HONEY HUNTING

How many kinds of honey do you know?

In the US, I was aware of just one — this one:

Those bears were everywhere. Image credit: Walmart.

Those bears were everywhere. Image credit: Walmart.

Yes, I thought that practically all honey came in either bear-shaped bottles or little plastic tubes (individual servings at a diner), but that it’s all basically the same. Then again, I generally could not stand honey in any incarnation except for honey-mustard dressing on fried chicken strips, so I never took any particular interest in its variety or provenance.

That all changed when I moved back to Russia and discovered that the rest of my family is downright obsessed with honey. And that they would never, EVER, touch “that stuff from the store.”

Instead, honey is stocked up on from late spring to mid-fall, during which time honey-makers from all over Russia bring their product to Moscow’s Honey Fairs.

Welcome to the fair!  Honey fair at Kolomenskoye estate.

Welcome to the fair! Honey Fair at the Kolomenskoye Estate & Park.

And what an embarrassment of riches this is!

Hundreds of stalls from every corner of Russia. This is is from Bashkiria.

Dozens of stalls from every corner of Russia. This one is from Bashkiria.

As it turns out, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of honey produced in Russia alone. The primary differentiating factor, of course, is the source flower. Here you’ve got everything from apricot blossoms to buckwheat to Alpine meadow blends to linden, a local classic. The final product can be as fluid as maple syrup or as solid as cream cheese, crystal-clear or completely opaque, and ranging in color from white to red to black, not to mention every shade of gold and amber you could ever imagine.

And forget mass-produced brands — same-flower varieties are highly differentiated by their region of origin. Cornflower honey from the East European Plain tastes nothing like cornflower honey from southern Siberia. Even ‘meadow blends’ or ‘forest blends’ from the same general area, such as the Russian Far East or the Northern Altai Mountains have completely different notes and textures, reflecting the amount of rain or sunshine, soil type or altitude a particular spot might enjoy.

Alpine meadows of the Altai mountains. Image credit: Berestoff.

Alpine meadows of the Altai mountains, in South-Central Siberia. Image credit: Berestoff.

All this variety is slightly overwhelming, but in a fun-to-explore sort of way. I sampled probably 20 different kinds of the goo this past weekend and most of it wasn’t half-bad. And, ok, I have become partial to the ‘get well’ cocktail of honey, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and vodka while battling The Plague [some sort of cold virus] last month. Give me a couple more winters, and who knows, one day  I might be first in line at the fair.

Every flavor, every color, every texture. And you're free to sample as many as you'd like! Just remember to bring a big bottle of water.

Every flavor, every color, every texture. And you’re free to sample as many as you’d like! Just remember to bring a big bottle of water.

It is widely accepted [in Russia, though not exclusively here] that honey possesses medicinal properties and carries the medicinal properties of the herbs and flowers from which it came. For instance, hawberry honey is supposed to be great for the heart, as are hawberries in general (dried ones are sold in pharmacies and are brewed into potions of sorts. And so forth. Herbal medicine is very popular here. Many varieties of honey are labeled according to what kinds of ailments they can cure, or which function they can improve. Here we have everything from eyesight to joints to 'male health.' I'll let you figure that one out.

It is widely accepted [in Russia and beyond] that honey possesses medicinal properties and preserves or enhances the medicinal properties of the herbs and flowers from which it was made. Herbal medicine is very popular here. For example, hawberry honey is supposed to be great for the heart, as are hawberries in general — dried ones are sold in pharmacies and are brewed into potions of sorts. As such, many varieties of honey are labeled according to what kinds of ailments they can cure, or which physiological function they might improve. Here we have everything from eyesight to joints  to ‘male health.’ I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.

Many stalls are decorated with posters of their home region's scenery, as well as bees and bears -- including the ever-popular (and superior to all others) Russian incarnation of Winnie the Pooh (and Piglet!)

Many stalls are decorated with posters of their home region’s scenery, as well as bees and bears — including the ever-popular (and superior to all others) Russian incarnation of Winnie the Pooh (and Piglet!)

This Far East store overwhelms with variety. I counted more than 80 different flavors plus many honey-adjacent products (pollen, bee-bread, honey-based alcohol, and so on). The sheets stuck on top describe the properties of different varieties, and provide details of their origin.

This Far East store overwhelms with variety. I counted more than 80 flavors plus many honey-adjacent products (pollen, bee-bread, honey-based alcohol, soap, candles and so on). The sheets stuck on top describe the properties of different varieties, and provide details of their origins.

My mom's stock, clockwise from the Big Red: wild forest honey, high-altitude Altai honey, blueberry, cherry, wild viburnum, raspberry-linden-wild strawberry and honeysuckle-wild strawberry in the center.

My mother’s haul, clockwise from the Big Red: wild forest honey, high-altitude Altai honey, blueberry, cherry, wild viburnum, raspberry-linden-wild strawberry blend* and honeysuckle-wild strawberry in the center.  *Different honeys aren’t blended, the bees just get around — to different source plants on the same territory.

So, which product — food or otherwise — that you’ve encountered abroad has altered your conception of that product in general?

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45 thoughts on “HONEY HUNTING

  1. Wow, my teeth hurt just looking at all of that sweetness! The Latvians are mad into their honey as well. And tea – jesus, don’t get me started on all the different varieties of tea you can get here – and like honey, every one has some sort of medicinal properties! Apart from the black tea with milk I drink, of course!

  2. Plenty of different varieties in Germany, but they don’t go overboard on the medicinal properties – they can afford proper drugs 😉
    One thing that’s always puzzled me… how do they get the bees to stick to the target flower??? I can see how it wouldn’t be a problem in some cases, like on those enormous almond orchards in the US, where they bring in the hives on trucks. It’s a monoculture, and the bees are carted off again after their work is done.
    But cornflower??? Where there’s cornflowers there’s poppies and thistles and a thousand other flowering weeds and crops. So, in short, a lot of what those labels say is total bogus.

    • Thank you, Debbie! It was like being at a museum, seriously. Re: photos…actually, there was a massive ‘no photography allowed’ sign, so I had to be extra sneaky and thank god I didnt get thrown out 🙂

  3. Looks good. Honey is great medicine. Good for putting on wounds too!

    Could you taste the difference between the different flower sources? And what was the black honey like??

    • My fam has a preference for the lighter kinds, so I only tried those that were deemed ‘safe’ by my mother (I’m a real-honey-hater). Maybe next year I can try the darker kinds (come to think of it…I’m the same way with beer). BUT. You can DEFINITELY taste the difference. The cherry blossom one tastes VERY cherry. And honeysuckle gives everything almost a minty tingle. The only white paste-like one I tried was cornflower and it was fairly light, which is why I lived to tell the tale.

  4. Whoa. I only know the honey bears…I didn’t even know the names of any brands..just bears. Crazy. I feel like I’d need a professional (like your mom) to walk me through purchasing honey! ummm, for us – there are a lot of things that we had back in the states, but never used them..probably because we ate out all the time and now we have to get creative with our at-home menus. lentils, boursin cheese, basil…in everything!

    • My mom really is a professional. She’s all about the nuance of taste. And she’d be happy to help, if you don’t mind a 4-hr lecture on the provenance and medicinal properties, and accompanying folk legends, and Russian geography, and unexpected culinary use, and the proper treatment of bees………

  5. My knowledge about honey is very limited. Until reading this article I did not know that one could say so much about honey. I have seen white honey and red honey honey both of which are very sweet. And there is some bitter honey which is thought to have great medicinal value. I am not sure if our varieties taste different from yours. I hear also (and know) that if you want to get pure, unadulterated honey, you have to buy it from the farmers in the country.

    • So, pretty much all the honey at the fairs is sold by the country farmers – not any kind of corporate plantations. There’s also the ‘wild bees’ honey, which is collected in the forest. There are really mild, almost refreshing varieties, and some darker bitter ones, but I didn’t dare to try those!

  6. Before I came to Russia I lived in the Portland/Vancouver area. This was my first true experience with the different types of honey. The local Saturday markets would have the honey farmers with their different types of honey. Then it was amazing to me to see just how many there were. Seeing the pictures you shared tell me that here we have even a larger variety. Exploring this must have been a lot of fun. I think I need to figure out how to get to Moscow to experience more of this type of thing. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: MY MOSCOW: 5 PLACES | Home & Away

  8. Fascinating! Is there also a focus of honey-based skin care – or is it primarily a focus on honey for consumption? In North American we’re seeming more and more cosmetic/skincare centered around honey.

    • It’s popular in sort of anything you can apply to your body – internally, externally, etc. But it’s not a fad – this has been a national ‘natural remedy’ for…everything, really, for centuries.

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  10. Good day!
    I am a supplier of honey from Russia, from wild places such as Altai!
    I have a lot of kinds of honey! More than 15 types of honey (for example buckwheat honey, various herbs, sweet clover honey, acacia honey, lime honey, honey with pollen and pollen, honey Cyprus, Rape honey, black honey maple, etc.). All products are environmentally friendly and natural, fresh thick as cream, very tasty and useful. No additives, sugars and other impurities. We have all the certificates and inspection reports. I can send you a trial production of various types of honey in small jars of 200 grams for the test. I am attaching photos.
    If you are interested in cooperation with me, then please reply to my letter. ooosibtk@mail.ru

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