The virtuous sweets
Our thighs pack'd with wax, our mouths with honey
We bring it to the hive
~ Henry IV, part 2.
Honey is an interesting ingredient. I use it so frequently but I never really stop and appreciate it pure and unadulterated, for the complex and fascinating product that it is. While I frequently use dark brown sugar for the wonderful caramel notes it lends to recipes, I often find the flavour of honey diminishes during cooking, and its interesting flavours are masked. I'm not one for spooning the stuff over toast or savouring it straight from the jar with a spoon, Winnie-the-Pooh style. I feel I might be missing out.
There are numerous uses for honey in my kitchen. I use it, mixed with apple compote, to form a thick, luscious, gloopy mixture to coat flakes of oats and barley for my homemade granola before toasting them in a hot oven to result in glorious crunchy morsels. I stir a spoonful or two into a lamb tagine to lend a succulent sweetness that pairs well with the rich meat. I drizzle it, along with a dollop of wickedly dark and sticky pomegranate molasses and a splash of oil, over butternut squash and aubergine before roasting, to result in gorgeously charred, caramelised edges. I use it to sweeten a raspberry and vanilla cheesecake, to take the sour edge off underripe apricots while baking, to lend a luscious sticky sweetness to baked figs destined to be smothered in vanilla ice cream, and generally over any fruit that could do with a little sugary help in the oven.
However, none of these preparations fully enable the cook or the diner to appreciate the nuances of honey. Often it's used simply as a sugar substitute, and sugar would sit quite happily in its place. Yet just as there are multiple varieties of sugar, each possessing their unique colour, texture, flavour and aroma, so there are countless diverse manifestations of honey.
It all depends on what the bees have been feeding on. The flower nectar they eat mixes with enzymes in their saliva, which turns it to honey. They deposit this in their hives; the practice of beekeeping encourages the bees to produce more honey than usual, so it can be collected and eaten.
I've come across so many exciting types of honey in my food travels, from the rugged-sounding heather honey to the exotic orange blossom honey, thyme honey, acacia honey and the intriguing chestnut honey (this is fabulous and really unusual, but I'm reserving it for a future blog post, so watch this space). They all have their own colours, textures and fragrances. On a recent trip to York I found beautiful Yorkshire honey for sale in little tubs, with a layer of honeycomb over the top. There's runny honey, golden and amber-like, and the glorious thick set honey, ideal for spreading in pillowy waves of sweetness over toast.
Honey has all sorts of fascinating qualities; it's frequently assigned multiple health benefits, depending on which variety you choose. It's also the only foodstuff that has an infinite shelf life, because of its high sugar and low water content. This low water content is due to the bees flapping their wings in the hive, which causes air movement and subsequently the evaporation of water from the honey. How clever is that? I never fail to be amazed at how mother nature has created, in the world of flora and fauna, a perfectly formed and abundant larder.
I spied some lovely greengages at the market this weekend, a bittersweet sign that autumn is rapidly approaching. Not that we've really had summer this year...but I won't turn this into a ranting arena for meteorological-based tirades against my beloved country, because I have more important things to talk about, like fruit.
Greengages are like little green plums, tart-sweet, soft and delicious. My favourite part is their skin, which is matt in places, shiny in others, and suffused with a beautiful bloom of palest jade green. They're one of the prettiest fruits to look at, I think, second only perhaps to blushing, ripe apricots. They range, like plums, from hard and crispy to quiveringly soft and jelly-like, depending on ripeness. I couldn't resist buying a bag, and figured I'd decide later what to do with them.
While sorting out some recipes I'd hastily cut from magazines and stashed in a pile on the dresser, I found one for a greengage and honey compote. I love compotes, as they really bring out the best in fruit, and are so versatile. I like mine spooned over a bowl of porridge or muesli.
For use in cooking you can get away with the cheaper supermarket honey, but when I'm going to use honey because I want to taste honey, I try and use something a bit better. I had a jar of Yorkshire honey in the larder, which has a wonderful rich aroma and actually smells and tastes like honey rather than just general sugariness. This compote required four tablespoons, which go into a pan with halved and de-stoned greengages. There's no liquid - the honey melts in the heat and the greengages release their own juice, which they stew in slowly for a few minutes, perfumed by a split vanilla pod that is tucked in among their delicate green curves.
I don't normally add sweetener to my compotes, and if I do it's a tiny and barely perceptible amount of honey, so this was a rather different taste experience. I absolutely loved it. The whole thing is a perfect marriage of greengage and honey flavour. You can definitely taste the honey - its floral, caramel notes permeate the juicy collapsed fruit, which contributes its own tartness. I simmered the greengages until a few lost their shape and the whole thing became rather liquid, but if you prefer the fruits more firm just reduce the cooking time. Keep an eye on them, as they turn to mush in a flash.
The result of this is a wonderful golden ambrosial nectar. It's like eating honey, but improved with the addition of vanilla and delicious plummy juiciness. There are chunks of sweet, tender fruit immersed in a thick, rich syrup. It's also so ridiculously simple and takes all of ten minutes to make.
This would be fabulous served as a dessert with some cream or ice cream. You could go one further and spoon it over a moist wedge of almond cake, or a slice of vanilla cheesecake. It would sit prettily in the crusty hollow of a pavlova, or even make a wonderful topping for freshly-baked scones.
I, however, ate mine spooned over a bowl of hot porridge, along with some raspberries to balance the sweetness. A perfect cloudy morning breakfast.
Greengage and honey compote (makes 3-4 servings):
(From Sainsbury's magazine, no idea which issue)
500g greengages, ripe but still firm
4 tbsp runny honey (you can experiment with varieties - I reckon a thyme honey would be gorgeous)
1 vanilla pod
Halve the greengages and remove the stones. Place in a saucepan with the honey, then heat gently until the honey is liquid. Run a knife down the centre of the vanilla pod and add to the fruit, then simmer gently until the fruit starts to release a lot of liquid, and is on the point of collapse. This should take only a couple of minutes.
Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold, with cream, creme fraiche, ice cream, or breakfast.