Honey has become a global commodity, named alongside wine and olive oil amongst the world’s frequently widely-debased foodstuffs.
With China, India and other high-volume honey producing countries flooding the market with often unregulated, low-quality product, a recent report questions the economic future for Europe’s beekeepers.
Honey Sommelier Sarah Wyndham Lewis asks why food professionals committed to supporting British producers still use the commercially blended ‘honey’ that’s threatening our beekeepers’ livelihoods.
Honeybees underpin domestic food security
From fruit and vegetables to meat and dairy, the majority of our food involves bee pollination somewhere in the food chain.
The beehives are tended by beekeepers, who depend on selling their honey to stay in business.
The single-source raw varietals they produce offer finesse and differentiation. With bees flying just 2.5 miles from their hives, single-source honeys, like fine wines, are perfect snapshots of their terroir.
If beekeepers cannot sell their honey at fair prices, their businesses become unsustainable.
The report, by European farmers’ group Copa-Cogeca flags up the imminent risk of losing some 10 million hives across Europe, with profound effects on farming.
Blended commodity imports sell for as little as £1.08/kg.
Set this against the average cost of production across the EU/UK of £3.40 and we need to ask ourselves what is actually in those honeys labelled ‘A blend of …’
Sommelier unveils ghost honey – ‘Blending’ is an inherently shady term
This highly processed substance let’s call it ‘commercial honey’, is mass-produced behind tightly-closed factory doors.
Behind the doors ultra-cheap, globally traded honeys are blended to create products meeting standardised specifications of colour, viscosity and price.
Processes including super-heating and pressurised micro-filtration destroy naturally-derived flavours and nutritional value.
The pollen is stripped out to delay setting, and to obscure the true countries of origin.
Products declared as ‘A blend of EU honeys’ may well contain honeys transhipped from the other side of the world and illegally re-labelled.
Processed honey can also be padded out with cheaper syrups and flavour-boosting essences. The result is a ghost product as different from real honey as budget freeze-dried coffee granules are from the original coffee beans.
Compare the low-tech approach of artisan honey production, where the combs are simply spun out and the liquid honey then coarse-filtered to remove any hive detritus before being stored or jarred.
The pollen (protein) content is left intact, as are all the micronutrients and flavours from the plants the bees have visited. Crucially, the honey is never taken above the maximum natural hive temperature of 40C, this being the best definition of ‘raw honey’.
The artisan beekeeping business that my husband and I run has supplied raw honeys to London restaurants and hotels for years, working with chefs including: Tom Aikens, Anthony Demetre, Michel Roux, Jose Pizarro, Tom Kerridge and Daniel Humm, who celebrate the luxury and culinary potential of raw honey and know how crucial it is to support the base of the food chain.
But from top to bottom of the hospitality industry, many kitchens – probably the majority – still routinely buy cheap blended honey as a basic commodity.
Let’s connect the dots
Most chefs would say that they care about authentic, sustainable ingredients and support British producers of glorious meat, traditional cheeses, seasonal fruit and heritage vegetables, available thanks to hard-working honeybees.
Without the beekeeping businesses that tend those bees, we’re staring at a future where that produce can no longer be taken for granted.
Sourcing real honey from real beekeepers is an investment in transparency, quality and flavour – and a powerful way to help ensure our food choices in years to come.
Sommelier unveils ghost honey – written by, Honey Sommelier Sarah Wyndham Lewis
Twice awarded ‘Best Honey in London’ and recipient of the Great Taste Awards’ ‘Small Artisan Producer of the Year’ in 2016, Bermondsey Street Bees is a sustainable beekeeping practice based in London.
Bermondsey Street Bees supplies leading hotels, restaurants and bars with English raw honeys.