November 22, 2013 6:21 pm

The taste test: luxury honey

‘When the lid of our winner was removed we were assailed by a great blast of that ripe truffle pungency’
Honey©Felicity McCabe

She reduced Ed Miliband to jelly by asking him 10 times about government borrowing on Radio 4’s World At One, she is a shrewd presenter of the BBC’s Review Show and was one of this year’s Man Booker prize judges. But Martha Kearney also has a private hobby – one which eminently qualifies her for our occasional series exposing hidden foodie talents. A decade ago Kearney was given a novel wedding present: a beehive. She resolved to use it and at her Suffolk home she now produces 150lb of honey a year from six hives. Next year her hidden talent will be hidden no more – Kearney is to present a BBC4 TV series called The Joy of Honey – and she agreed to sample a range of honeys with me for Taste Test.

Why keep bees? “The first pleasure is the honey. With the extractor on my kitchen table, getting my own honey straight from the comb – delicious,” says Kearney, with relish. “Then the fascination with the bees takes over – I could watch them for ages.” She has also been to the University of Sussex where glass-fronted hives allow you to pry into the bees’ domestic rituals: “You have to see their waggle dance. They incline their bodies to communicate to their fellow workers the direction in which good flowers can be found. Then the speed with which they move indicates what the distance is and the vigour of their performance reveals how rich the nectar source is.” You can see why she’s hooked.

Kearney then launches into the highs and lows of a decade as an apiarist. The first colony she bought died because she didn’t know how to feed the bees properly in the winter. She then lost two hives to wasps. And, yes, she has been stung several times. But the bees are forgiven – she’s as proud of her brood as Miss Jean Brodie: “My bees are productive and well-behaved.”

Kearney first gave me a pot of her honey a year ago and I’ve been working my way through it, spoon by agreeable spoon. It is well-set and opaque, apparently a result of the local rapeseed her air force patrols. But it has beguiling citrus notes on the tongue, demonstrating that her bees also enjoy wild plum and comfrey in the vicinity.

The FT assembled 13 honeys for us to try. They boast thyme, acacia, saffron, blueberries, borage, manuka and lavender on their labels and come from Britain, France, Spain, Greece, Croatia and Austria. Kearney adds a couple more from even more exotic locations: Uganda and Willesden. The Ugandan honey is thick, dark and not only resembles molasses but tastes of it too. We speculate that the African bees may have feasted on coffee blooms or some other equally strong meat: “aromatic, very dark” (MK); “delicious creosote” (PB).

The honey on everyone’s lips is manuka, produced from the nectar of the flowering New Zealand tree. Devotees claim it has anti-bacterial properties and is beneficial in treating wounds – but we care about the taste. And it’s strange, but in a blind tasting, we almost guessed what it was: “antiseptic, a great blast of Germolene”(PB); “can’t get the taste out of my mouth!”(MK).

Overall, there are two we highly recommend, starting with Eulogia Thyme Honey from Greece. As well as exploiting the herbs, we felt that the bees may have strayed on to some fruit trees: “strong flavour, fruity tang”(PB); “well-rounded, hint of apples?”(MK). And, second, well done Fortnum & Mason’s for sourcing PureFood’s Regents Park Honey from central London. “Lovely – hawthorn?”(MK); “English hedgerow ... crushed nettles ... excellent”(PB).

But our top selection comes from Europe, via Mario Prati’s Tartufaia Truffles stall in Borough Market, and was one of three truffle honeys submitted. Flakes of white Italian truffle impregnate the French acacia honey with an explosive result in the case of our winner (the other two were mean with the truffle and decidedly low-octane). We saw three generous shaves of white truffle just below the surface and when the lid was removed we were assailed by a great blast of that ripe pungency: “light, fragrant honey matched beautifully with truffle”(MK); “whoosh! It’s a nostril trembler!”(PB). Kearney eats truffle honey with cheese. And she knows.

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The winners

1. Tartufaia Truffle Honey, £9, boroughmarket.org.uk/tartufaia-truffles-2

=2. Eulogia Thyme Blossom Raw Greek Honey, 10.5oz for $16, eulogiaproducts.com

=2. Regents Park Honey, 227g for £11.49 from Planet Organic, also Fortnum & Mason and others; see purefood.co.uk/buyhoney

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