It’s Tupelo time
For two to three short weeks in April every year (that’s now!), a brief window of opportunity exists for some lucky honeybees in southern Georgia and Florida to pollinate the flowering Tupelo trees in their neighborhood. Soon after, a brief window of opportunity exists for some lucky people like us to taste the fruits of their extensive labor, in the form of rare, buttery Tupelo Honey. I say “rare” because there aren’t a whole lot of Tupelo trees left in this country, and the super-short flowering season means that not a whole lot of honey can be produced in any given year.
I first learned about Tupelo honey–and all honey, really–from a charming beekeeper named Ted Dennard, who runs a boutique honey operation out of Savannah, Georgia called The Savannah Bee Company. (So charming, in fact, that he’s probably the only beekeeper who has ever gotten a full-page photo spread in Vogue…) Years ago, Ted let me tag along as he trekked over to the humid, swampy coastline near Savannah where his bees were camped out, tirelessly pollinating the Tupelos, which are a type of flowering gum tree native to wetlands in the US south. He opened one of the hives and pulled out a screen that was coated in a powdery white beeswax, then stuck his finger right through the wax to release a stream of gooey, golden tupelo honey. I was amazed at how different it tasted than the cloyingly-sweet supermarket honey sold in those corny bear-shaped squeeze bottles. (As I later learned, almost all ‘supermarket’ honey is made from a mix of light-colored honeys and labeled as “clover honey,” which produces a very different flavor profile.)
All honey is not the same
The flavor, color and sugar profile of a honey will vary with the type of flower pollinated to produce it. Colors can range from white to dark amber, and flavors can pick up a range of nuances, ranging from floral (as in orange blossom or lavender honey) to smoky (as in mesquite honey)… and anything inbetween. While the sugar profile of honey varies by variety, your typical honey will be about 35-38% fructose and 30% glucose, with water and other sugars making up the rest of the volume. As a sweetener, honey has the same number of calories as table sugar: 1 tsp of honey or sugar both have 16 calories.
Tupelo is rare in the honey world, as it contains a higher percentage of fructose than other honeys (closer to 44% fructose). Fructose is the same type of sugar found in fruit, and it is metabolized in our bodies differently than glucose. In this way, Tupelo honey is similar to Agave Nectar, which is also a natural, primarily-fructose-based sweetener. (As a side note, while a lot of food marketers would have you believe that Agave nectar contains ~90% fructose, in fact the fructose content will vary dramatically by how the nectar was processed, and can be as low 55%.) In reality, though, Tupelo’s different sugar profile may make more of a difference in flavor than it does in its impact on blood sugar levels: a super-small 2006 study whose results were published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association compared the effect of four different honey varieties on raising blood sugar (known as their “glycemic index”). The researchers didn’t find any statistically significant differences between the varieties tested–one of which was Tupelo. Still, other studies do seem to show an advantage when it comes to glycemic index for honey over sugar. So it seems that the jury is still out, and I personally wouldn’t recommend honey as a material improvement over sugar when it comes to blood sugar control–particularly if you’re diabetic. (Sorry, bees.) Still, the 2006 study researchers concluded that using honey as a sweetener instead of refined sugar should have some health advantages, since honey (especially some of the darker varieties, and especially raw) contains antioxidants, prebiotics that help promote the health of your friendly, health-protecting gut bacteria, and may be able to sweeten foods with less volume than table sugar since it contains fructose, which is sweeter than sucrose. So score one for honey.
On the topic of honey and nutrition, it is prudent to mention that infants 12 months of age and younger should *never* be fed honey– raw OR pasteurized. Both can contain botulism spores that are harmless to adults with mature digestive systems, but in rare cases can germinate in the immature GI tracts of young babies and cause fatal infant botulism. But for immuno-competent, adult people, raw honey is a safe and lovely way to enjoy honey’s many benefits.
My last fun fact (as if botulism wasn’t fun enough) about Tupelo honey is that, due to its sugar profile, it will not crystalize. In other words, you can pull out a 10-year old jar of Tupelo from the back of your pantry, and it will still pour right into your tea.
With a honey is as rare and flavorful as Tupelo, I think it’s a waste to use it for baking, where the complex flavor gets buried. Instead, I like to use it in ways that highlight its flavor and texture, like drizzled on some lowfat plain yogurt and topped with a handful of toasted almonds. Ted likes to put out a plate of Tupelo-drenched honeycomb as the center of a platter with some aged cheeses, sliced apples and thinly-sliced baguettes… it’s such a simple and surprisingly elegant spread to set out for guests (or trade show attendees in his case, I guess). If you live in New York and are planning to attend the Fancy Food Show this June, stop by his booth for a sip of his delicious (non-alcoholic) Honey-Limeade… or just visit his website for a recipe for the adult version, called a Tupelojito to make it–or a number of other Tupelo-inspired recipes–at home. If you’re looking for a signature summer cocktail that’s refreshing and unfussy, the Tupelojito may just fit the bill.
Better yet, if you find yourself down in Savannah for work or for play, visit Ted in his new Honey House, where you can enjoy honey tastings (he makes more varieties than just Tupelo, as it turns out, and many of them are organic), learn about the magical world of honeybees and take a repose from the Southern heat at his Honey House cafe.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.