Honey has had a long and sacred place in the culture and cuisine of Greece. Like the olive tree, the vine, and the salt of the sea, honey is something that has always been part of life here. To the ancients, it was mysterious, like a little bit of heaven fallen to earth. Honey had a role in religious rituals; it was used as an offering to the gods, and as a beauty and diet agent. It was also thought to have medicinal qualities.
Honey in the Kitchen
Before sugar arrived in Europe with the Arabs, honey was the sweetener of choice, and it was something that in Greece found its place in the cuisine from the earliest times. Ancient Greek texts are filled with references to honey cakes, to cheese cakes with honey, to nut-and-honey and sesame-and-honey confections, and to honey mixed with other ingredients such as vinegar in order to make various sauces for meat, fish and other foods. Honey was mixed with wine, as well as with edible wild flowers to make a kind of mortal's nectar.
Modern Greeks have become decidedly more prosaic, when it comes to the uses of honey in the kitchen. Rarely is it used in savory dishes, at least traditionally, although there are one or two old recipes (from Crete) for meat rubbed with honey and then grilled.
Honey in the modern Greek kitchen is most often limited to its place on the dessert table. Most of the syrup-soaked Greek pastries, such as baklava, kataifi, saragli (bite-sized baklava), diples (dough fritters), loukoumades (fried dough puffs) and more, originally called for syrups based on aromatic Greek honey, not on less expensive sugar. Nuts are preserved in honey, and one can find delicious combinations, such as walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts kept in amber jars of honey.
Contrary to what many people believe, honey takes its flavor from the kind of flowers or herbs that bees feed off of. It is not flavored afterward. In Greece, the best honey is considered to be that scented with thyme. Crete and Kithira produce some of the most exquisite thyme honey in the world.
Pine honey is another popular kind. It is easy to distinguish because of its dark color. Beekeepers move their hives from place to place depending on the season and the flora. Knowledge of the seasons and of the plant life in a given area is part of the art of beekeeping.
There is, indeed, a kind of beekeepers' calendar that dictates the bees' diet. In May, bees feed off of wildflowers, orange blossoms and sage. In June, they survive on thyme. Pine honey is produced from July through October, and in November, the last beekeeping month, heather provides their fodder. In winter, bees hibernate, living off their stores of ...honey.