystallization one need simply heat the honey to a temperature of 40 C (about 100 F) in a water bath, but doing so drives off some of the volatile elements and therefore decreases the honey’s bouquet and flavor. The same loss of flavor also occurs naturally with time, and is again temperature dependent: A jar in the refrigerator (below 50 F, or 10 C) will keep for years, the same jar will keep on a kitchen shelf (68 F, or 20 C) for 12-18 months, and in a warm place (85 F, or 30 C) for a couple of months. Note that it will not spoil with time, but rather become just sweet, rather like syrup made from refined sugar. Therefore, though an old honey may no longer be satisfying on a slice of toast, it could be used in making a dessert.
I took the notes that led to the above during a talk on honeys, which wound up with a tasting of a number of different honeys; we began with the extraordinary delicacy of acacia (robinia), followed by a tangy citrus honey, a creamy, malty honeydew honey, an opulent dandelion honey, the bitterness of chestnut honey, a piece of honey comb to chew, and a rich millefiore honey from an alpine meadow. Seven extraordinarily different honeys, which were followed by a last, rather sweet, predictable honey that seemed insipid by comparison with the others — a commercial blend, and as I tasted it I understood why the EEU, which is more sensitive than it shold be to the concerns of industrial food producers, nixed Vergine.
When you buy honey, buy honey made by a beekeeper rather than the commercial stuff; the difference in flavor is well worth the difference in price. And if the beekeeper has several honeys, try them all. The range of Virgin honeys is astonishing.