Fun in the Winter: Reclaim Your Perception With Honey
Disclaimer: The term/activity of “honey tasting” unfortunately sounds snobby, stuck up, even hoity-toity. To benefit and be amazed by a honey tasting though, all you need is some honey, about 10-15 minutes, water, and an open mind. While I am biased, a honey tasting can and should be viewed as a very indigenous activity, as you are more closely perceiving and appreciating a wonderful product of Nature from another living being. So enough talk-read the steps below to amaze yourself and then keep reading to revel in some of the amazing human physiology that contributes to this experience. Trust me, it is an experience.
Honey Tasting Steps
Start with a “blank slate”. This means a “neutral” or clean mouth/tongue/nose. Don't try to taste honey just after brushing your teeth, smelling something strong, or applying perfume or cologne. If you did recently eat, rinse your mouth with room temperature water. As Southerners we often put ice in all our beverages, but this closes the pores to your tongue and taste buds. So use room temperature water beforehand and in between tasting different types of honey to set your brain to “neutral”.
Sit with your honey at a table. Ideally, it includes some local honey, so as to support local beekeepers, bees, and your tribal environment. Also aim for honey by responsible beekeepers who are close enough to the bees to actually label the flower type of honey. Examples include sourwood, tupelo, clover, and so on. Don’t just consume anything from a big box store packaged in a teddy bear shaped plastic bottle! If you are in a rural area, ask your neighbors about anyone who keeps bees or sells roadside honey. Roadside honey is thankfully fairly common in indigenous Eastern North Carolina communities. If in an urban area, go to the farmers market. Even in winter honey is sold at many of these areas.
Start the process by smelling the honey. Don’t be shy, go on and put your big honker near the honey and take a whiff! Be warned though, this first impression may not match the final flavor, so be ready to compare.
Now, pay attention. Take a spoonful of honey, enough to coat your tongue, and place it in your mouth. Give it a moment to warm to your body temperature and coat your tongue and mouth. Note the texture, or feel of the honey. Some honeys can almost be slick, or buttery feeling.
Get ready! Slowly, THROUGH YOUR MOUTH, inhale some air, without swallowing the honey. You will taste mainly some bland sweetness, which is what you are used to when eating honey quickly and not appreciating it. In other words, this is how you thought honey tasted before reading this article.
Now, close your mouth, and with the honey still on your tongue, slowly exhale through your nose. You will feel a true rush of flavor explode in the back of your nose and into your brain. Words cannot do it justice. You have to try it. As mentioned, this complex rush of the senses often will not match the first smell of the honey or the first sweet taste of the honey. Applicable terms can run the range from refreshing, to dry, to gamey, to earthy, berry, caramel or citrus. The richness and complexity of this simple activity makes you appreciate the bees, the plants, and land they live in. It also makes you humble for all the things you don’t perceive in life. What else am I missing?
As you finally swallow the honey, pause and note any aftertaste. Many times there may be a sharp burn or “bite” and this is from normal pollen that is mixed into the honey. While not harmful, this aftertaste “burn” is actually from the amazing antibacterial properties of the honey.
Rinse your mouth out with warm water to “return to neutral” and then you can try another honey to compare its taste, err, I properly mean flavor. Every batch of honey is almost like a fingerprint, as its taste reflects a focal season, weather, flower, habitat, and yes, spirit of the moment. Don’t try over 6 types of honey at one sitting though, as you then need to give your taste and smell senses a rest.
Quick summary: Honey is an amazing substance that is so much more than just the simple taste of “sweet”. It has 3-dimensional flavor, but for us humans this 3-D flavor is best sampled by coating your tongue with the honey, inhale the sweet taste with your mouth, then exhale the explosion of flavor through your nose with your mouth closed. Take the time to savor.
This exercise in taste versus flavor is especially fun with kids ages 7-12. Younger kids ages 4-6 can do honey tastings, but the older children and pre-teens have the vocabulary to express some the flavor variety. Their eyes pop out as they exhale through their nose and the taste explosion hits. For the record, avoid honey in children less than age 1 as their immune system cannot fend off the very low but dangerous risk of botulism.
You can try this exercise with other foods, but few can match honey. Some of the fascinating medical biology behind this phenomenon is that while humans tend to overly rely on vision, vision is actually our most processed sense. In terms of neuroanatomy, vision has the most “middlemen” or processors, from light on the retina to conscious perception. Inevitably, the more middlemen, the less “pure” the sense signal to the brain. Reality can become distorted. Smell, in contrast, is the most hardwired to the brain. It undergoes almost no processing and it even is directly wired to the most primal, emotion controlling area of the brain. In other words, smell is “closest” to one’s spiritual heart or emotions. Think of the common examples of how smelling an ex-lovers perfume or cologne as you walk by a stranger, or when you walk in a house that unexpectedly smells like your grandma’s Sunday pot roast, both trigger an unexpected wave of emotion. That is the overlooked power of smell, and how smell morphs “taste” into robust “flavor”. Flavor is honey’s gift to us. It is up to us to heed it, respect it, and nourish it. No ascot or uppity-ness required!
C. Marina Marchese and Kim Flottum. (2013) The Honey Connoisseur. p 148-174.