Although the weather is still very cold, in a month's time it will be spring, time for the birds and the bees and the flowers to blossom. Today, in fact, I want to talk a little bit about honey, a great natural product that has nourished me during these winter months, sometimes dipped into my cup of tea, more often spread on a slice of toasted bread. We're going to discuss about some types of honey and see where you can buy them and savour them in Venice.
Honey is produced with the nectar collected by the bees, which is used for metabolic and muscle purposes. The excess honey is then digested and regurgitated and, if in the colder months the food supplies are scarce, adult and larval bees may use the stored honey as food. Traditionally there are three types of bees in a nest or hive: the queen bee, a variable number of male bees to fertilise the new queen bees and from 20,000 to 40,000 female worker bees. These insects are incredibly intelligent, have amazing learning skills, speak -or maybe I should say dance-a language all of their own and we should all learn something from them!
The varieties of honey are very numerous, only in Italy we have more than 50 and each one has its own peculiar features, strictly linked to the characteristics of the area where it is produced. In Venice too we have our own very particular kind and this is miele di barena. Barene are strips of emerged land, the sandbanks of the lagoon, which confine with salty waters and are covered with plants like sea aster, golden samphire, salicornia Veneta and sea lavender. The scientific name of the flower from which the bees collect the nectar is the endangered Limonium vulgare, which blossoms between the end of June and mid September. Unfortunately, due to the moto ondoso (wave actions) and the lack of maintenance interventions, it is becoming difficult for these plants to grow, to position the hives and to retrieve the honey, thus the production is very limited.
The miele di barena is very rich in energetic and balsamic properties, minerals and enzymes and has a unique taste. Perfect served with cheese or simply spread on a slice of toast. In Venice you can buy it at the Rio Tera' dei Pensieri market that takes place on Mondays and Thursdays, produced by Apicoltura Cristante, an organic apiary based outside Mestre. In addition to the miele di barena, they also have wildflower, honeydew, chestnut, dandelion and lime honeys, balsamic candies, honey vinegars, pollen, royal jelly and candles.
Sometimes, but not all year round, you can also find it at the Lido Friday market at the Vignole stall, but you must go early because the jars seem to disappear immediately! In Sant'Erasmo too they produce miele di barena and also miele di carciofo, artichoke honey. For other varieties, there are two must stops: one is Antica Drogheria Mascari, offering a high-quality gourmet Italian selection, and the NaturaSi store in Calle della Regina, literally two minutes from Rialto, where I adore the organic Cuor di Miele offer, especially the coriander and orange honeys.
If, instead, you'd rather savour it sitting down and served, there are a couple of options. For example at La Cantina in Strada Nuova in Cannaregio and at Al Prosecco in campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, you can enjoy a selection of highly delicious cheese and a glass of aromatic wine, normally accompanied by some honey and a spicy chutney.
If your focus is more on the honey and less on the rest... a must have experience is the old fashioned snack with toasted bread and honey offered at sulluna. Well, actually, the version on the menu is bread, butter and jam, but once I asked them for honey instead and it has already become a habit! Obviously if one goes as far as to offer something so simple, the ingredients must be excellent, in fact the assortment of loaves they keep are made by an artisan bakery located in Mira (in the province of Venice) that uses sourdough and ancient flours and the honeys are either of local producers or of the above mentioned Cuor di Miele, an Italian Consortium of organic beekeepers.
The varieties rotate, so today I had a scoop of chestnut honey and a scoop of Acacia honey. I started with the Acacia first because of its milder flavour. This honey is probably the most in demand on the market and, on average, it costs a little bit more. Despite it being very sweet, it has a very low glycemic index and carries a lot of healing and antiseptic properties, not to mention the nutrients. It is said that, if consumed regularly, it normalises the blood levels and helps sleep.
Anyway, spread on a hot slice of toast and in my tea it was perfect! My ideal merenda, the type of mid morning or afternoon treat that really makes me happy. I used the Acacia for the bread and the chestnut honey for the tea. Chestnut honey has a more complex and nuanced, slightly bitter, taste and each variety has its very own flavour, which depends on factors like the type of tree, the microclimate, the weather and so on. It's a dark honey, rich in antioxidants, minerals and with a high pollen content.
I had it in my tea, whereas my husband -when at sullaluna- likes to have it with fresh gorgonzola and walnuts, while with regard to the acacia honey, he prefers the pairing with ricotta and pears, equally delicious! Speaking about honey, while there, I also bought an illustrated book for the 7-year-old daughter of a friend of mine called "Il regno delle api" ("Bees: a Honeyed History" )by Piotr Socha. I found it quite clever, because it describes the bee world from the historical and anatomical points of view and gives a lot of details on the different honey making methods. I particularly enjoyed the part illustrating all the other animals that crave this golden pleasure. Really brilliant!
The final suggestion for your honey tasting in Venice is to have it in an ice-cream! My favourite versions are the yogurt from the Alps flavour, with honey and pine nuts, offered by Gelateria Fantasy in Calle dei Fabbri and the honey, ricotta and sesame flavour at the Gelateria Ca' d'Oro in Strada Nuova.
Before we say goodbye, let's not forget that until there is honey there is hope! After all, bees can survive only in unpolluted areas, thus : Long Live the Bees!