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Ontario Honey

By amy • • Nov 30th, 2013 • Category: Columns, Pantry Items, Seasonings, Spices, Sweets, Syrups, spreads

Question: Bee populations need to be restored – where can we start? Answer: Let’s treasure the fruits of the hive.

Many factors have produced a perfect storm of hazards for honeybees both wild and domestic. Among them: pesticides; parasites; habitat destruction; shortsighted agricultural management; and climate change. The terroir of the honeybee – ie. the breezes and the soil and the blossoms and the honeycombs and the whole sunny circulatory system of the field – has been rendered shrunken and increasingly toxic by human exploitation, everywhere. The warning drums cannot be banged loudly enough, because the fate of our pollen distributors is the fate of the commons: if they go, we go.

But Shelf Life hasn’t come to bury the buzz business but to praise it. Most people are probably unaware that every temperate Canadian region offers a dazzling range of luminous, astonishing honeys. Though we pride ourselves on matters locavore, Shelf Life had little idea. Granted, over the years we had accumulated a jumble of honey facts – for example, that Canada is the world’s sixth largest producer of honey, with ¾ production coming from the Prairies; that nectar-gathering season is from March to October; that early-spring honey is generally light coloured and mild, while dark honey is produced later and has a stronger taste. But no one told us that a collection of artisanal elixirs from a single province can blow the mind beautifully – eg. that liquid gold from Omemee is way different than the silky delights of the Niagara Peninsula. Accordingly, this taste test departs from Shelf Life’s usual method; it’s not so much a cage match between winners and losers but a sensual pilgrimage up the honey Nile, right here in the big smoke (where, surprisingly, honey is flourishing).

Some tasting notes: single-source honeys vary across the country. For example, fireweed honey is most prevalent in British Columbia, where the plant springs up after forest fires; it has little or no profile in Ontario. ‘Wildflower’ honey is the apiarist’s term for mixed nectar sources. Goldenrod (key flavours: floral, vegetal, woody); clover (animal, vegetal, floral); blueberry (fruit; floral; citrus), and buckwheat honeys (earthy, musty; animal) are all plentiful in Ontario (buckwheat, by the way, is not a wheat, or even a grass; it’s related to rhubarb). Shelf Life has heard rumours of Ontario purple loosestrife honey, but it remains the jar that got away.

The more we taste honey – the more opportunities we have to savour this elemental, visceral pleasure – the more it connects us to something wild. Honey isn’t just a food, it’s a gift. Not to put too fine a point on it: go out and buy some good quality Ontario honey today, and remember this: when the bees arrive back at the hive, and hang their sacs of nectar on the tops of the honeycombs, the members of the colony gather around and hover, flapping their wings to produce a continuous breeze. This reduces the nectar’s water content, and transforms it into honey. The bees have two sets of wings for the task, and the process takes time. Honey is born from the patient action of millions of tiny wings. Magic and respect.

Pondering the fate of the female honeybee – who produces a half teaspoon of honey in a lifetime – are this week’s expert judges: Jamie Drummond, Editor, Good Food Revolution; chef and food writer Voula Halliday, a regular on CBC’s The Steven and Chris Show; and journalist, cookbook author, and blogger ( Sarah B. Hood, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every product in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste tested and awarded between zero and five stars. Products in the test are raw and unpasteurized.

Brand One

Heavenly Honey
Country Garden Honey

500g, $7.00

available thru the
or directly @

Jamie: The flavour really explodes on the palate – in a dainty way. This is a delicate honey with tones that remind me of herbal tea: mint and chamomile. Brand One is very pale, with an almost chewy consistency. It’s hard to explain but it leaves me with a feeling of goodness and wholesomeness.

Voula: To me it smells like white flowers and mint, but it tastes more like Chinese pear and warm canteloupe. Brand One has a gluey-chewy texture. I know what Jamie means about its liveliness – there’s something effervescent in the taste. Just now when I caught the aroma again, there’s something really nice in there.

Sarah: Wouldn’t this spoonful taste fantastic on a bran muffin? This is an energetic, flowery honey, with hints of chive blossom and jasmine tea. Brand One has a wonderful fresh vital quality, like the bees were going, ‘We’re ready! We’re ready! Hurry up!’

Brand One Total FOURTEEN STARS **************

Brand Two

Goldenrod Honey

500g, $6.50

available from

Jamie: The viscosity is interesting – Brand One is so thick it almost won’t budge. It’s the colour of apple juice and sticks a bit on the back of my palate. It’s got a floral taste: dandelions, daisies, and sunflowers. This is a good serviceable honey.

Voula: This is a crowd-pleaser – Brand One has some appealing qualities. It has a sweet musty wine smell, and I’m tasting dandelions and grape skins. It’s thick and oily with a lovely colour like dried apricots.

Sarah: It definitely tastes floral. I’m thinking sunflowers, daisies and dandelions, with maybe a hint of citrus. It’s not too sweet, and I agree with Jamie that there’s an aftereffect at the back of the throat, a drop of bitterness. My overall impression is of tangy meadow flowers. Great with toast and butter!

Brand Two Total EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2

Brand Three

Nude Bee Honey Co.
Pumpkin Honey

330g, $7.99

available from

Jamie: It looks like peach tea and it races off the spoon – it’s liquid and drippy. I find Brand Three quite neutral and accessible. Kids might like it; it’s not too extreme. Are you familiar with old-fashioned golden syrup – with the picture of the dead lion and the honeybees on the tin? Brand Three tastes like that.

Voula: Yes, to me it’s entry level honey. It’s not complex but it works. I would eat it the way they snack on maple syrup in Quebec – just put a dollop on warm soft white bread. Brand Three smells a little bit like roses, and has a wet texture.

Sarah: When I first tasted Brand Three I caught a touch of something like McIntosh’s toffee, with a grain of cinnamon. It has a flowing texture, with clover and baby powder accents on the nose.

Brand Three Total TEN STARS **********

Brand Four

Wild Country
Buckwheat Honey

500g, $8.49

widely available
for more information visit

Jamie: This has a dark amber colour, which makes me think it might be one of the stronger varieties such as buckwheat. And – wow! – this has an animal aroma, mixed with malt and straw and cod liver oil capsules. Brand Four smells like the big cat house at the zoo. The taste isn’t for everybody but I really like it.

Voula: Brand Four is surprising; initially it smelled like a barn stall – in a good way. Then I picked up a bit of wintergreen and finally it finished like the taste of old socks. I’d love to find uses for this honey – I’ll start by trying it on a spinach and blue cheese salad.

Sarah: Hmmm … for me this molasses-coloured and thick honey is reminiscent of locker rooms – new ones, not old ones. Gym bags and gingerbread. There is something pleasantly sweaty and grown-up about Brand Four.  

Brand Four Total ELEVEN STARS ***********

Brand Five

Rosewood Estates
Wildflower Honey

$3.50g, $9.99

available at the Fairmount Royal York, Toronto
for more retail outlets visit

Jamie: I like the graininess and the chewiness. The taste is a little undistinguished. The most interesting thing about it is the smell, which is faintly barnyardy. Just a wee whiff. Compared to the jungle pavilion odour of the previous honey, Brand Five is like a petting zoo.

Voula: To me it smells like church candles. It tastes like cooked-down cloves and beeswax. It’s very sweet. I’m not sure how this one stands up to the others.

Sarah: Brand Five’s texture is glue-y and pollen-y, and it smells like beeswax and sunflowers. There’s a high sweet top note in the taste; a little goaty, a little cheesy. Like a greasy chamois or leather work gloves.

Brand Five Total SIX AND A HALF STARS ******1/2

Brand Six

Clover Honey

500g, $7.99

widely available
for more information visit

Jamie: Brand Six would be good for drizzling on cheese. It’s got the right texture, and a broad range of flavour notes. It’s nice and bright, with an aroma like a baby’s bum.

Voula: I love the amber colour, but check out the sweetness, which is nice but vanishes very quickly. There’s a unexpected dairy thing going on, kind of lactic, kind of reflux-y. Then you’ve got a very different smell, which is like pine forest. I have to think some more about this one.

Sarah: Exactly – some mixed impressions of Brand Six. It’s got a pinky-gold appearance and the texture is like corn syrup. It smells like a cedar swamp. There’s a cheesy aspect – maybe yogourt?

Brand Six Total EIGHT STARS********

Brand Seven

Dutchman’s Gold
Wildflower Honey

500g, $9.99

widely available in health and fine food stores in Ontario
order online

Jamie: The texture is smooth and sophisticated, with an aroma of hay, cedar, and sandalwood. Brand Seven reminds me of the cornfields outside the village in Scotland where I grew up. There’s something regal here, and refined. A better class of bees!

Voula: That’s what I love about honey – it can take your memory back; it’s an exquisite quality. Brand Seven has a glowing, foggy amber appearance, and it smells like … a men’s clothing shop. Like a mixture of mens’ cologne and sandalwood. It lingers timelessly and finishes beautifully, with just the right amount of sweetness.

Sarah: It smells like cedar, waxed wood, and frankincense, like peeking into an old chest. It looks like whisky. Brand Seven is soothing – if you had a sore throat this would be the one to choose. It’s a magic honey that restores you and takes you back to your childhood.

Brand Seven Total FIFTEEN STARS ***************

Brand Eight

Long Point Honey Co.
Wild Summer Solstice Honey

250g, $15.00

available from

Jamie: Totally flowery. For me this is the most floral of all eight honeys, with a layer of magnolia. It looks like sparkling white grape juice, and it has a light, chewy texture.

Voula: I like the taste; mint and sweet citrus and flowers. I can’t quite place the aroma. Brand Eight would work drizzled on a pound cake, or a semolina cake, or with Gouda cheese. Or crepes! It’s light and crystal clear and somehow very youthful.

Sarah: I know what you mean – Brand Eight feels kinda fresh and life-giving. It tastes like lemon balm and lilac and smells like bright citrus and cinnamon. This is one of those primal honeys that my body absorbs immediately – like it becomes part of me directly through my palate.

Brand Eight Total THIRTEEN STARS *************

Results: It’s all good. Having said that, the Dutchmen from Carlisle, Ontario make sublime honing.

Off The Menu: Like chocolate, wine and coffee, varietal honey lends itself to a convivial taste test in the home. Interested parties should investigate The Honey Connoisseur, by C. Marina Marchese and Kim Flottum. Besides providing an authoritative, charmingly designed guide to the world of honey, the book features step by step instructions on the best method to introduce taste buds to spoons – plus we loved the full-colour flavour wheel.

For views of Shelf Life’s golden hours visit Shelf Life’s flickr page.

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