On the slopes of Mt. Etna last summer, my husband and I stopped at a roadside stand where a young boy was selling local honey (il miele locale) that we sampled with tiny wooden spoons. But it wasn’t until un evento gastronomico (a gastronomic event) at the Italian Cultural Center in San Francisco that I learned that Italy is home, not just to a rich variety of this natural sweetener, but to the leading experts in its “sensory analysis.”
According to Gian Luigi Marrazzan, president of the Comitato di Gestione dell'Albo Nazionale degli Esperti in Analisi Sensoriale del Miele (National Management Committee of the Register of Experts in Sensory Analysis of Honey), there are 264 registered honey tasters (assaggiatori ufficiali di miele) in the world— and only two in the United States. Training involves a series of intensive seminars that focus on evaluating three key characteristics of honey: color (colore), aroma (aroma, profumo) and flavor (sapore).
The science of bee-keeping (apicultura) dates back to ancient cultures, and the process hasn’t changed over time. Honey still comes from two sources: nectar (nettare) from flowers and honeydew (melata). A honeybee (pecchia or ape domestica) transfers the nectar or honeydew sap to a hive (alveare, bugno) where workers bees (api operaie) store it in honeycombs (favi) under the command of the dominant queen bee (ape regina).
Italy’s varied geography and vegetation yield dozens of types of honey. At our tasting, we sampled an Acacia or black locust honey, which is the palest of yellows, very sweet, with a smell sometimes described, not very elegantly, as “wet rag” (straccio bagnato). Viola Buitoni, a chef and cooking instructor in San Francisco who hosts culinary expeditions in Italy, recommends pairing it with fresh fruit, as a glaze for tarts, or as the secret ingredient to balance the acidity and flavor of tomato sauces.
Honeydews attacked by Metcalfa pruinosa insects (also dubbed “citrus flatid planthoppers”) yield a much darker and not overly sweet honey. Similar to molasses in taste and consistency, it pairs well with meat or lake fish—or drizzled on boiled carrots sautéed with cumin. The most intense and pungent honey we tasted was sweet chestnut honey, with the color of dark amber and the smell (depending on one’s nose) of wet cardboard or Marseilles soap. Italians use it for the filling of pumpkin ravioli or warmed on a persimmon mousse. I like it paired with fresh ricotta.
Although Italians appreciate parole di miele (honeyed words) they don’t use “honey” as a word of endearment. Instead, a sweetheart is called tesoro (treasure, darling) or caro (dear). English speakers form a beeline to buy the hottest new product: Italians simply opt to andare dritti (go straight). And rather than having "a bee in their bonnet," Italians have un’idea fissa or una fissazione.
One thing is just as sweet: Italian newlyweds, just like English-speakers, delight in the joys of a luna di miele (honeymoon). They also know the wisdom of attracting more flies with a drop of honey than a barrel of vinegar. (Si prendono più mosche con una goccia di miele che con un barile d'aceto.) Italian children also have fun with riddles based on ape, the Italian word for bee:
Qual'è l’ape che vien mangiando? L’appe..tito
What is the bee that comes with eating? Appe…tite
Qual’è l’ape che viene prima dei pasti? L’ape…ritivo
What is the bee that comes before meals? Ape..ritif
Qual’è l’ape piu’ veloce? L’Ape
What is the fastest bee? The three-wheel vehicle called l’Ape.
Words and Expressions
Apiario – bee-keeping
Sciame d’api –- swarm of bees
Mellifluo –- honey-tongued, flattering
Volto di miele, cuore di fiele –- A honey tongue, a heart of gall
Mieloso – extremely syrupy to the point of sounding corny
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.