Greek honey: Greek Gastronomy Guide gathered everything you need to know in this tasty tribute!
- Honey and the bee
- The history of honey in Greece
- Basic types of Greek honey
- Honey tasting
- Where Greek honey comes from
- Organoleptic characteristics of honey
- Honey in Greek cooking
- Present state and future of Greek honey
- Life in the hive
- Interview with Giorgos Pittas
Honey and the bee
Honey is the nourishment produced by bees from the nectar of flowers or from secretions that either derive from living parts of plants or are to be found on them. They collect these, then process and mix them with their own special essences, store them and allow them to ripen in the cells of the hive. Honey is a unique sweetening substance of great biological and nutritional value, Nature’s inestimable gift to man.
Honey has been a foodstuff since the dawn of mankind and was the first sweetener, enjoyed millennia before humans knew how to process sugar. A completely natural substance, it is extremely beneficial to the health, almost a medicine in itself but oh so palatable. Moreover, since humans have always had a sweet tooth, they began collecting honey in the wild very early and later attempted to domesticate bees, developing the art of beekeeping, first by raising bees in the hollows of trees, then woven baskets, clay hives, and finally by today’s wooden boxes with removable sides. Bees, however, remain wild.
Furthermore, as various ancient physicians, from Egypt to Assyria and Greece, came to discover and verify its medicinal properties, honey became more than the basic sweetener in many parts of the world and was and still is consumed as an essential ingredient of the human diet, especially in the Mediterranean.
And of course, honey, being so precious to mankind, was deified and became the food of gods.
Honey’s significant role lasted until the mid16th century, when sugar was first introduced to Europe, and then became the prime sweetening agent around the end of the 18th as it had tremendous production potential at low cost.
Of enormous importance albeit difficult to quantify is the bee’s contribution to the ecosystem and the economy through pollination. Bees transport pollen and are largely responsible for the fertilization and reproduction of every kind of flora the world over, whether in forests and uncultivated areas or in farming.
Since bees constitute about 80% of pollinating insects, we can appreciate how essential their role is, whether for the economy as much as for biodiversity and the balance of the ecosystem.
The history of honey in Greece
Researchers have noted that honey and the art of beekeeping arrived in Greece from Ancient Egypt.
At Phaistos, the renowned Minoan city in southern Crete, clay hives were found dating to 3400 BC. The exquisite piece of gold jewelry from Knossos of two bees holding a honeycomb dates to the same era.
Honey, the beverage and food of the gods – nectar and ambrosia – held an important place in people’s daily life, not only as foodstuff but also as a therapeutic substance
The bee was deified. She was the nymph to whom the Rhea entrusted her infant Zeus, ‘Born in Crete’, and who nourished him with milk and honey in the Diktean Cave high in the mountains of Crete.
In Homer’s Odyssey ‘Melikraton’ is mentioned, a cocktail of honey and milk much appreciated as a superior drink. Honey often appears in plays and poems by Hesiod, Pindar, Callimachus, Apollodorus, Euripides, Archelaus, Athenaeus, Herodotus and many more, not to mention later works by Byzantine monks as well as travellers and literati right up to the present.
In ancient daily life honey was used in the form of
- Milomelo, apples preserved in honey, all year round
- Melikrato, honey and milk for children
- Oxymelo, honey with vinegar to treat fever
- Hydromel, a liqueur from the alcohol of fermented honey
- Oenomelo, honey with wine. Democritus is said to have lived to a ripe old age because he consumed oenomelo with bread.
Hippocrates praised the beneficial effect of oenomelo for both the sick and the healthy, Pythagoras maintained that honey combats fatigue, and Democritus extolled the well-being and long life he owed to it.
In Sparta schoolteachers and youths under military training spent a month on Mt Taygetus living exclusively on honey (a honeymoon). Beekeeping became systematically organized as a business. The great Athenian law-giver Solon (640-558 BC) handed down laws still in existence and regulations determining the distance between apiaries to prevent any doubts concerning ownership of the swarms.
Aristotle fabricated a glass hive so as to observe the bees at work and his writings, History of Animals and A Study of the Generation of Animals, are held up as a model of study and prototype of the functioning, structure and hierarchy in an ideal state.
(Photos taken from the Institute of Agricultural Science – I.A.S.)
Basic types of Greek honey
Honey is not merely a natural sweetener. It is mainly constituted of simple sugars, but also a multitude of other elements are present as well. To date 182 different substances have been traced and certified and the research continues. The most important thing to note, however, is not the coexistence of these substances but their proportion and their organic interconnection in a biological, natural foodstuff that has properties quite different to those that each ingredient has on its own.
The composition, the quality, the organoleptic elements and the form (liquid or crystals) of Greek honey differ from plant to plant, region to region and from year to year as they are influenced by the weather conditions and flora, which in our country are characterized by a wide diversity.
The honey produced in Greece can be separated into two major super-categories:
- Floral honey (known as anthomelo), from the nectar of flowers, to which belong thyme honey, orange blossom, heather, etc.
- Honeydew honey (often called dasomelo or forest honey), produced from secretions of an insect, the marchalina hellenica, that sucks the trees, typically conifers. Pine honey belongs to the same category as fir tree honey and other forest plants.
There are eight basic categories of pure unadulterated Greek honey that have been established by law according to their physiochemical characteristics:
- Pine Honeydew of high biological value, low in sugars
- Fir Honeydew of a thick consistency, with no particular aroma but good to the taste
- Chestnut blossom, honeydew and floral, with a strong bitter taste
- Heather (floral) with a delicate aroma, thick, opaque and not as sweet as thyme
- Thyme (floral), perhaps the most popular honey
- Orange blossom (floral) and citrus, with a strong perfume
- Cotton (floral), primarily left to the bees
- Sunflower (floral)
For a honey to be labelled as originating from a particular plant or tree (thyme, pine, fir etc),the organoleptic-physiochemicals and microscopic features of the specific plant must predominate above the multitude of other plants that may be present.
Honey tasting, like wine tasting, follows a certain procedure. The first step is to check the colour. The characteristic colour of the best-known variety of Greek honey – a combination of flowers and conifers with a good proportion of thyme honey – should be a pale gold and semi-transparent when placed in front of a light. Darker hues of honey indicate varieties made from forest honeys, while the paler hues are made from blossoms.
The tasting comprises three stages:
- First impression
- The taste
- The aftertaste
Experienced honey tasters can tell just by tasting where the honey comes from, both in terms of geography and vegetal source.
Thyme honeys have
- a strong taste and perfume
- a strong aftertaste with a minimal pleasant burning sensation on the tongue at the end
- dominating scent
Conifer honeys have
- a more neutral and softer but full taste. Conifer honeys are fairly viscous
- a gentler scent
- less strong aftertaste
Greek honey is among the best in the world. Its excellent quality comes from being unprocessed, natural and unadulterated, which lead to a particularly pleasing taste and aroma from the wide variety of wild flowers in Greece. Usually thick, it is distinctive in consistency, fragrance and taste.
Thanks to its climatic conditions and terrain, the Greek countryside consists of multiple areas where a rich variety of plants grow together in a relatively small expanse. This unique feature contrasts with other countries, which produce thinner honeys, indicating that they come from monocultures of a single plant.
Quality however has its cost. The difficulty of collecting honey from these many small and sometimes distant places combined with production expenses means that the price of Greek honey may be higher than that of honeys from elsewhere. The price difference is nevertheless compensated by its organoleptic and biological superiority, of which foreign consumers are also well aware.
Where Greek honey comes from
From the point of view of interest in the art of beekeeping, Greece has a long tradition and broad technical knowledge of the subject. The favourable environmental and geographic characteristics of the country as described above, combined with the expertise of Greek beekeepers, result in the production of exemplary Greek honey.
- Aegean Islands: thyme, pine
- Thessaly: cotton, fir, chestnut blossom
- Evia: pine, heather
- Halkidiki peninsula: pine, heather
- Peloponnese: thyme, orange blossom, fir, chestnut blossom
- Western Greece: thyme, orange blossom, chestnut blossom, heather
- Central Greece: thyme, fir, chestnut blossom
- Thrace: cotton, sunflower
Nonetheless, a number of the areas where the greater part of Greek honey is produced are difficult of access. Their terrain often necessitates lengthy trips over dirt tracks, so that the cost of production is burdened with significant outlays in fuel costs and wear and tear of the apiary vans.
Very rarely can a steady, permanent beekeeping unit be established, since the honey-producing plants are to be found in very different areas and have different flowering seasons, while their nectar-or honeydew-secreting period is short, often less than a month.
Consequently the professional beekeeper is always in search of foraging swarms for a sufficient quantity, which translates into costly transportation, reduced production, possible loss of bees and so forth.
Organoleptic characteristics of honey
Greek honey owes its distinctiveness to organoleptic elements which derive from the country’s natural flora, its tremendous variety of wild flowers, shrubs and trees.
Greece’s unique natural attributes and the nomadic character of its beekeeping result in a thick honey with a variety of tastes, scents and hues that set them apart from the honeys of other countries and make them typically Greek. For example, the taste of thyme is not found elsewhere, while also pine and fir tree honey are uncommon as well.
More than a hundred different plants participate in the final composition of Greek honey to a lesser or greater degree. This variety of plants results in anorganoleptic superiority over the honey produced in countries, which come primarily from monocultures. This is why greater pharmacological properties are attributed to Greek honey than to that of other countries.
Honey is literally nature’s gift to man. Not only is it tasty and nutritious, Greek honey rates among the best in the world. Scientific research has proven that honey acts as a shield for our organism.
- It has anti-microbial properties
- It reduces oxidization of LDL cholesterol
- It contains antioxidants and demonstrates a cellular-protective action
- It aids in the healing of scars
- It contains probiotics which contribute to the proper functioning of the gastro-intestinal system
- It promotes the absorption of calcium.
Today Greek honey has been declared a national product. It has prestige, an excellent reputation and name. It is available in more than 30 countries on five continents, indicative of its widespread appreciation.
As well as honey, the bee gives us its ‘poison’ (which is medically effective against rheumatoid arthritis, myalgia, neuralgia etc., wax; propolis (resinous disinfectant); royal jelly (a creamy substance of superior biological value which makes a queen of the ordinary bee.) It also provides us in handy form with the pollen of flowers, which is rich in proteins, vitamins, enzymes and other useful ingredients in our diet.
Honey in Greek cooking
Honey is one of the most typical ingredients in traditional Greek cooking. It has been employed to enrich dozens of dishes with sweetness and aroma. At parties, weddings and baptisms, honey was served either on its own or made into pastries to symbolize fertility and the good life. Honey with walnuts as well as ‘pastelia’ (a sesame bar with honey and nuts) are offered at weddings to the newly-weds and guests.
In contemporary cooking and pastry-making honey can inspire an unbelievable variety of creative dishes. It is easily spread on toast or fresh bread and enhances herbaltisanes and tea. It dissolves in warm milk and yoghurt and is considered ideal for desserts based on dairy products.
It may be used as the main ingredient in any number of sauces, dressings and marinades.
Of course, for the simplest and easiest of treats, it can simply be poured over a bowl of yoghurt and/or fruit.
Greek customs featuring honey
- Honey was given at parties as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
- Honey with walnuts and the ‘pasteli’ sesame bar was offered at weddings to the newly-weds and guests.
- On Crete every wedding guest is given a coiled ribbon of delicate fried pastry dippedin honey, called xerotigano (or ‘dry-fried’).
- On Rhodes on the eve before the wedding, the tradition is to prepare ‘melekounia’, a sweet with honey, sesame and rosewater.
- Bread made with honey is given to women in childbed.
- Pancakes and omelettes with honey are offered in cemeteries after Easter, that the souls of the dead may rest in peace.
- To usher in the New Year, housewives used to put nuts on the table, with an olive branch and a mug of honey.
- For Christmas and New Year’s there are several desserts and sweets made with honey; Some of them are ‘melomakarona’ (biscuits with walnuts and honey), ‘diples’ (akin to xerotigana) and honey bread.
- Throughout Crete a bride and groom are obliged to eat a spoonful of walnuts with honey during the service. In many villages it is the custom to offer this to the guests as well.
- Always present at celebration dinners are honeyed desserts, symbols of happiness and plenty: ‘diples’ ‘loukoumades’ (a sort of doughnut), ‘baklava’ and walnut pies.
Present state and future of Greek honey
There are about 15,000 beekeepers in Greece today dispersed all over the country, working with about 1,200,000 hives. Some 3000 of them are professional beekeepers (i.e. they own more than 150 hives and earn at least 50% of their annual income from them. Meanwhile, the average consumption of honey in Greece is 1,700 grams per person per year, one of the highest, if not the highest, in the world.
In contrast to Central and Northern Europe, with the exception of a few small Aegean islands, a Greek beekeeper’s working life is mostly nomadic. His annual route may involve driving his van over 30,000 km, as he must change the location of his hives frequently to catch blossoms at the right time. A beekeeper in Central Greece for instance will set out in spring for the orange groves of Argos or Arta, then in June he will take his hives up the mountains in Arcadia or Epirus where the firs secrete their honey dew. But in July he will go down to the plains of Thessaly for the cotton, ending in the autumn in Evia or the Halkidiki peninsula to harvest honey dew from the pine forests there. Finally before winter comes he will move as far south as possible, perhaps to Messenia or Lakonia, where the winters are milder and sunnier. Despite the hard work and long hours on the road, the country’s beekeepers do reap the rewards as they collect unparalleled Greek honey and other products of incomparable quality.
Although Greece ranks high in the number and density of hives per km worldwide, production per hive is comparatively low due to the scattered concentrations of flora and the small scale of collecting areas.
The honey produced in Greece comes mainly from:
- pine trees (60-65%) in Thasos, Halkidiki, Evia, Crete;
- fir trees (5-10%) inCentral Greece, Central Peloponnese;
- thyme (15%) in the Aegean and Ionian islands, Central Greece, Peloponnese.
Greece produces about 14,000-16,000 tons of honey per annum. Exports are indeed lower (in the range of 200 tons, though on the increase) because the market, in Central Europe especially, has been flooded with inferior honeys (from Eastern Europe, Latin America, China, etc), which are imported at low cost and labeled European.
Another explanation, however, for the low export figure is that Greeks themselves consume an awful lot of their own honey, between 1.5-2 kilos a head annually – almost twice the European average – leaving little to share.
Life in the hive
Bees are social insects akin to ants, wasps and termites. This means that the members of the same species form differing social ‘teams’ with varying duties and roles in their hive (or nest). Bees have three teams: the worker bees, the drones and the queen.
All the teams function together in a super-organism.
In every hive there is always a queen, the ‘mother’ as beekeepers call her. The queen feeds on royal jelly from the beginning to the end of her life, which lasts some three to four years; she is the only member of the hive to lay eggs.
She exudes certain essences, pheromones, which send the worker bees the instructions to do their job.
About a week after her birth the queen flies out of the hive for the first time, to mate with eight to ten drones. The honeymoon lasts up to twenty minutes, long enough for her to have stored a few sperm from each drone, which will last the rest of her life.
When she lays her eggs, she places a single egg in each cell.
The egg may develop into a drone or a worker depending on whether or not it has been fertilized.
They are the tireless engines of the hive. They have different responsibilities according to their age: cleaning the cells, looking after the queen and the eggs, processing the nectar to turn it into honey, packing pollen into the cells, building cells, clearing the nest of useless matter, ventilating it by fluttering their wings, guarding the entrance to the hive, foraging outside to collect pollen and nectar.
Worker bees live for an average of 15 to 40 days in the summer, 30 to 60 in the spring and as long as 140 days in the autumn and winter, when they have fewer chores.
On average a worker-forager may take ten trips a day to collect nectar. To do this, they clasp the blossoms of the plant, suck up some nectar, spray a drop of it with their proboscis and then roll a minuscule ball of pollen with their legs. They carry it back to the hive to the hive in the pollen ‘baskets’ on their back legs.
In a bee hive where there could be as many as thirty to forty thousand bees there are a few hundred drones which live for about 20 to 30 days. In the first few days they are fed exclusively by young worker bees until they are able to feed themselves on stored honey and pollen. When they can fly, they gather in specific spots to await the queen whom they court and mate with.
How honey is produced:
Bees forage from blossom to blossom and collect their nectar. They suck a small drop of the nectar with their proboscis and take it to the hive. There it is exchanged back and forth many times with the nectar from other bees and once the right essences have been added for the honey’s proper preservation, they place it in the cells for storage.
The beesthen cover the filled cells with wax so as to preserve the honey as long as possible against the cold winter weather to follow.
Lessons to be learned from bees
Respect for the chief as well as for democracy. Worker bees follow the queen bee’s instruction to the letter, respecting, protecting and looking after her to the last day of her life.
Self-sacrifice for the good of others. Every bee will use its proboscis to protect itself or the hive, sacrificing itself since with the sting it will lose part of its body and will die shortly after.
Organization. Of the fifty thousand bees a hive may contain each has its specific mission and plan.
[Material from the agronomist-entomologist Spyros Skareas’ article ‘The admirable world of the bee’.
Interview with Giorgos Pittas, representing three generations in the honey business
Beekeeping is a tradition in our family. Our grandfather Giorgos Pittas sold Hymettus honey in 1896, as can be seen from an advertisement printed that year in the Estia newspaper. Our father and his brother founded the firm ATTIKI in 1928, marking the first time labelled packaged honey was marketed in Greece, and soon after even exported abroad.
Nearly 90 years later the firm is still an exclusively family business, with my sister, Aleka Pitta-Hazapi, and I as directors. At present our two daughters are also on the board of directors.
The firm’s purpose has always been to function as a pioneering business, at the top of its field, providing consumers everywhere with Greek honey as well as its related products, which are outstanding in terms of quality and taste, as recognized both in Greece and abroad.
We invest in:
- lasting relations with the some2000 Greek beekeepers with whom we collaborate, striving together to produce unequalled Greek honey, and in the development, qualitative and quantitative, of Greek beekeeping, which sets us apart from many other businesses;
- the effort to continually improve the production process and aim for higher goals;
- consumer confidence in the integrity, quality and reliability of our firm’s products.
Greek honey remains a perennial favourite
- although known since antiquity as the food of the gods, it adds a ‘divine’ and healthful touch to the contemporary diet and lifestyle
- it is a pure, natural product
- its taste and aroma are unique, reminiscent of Greece
- we have faith in it and have exported it systematically under our label for the last 80 years to over 37 countries, in Europe, the US, Canada, Cyprus, Japan and the Middle East.
- Our honey is the ambassador for quality Greek honey abroad and has been available for many years now in very demanding markets.
The multitude distinctions received in Greece and abroad as well as our constant presence in high-end foreign market chains prove the value of ATTIKI honey, promoting Greece as the source of the finest honey.
We assist beekeepers in many ways, giving them the means to improve working conditions and harvesting methods through publications, seminars, free advice, cooperation with research centres, agencies and universities. We have initiated programs of Contractual Farming with the intention of giving support to our beekeeper collaborators. We encourage young beekeepers to engage in beekeeping professionally as a primary career and urge the establishment of modern viable apiaries. We even support the formation of independent competitive apiary units with professional beekeepers. We support sustainability and preservation of the environment. Pure honey demands clean air and water and unpolluted soil. Bees cannot survive in a toxic world. Similarly, plant reproduction without bees is inconceivable, and, without them, we would not survive very long ourselves.
Finally, the field of beekeeping has a present and a future in Greece’s economy. It does nonetheless require action by the State to intensify controls over fraudulent labelling of honey as ‘Greek; the disproportionately low prices of this so-called Greek honey compared to the average sales price of genuine Greek honey are indicators that it’s not the real thing. Be warned and don’t be disappointed.