The Buzz On French Honey

When I take folks into épiceries in Paris, I invariably drag them to the honey aisle. I start explaining how the French love honey, and buy it based on what varietal it is…rather than just stopping in the supermarket and picking up a jar of that vaguely interesting looking syrup that you know is going to leave an annoying sticky ring from the bottom of the jar in your kitchen cabinet that you’re going to have to get a damp sponge and clean up, and then when you start cleaning that up you’re going to notice that maybe you haven’t cleaned your cabinets in a while, and since you have the sponge already in your hand, you start emptying out the cabinet, pulling everything out jars and bottles of everything, etc…etc…(then there goes your morning).

Still, I hope to engage them, get them as excited as I am for honey. But mostly they respond with a somewhat glazed-over look, similar to the look that perhaps I had when I tried to read the road signs to the Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes, in Brittany.

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But I love honey and it’s become my habit to enjoy a slick spoonful on my morning toast, which I saturated with beurre au sel de mer, or butter with crunchy grains of sea salt, that I buy from the big, golden mound at my cheese shop. So now my job is to convince at least a few of you to give honey another look.

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I’ve fallen so much in love with honey, that I’ve become a bit of a collector and when I travel, I try to scope out unusual flavors of honey, like Marshall’s Pumpkin Blossom honey, collected from hives in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I go to Italy, I bring back jars of tiglio, made from linden flowers. But my absolute favorite honey in the world is collected at the Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes, on the north coast of Brittany.

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Last summer I met Martine Prigent, who sells her honey at various outdoor markets in the region and has quite a following. At least at my breakfast table, she does. When we visited for the first time, my friend was raving about her honey, and we made a beeline for her stand. I tasted a few of them, asked a lot of questions in between contented lick-smacking, and bought as many jars as I could schlep (and afford). But they’re definitely worth their higher price and when I went back this year, I bought a whole lot more. Enough to get me through to next summer.

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Curiously, she offered me a sample of something I’d never had before: honey made from bees which buzzed around the wild thyme flowers in the nearby dunes of Keremma, an ocean-front site under national protection. This particular honey has an unusual graham cracker-y, buttery-nutty quality and one little taste was so scrumptious that she had to close the container to prevent me from double-dipping. But boy, was that good, and I’d never had any honey with such a deep, complex, curious flavor, and a few jars went into my shopping basket tout de suite.

Having a particular affinity for very dark, flavorful honey, I gravitate towards flavors like sarrasin (buckwheat) and châtaigner (chestnut).

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Can you can see the difference between the two? The honey in the back is the ordinaire buckwheat honey, and the one in the front is the superb honey from Martine. Quelle difference! I also like very much châtaigner honey which is so bitter than many people can’t eat it plain. I couldn’t the first time I sampled it. But drizzle chestnut honey over buttered-toast, or plain yogurt, or vanilla ice cream, and it’s instantly palatable. I also like bourdain honey too, which is called ‘black alder’ in English.

In France, honey is not just eaten for flavor but each variety of honey is reputed to have specific health-giving properties for what ails you. For example, bruyère (heather) honey is said to be good for your urinary tract (no, I’m not obsessed…), lavender honey is taken for respiratory ailments, and chestnut honey is taken to improve circulation. Sapin, fir-tree honey, is said to be good for your throat, and aubépine is a relaxant.

And what can you do with honey? Try puddling a bit of it on a creamy, pungent wedge of Roquefort as a sweet counterpoint, or atop a round of fresh goat cheese with some dried fruit or pomegranate seeds. I spoon honey over fruit that destined for the oven. When baked, the honey forms a lovely, syrupy glaze for the warm, delicate fruit. Swirl honey over hot oatmeal and add a bit to a glaze for roast pork. I also like to poach dried apricots in a honey syrup, adding a splash of sweet dessert wine, such as Sauternes or late-harvest Riesling. I serve the honey-rich apricots with my favorite Almond Cake.

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So if you happen to find yourself in Brittany near the north coast…and can read a Breton road sign while your French-speaking partner tries to make sense of you frantically try to give directions and mangle incomprehensible Breton words with lots of z‘s and pl‘s, like Trégarantec and Plounénour-Trez, it’s certainly worth a visit to Martine and her husband, Pascal.

They offer weekly tours of their miellerie, just 200 meters from the ocean, which are quite popular (call for availability in off-season). Inhaling the odor of the fresh, breezy, salty air, you can watch them demonstrate collecting honey; scraping the thick beeswax from the hives then separating the delicious syrup from the chunky wax. There’s an amazing boutique with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with all kinds of honeys and locally-baked spice bread, known as pain d’épice, dark brown and fragrant with various spices and a good dose of honey.

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So instead of buying bland honey at the supermarket, why not start trying some of the locally-produced honeys collected in your area? And believe it or not, I recently discovered that there’s even honey collected right here in Paris.




Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes
Prat Bian
Plouescat
Tél/Fax: 02 98 69 88 93
(Offers weekly tours on Fridays, and will ship internationally)

Their honey is available at the outdoor markets in Lesneven, Saint-Pol, Saint-Renan, and in season at Roscoff, Plouguerneau, and Plouescat.

You can find a limited selection of honey from the Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes in Paris at:
La Campanella
36, bis rue de Dunkerque
Tél: 01 45 96 08 92

(Update: This honey has become quite pricey in this shop. It’s very good honey, but be aware of a recent price spike.)

Locally-collected honey in Paris:
Union Nationale de l’Apiculture Francaise
26, rue des Tournelles
Tél: 01 48 87 47 15

In the San Francisco Bay Area, visit Marshall’s Honey, which is sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, and is collected from bees buzzing around unusual places in the region.

To learn more about honey, two of my friends have written books on the sticky stuff: Covered In Honey by Mani Niall, and Honey: From Flower to Table by Stephanie Rosenbaum, aka the Pie Queen.

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27 comments

  • When we lived in Andorra we used to get honey from the local ‘paysannes’ up in the mountains. Don’t know what flowers it was from; it usually had bits in it and we had to hike to get it. It was wonderful. Supermarket honey will never do again.

  • I always wondered if they use the old and wonderful bee hives or whatever it is called that you can see in the Jardin de Luxembourg, they are beautiful. Or were because when I come to think of it, many years have passed since I last saw them…

  • Great post.

    Just a little correction, a “sapin” is not pine tree, a “pin” is a pine tree (as in pine nuts -> noix de pins). A “sapin” is a fir tree.

  • I have some honey and a honey spoon from a Paris epicerie. MMM. Regarding Marshall’s Honey, do you have a favorite honey from them? I would like to place an order. Thanks.

  • I find the honey making people very attractive. There’s something about the danger in their lives. Thank you for the lovely post, David!

  • The first part of your post reminds me of the book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” except for grownups! Viva la miel! :-)

  • Ha! The search for the honey jar leading to a morning spent cleaning and re-arranging the spice cabinet: Been there.

    I’m inspired now to get a jar of Marshall’s at the farmer’s market in Marin tomorrow.

    Lovely post!

  • I made a honey cake recipe for RoshHoshana, good, but not fantastic. Do you have a good recipe?

  • Good morning, David!
    There is one more great source for honey at the Ferry Building. Check out ‘I Preferiti di Boriana’. Boriana imports wonderful food items from Tuscany, specifically the area around her hometown of Montepuliciano. She carries four honeys that are totally divine: chestnut (deep and dark), wildflower and acacia (both great in tea) and my favorite sunflower which looks like liquid sunshine in a jar. It positively glows.
    Hope you are well,
    best,
    K

  • Can you please suggest a recipe for pain d’epice after you give one for the honey cake Randi requested above? thanks, brenda and how long can one keep honey?

  • I love honey! When I was visiting my relatives last year in Greece, I tried fresh honey with walnuts which my uncle makes collected from his hives.

  • I love honey – I just stockpiled a bunch for winter. Blackberry is one of my favorites, and I recently discovered loosestrife (our local apiary has some great ones).
    Bourdain honey sounds like it should be smokey and dark! :D

  • Yum, honey + salted butter on toast is a heavenly combination.
    I have seen “NYC honey” (I guess from rooftop hives) for sale at the greenmarket but I’m afraid it will taste more of taxi exhaust than wildflowers –

  • Fantastic honey post, one that will be Bookmarked for sure!
    We’ve got some fine honeys here in Oregon, but those French ones sure do have cuter packaging. I already have my Paris-bound friend assigned to procuring some Henri Le Roux caramels and am hoping she won’t mind schlepping back some chesnut or buckwheat French honey. Wow.
    When I was a kid, our rabbi used to feed us a spoonful of honey on the first day of Hebrew school, to ensure a year of sweetness. In addition,of course, to the requisite Rosh Hashannah apples and honey. Honey is so much nicer than communion wafers. Not that I’d know, but I’m just guessing…

    I’ve heard Ruth Reichl say that the only food she really hates is…honey. What is that about?

    Have a sweet New Year.

  • Wow, excellent explanation of the French honey! I LOVE it, and always stock up when in France.

    I do know that glazed over look well, though. When I bring groups to “La maison du miel” and tell them how wonderful it is, they look at me, look at the honey, say “oh,wow” and that’s about it. I think they need to open a jar…

  • Such a great posting, David! I am quite a honey fan myself, and one of my favorite snacks is honey drizzled over a freshly warmed tortilla. Must be a Mexican thing.

    And I also enjoy honey when I disrobe and get out the camera and – wait – wrong blog. Sorry bout that.

  • I recently tried blackberry honey for the first time and I really like it. I love buckwheat honey too, but I think my favourite is orange flour honey.
    That’s so dissapointing about your smelly buckwheat honey. I hope you’re able to salvage it for some purpose.

  • I’m pretty sure those hives are still at the Jardin de Luxembourg and you can even take classes in beekeeping – I’ve been meaning to find the time for them for years!

    David, my favourite honey supplier is M. Allart, who shows up at the Auteuil market every other week! He keeps a travelling bee circus, bringing the hives to different locations to get the different fields. I wrote it up here:

    http://www.toomanychefs.com/archives/001202.php

    Another, GREAT source for honey!

  • David, I think you’ll also like Eucalyptus honey.
    Besides, as mentioned above, honey make wonders to cakes – not just honey cakes (which are, of course, tasty after a 2-3 days of aging). Thanks for your post.

  • Simon: Thanks for the mini-French lesson. But can I just call it ‘Christmas Tree” honey?

    Eyal: I do love Euclyptus honey, but a guy only has so much room on his honey shelf (and I was afraid I’d spell eucalyptus wrong. And you’re right about adding a spoonful of honey to cakes; it does make them moister after a day or so of aging.

    Meg & Ilva: So yes, they are still making honey at the Jardin de Luxembourg. Thanks for the link too!

    Matt: No, you’re right. This is the right blog…

    Joanna: Well, I have heard honey referred to as ‘bee barf’ so maybe that’s why Ruth doesn’t like it.

    Brenda: Honey will, allegedly, keep indefinately. Since it’s so sweet (70-80% sugar). The only time it can go bad is if it crysallizes and the water separates from the sugar. Good luck with your honey cakes!

    Lucy: I’m into butchers, myself. Their skin is always so red and rosy.

    Karletta: I love Italian chestnut honey, but it’s so dear that I don’t know if I’d put it in tea (although as mentioned, I’m scared of tea anyways…) I used to get a lovely chestnut honey in the US from Badia Coltibuono, but am not sure if it’s still available. You have Marshall’s…why shop elsewhere?

  • That sure was a nice glimpse into your honey pot, I mean cupboard. By the way, whose dank and funky undies are you sniffing on the metro? Im worried about you David. Very worried.

  • Black alder is a beatiful plant with “Small white flowers in early summer; small, bright red berries in dense clusters on female plants; persists into winter”.

    Martha Stewart uses them often, I’ve noticed, in her fall floral arrangements.

  • Thanks for this great post. I am a honey addict too and I’m always a sucker for it at the market. You also have my exact addiction nailed down, every morning it’s buerre de sel de mer with honey (or jam) on toast. Divine.

  • my granddad used to keep bees and the honey he made was unforgettable. i personally liked it best when it had already started to crystallise (which means it doesn’t run off your bread all the time)… yum! He kept them in the middle of a large forest with pine trees and hazelnut bushes, so his honey just tasted of that… nutty, earthy, divine!

    In the UK, although you get so many different varieties at the supermarket (acacia, orange blossom, thyme, etc), they taste like they have been artificially infused with their aromas, rather than the bees sucking on the actual flowers. This makes the honey almost impossible to use, because its smell and taste are so overpowering.

    The only honey I love despite having something added it truffle honey – and i go to great lengths to get a good one, using white truffles. Drizzled over some cheese (eg pecorino) … this is something I picked up at the Salt Yard and the most amazing honey experiene you’ll ever have!

  • So I’m curious why some honeys are not clear. Is that just French honeys, or is it a style? What causes the cloudyness?

  • Due to arrive in Paris (then on to Beaune) next week.
    Is there somewhere in Paris I can buy the raving honey? Miellerie de la Côte des Légendes (if not, I’m heading to UNAF.)

    Also: I’m a newly found groupie…I love your site…
    Unfortunately, its addicting and I wish I found it 6 months ago, not 4 days before I am to leave. I’m up all night slithering around your posts and links which seem never-ending. Fantastic.

    Can you recommend an Italian restaurant in or near the 5th?

    Hi Kim: Sorry, don’t know of any Italian restaurants in the 5th. Have a great trip! -dl

  • Just bought some bruyere and it tastes like no other heather honey I’ve ever tasted. A bitter taste, a bit like Chestnut. France has some superb honeys, but they seem expensive compared to Spain or England. Still almost all English honey is processed, destroying the natural goodness and flavour.