the sweet taste of summer; GOLDEN NECTAR OF THE GODS

The drone of bees in a flower-filled meadow, the scent of heather drifting across a sun-soaked moor. In these conditions, premier honeys are made. Our three-part series on the season's sweet produce begins with the harvest of the bees. Next week, we look at jams and preserves
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The Independent Culture
Drowning the buzz of the distant motorway is the immediate hum of innumerable bees. We're standing, bee-farmer John Home and I, in a wooded glade among a dozen box-shaped beehives, the spire of Warwick Cathedral a distant silhouette. The bees are busy, making a bee-line for a dense field of white-blossomed broad beans. Broad bean honey, never heard of it. But you will, you will.

Every country has a number of predominant one-flower honeys, but broad bean is not one of them. A world top ten would include the aristocrat of honeys, acacia (Hungary is the most prodigious source), lime flower (France), clover (mostly America), orange blossom (Spain and Mexico), hymettus (perfumed mountain herbs from Greece), lavender (Provence), sweet chestnut (Italy), leatherwood (Tasmania), manuka (from the flowers of a New Zealand hardwood tree) and last, but certainly not least, British heather honey, the heavily scented nectar garnered from both ling and bell heathers.

Heather honey apart, British honey has had a low profile until quite recently. But that is changing. In Harrod's food hall you can not only buy the world's exotics (as well as added-value honeys with Napoleon brandy, Scotch whisky or Jamaica rum) but also a new British selection including apple and oilseed rape, woodsage and bramble and, here it comes, bean and oak honeydew (the oaks grow beside the bean fields).

Not to be outdone, Fortnum & Mason are majoring on British honey too, especially mixed flower honeys, with charming, evocative names: Dorset downland honey, English orchard honey, English woodland honey, spring wildflower honey and Welsh summer wildflower honey. They also do single flower; clover, which is very British, mild and gentle. And heather honey, rasping and strong, the bees feeding on nectar from the glorious purple blooms (the young shoots of heather fed the baby grouse that even now await the guns assembling for the glorious 12th).

So things are looking up for bee-keepers? Yes and no, says Mr Home, who is a former chairman of British Bee Farmers Association. He differentiates betwen the hobbyist bee-keeper and the professional farmer. Many of the hobbyists, he says, are going down to a bee parasite, varroa, from the Continent. "All farm animals have to be medicated to eradicate parasites," he says. "Now it's no different with bees. The treatment costs pounds 2 or pounds 3 a hive each year, but that's better than losing pounds 60 or pounds 70. Some people seem to think it's too much to pay!"

John Home takes this practical view, as he might, with his 350 hives. Like a campaign general, he deploys his bees strategically about the country as the seasons change. In spring he buses half his population to Kentish apple farms where he is under contract to a farmer to pollinate blossom, thus ensuring maximum yield and also improved size of fruit.

By June they are back in John Home's homeland in Warwickshire, guzzling on acres of beans and other vegetables being grown for Sainsbury's and Safeway, another contract job. "Seasonal vegetables are the fashionable thing now," he says. This month he takes them northwards to browse among the sweet, purple heatherlands of Derbyshire.

Heather honeys fetch a premium price, but most of his honey is from mixed flowers, and not all from the country. Multi-flower honeys derived from flowers in town gardens and city parks are full of interest and subtlety (Fauchon, the upmarket Paris foodstore, sells an exclusive honey from bees which nest in the eaves of L'Opera, a limited edition of 500 125g jars).

Characters such as John Home who practise the arcane craft of bee-keeping are in touch with a skill as old as civilisation itself. And such a compelling one, for who among us doesn't share David Attenborough's wonder at the complex hierarchy of bee society?

Completely unprotected by mask or gloves, he lifts the lid off a box, and rummages among the buzzing insects. "They are not aggressive," he says comfortably. "They are like dogs, they can sense if you are afraid." He picks up a worker bee by its wings, revealing ballooning yellow bloomers around the rear pair of legs, blobs of yellow pollen. Nectar (which is converted into fructose in the hive) is one food which they gather, and pollen is another, valauble protein. He indicates a row of bees on the ground floor entrance fanning their wings. "This is the air conditioning system. They sustain a constant temperature in the hive."

In full summer the overworked worker bees survive a scant three weeks, carying out five to 25 missions a day. The queen bee lays 2,000 to 3,000 eggs a day to keep up the colony's momentum. "You have to think of the colony as a living thing, rather than individual bees." Even the lazy drones play a role, when they compete to mate with the queen, mid-air, on her single flight, when she stores the seed which secures the colony's survival.

Back at Fosse Way Farm, near Leamington Spa, John Home points out the gooey equipment for extracting honey and filling jars. There isn't a surface to which honey will not adhere. Students who knew the anarchic John Home at agricultural college would not be surprised to see him come to this sticky end. He didn't see that he'd raise the capital to run a farm, nor marry a farmer's daughter, and a stint selling animal feeds (pre-BSE, he hastens to add) didn't please. Beekeeping has provided a life of fulfillment.

He is a one-man band, selling his Fosse Way honey in every imaginable form. The gift industry responds to honeys sold in pottery jars; owl, bear, piggy, rabbit, frog shapes and others (I like the one in the shape of a box hive). Fudges made with honey. Mustards flavoured with honey, Honey vinegar, also known as honegar. Beeswax for cleaning furniture.

Honey has been an important commodity from the beginning of our society. But most of its history was written before the 16th century when, as supreme sweetener, it was displaced by sugar. Records of honey-gathering go back at least 8,000 years, witness a cave painting at La Arana in eastern Spain. Honey represented the good times and Canaan was a land flowing with milk and honey. The Greeks were mad about it. Aristotle kept bees, followers of Pythagoras ate nothing but bread and honey, and Hippocras, father of medicine, advocated it as a soothing remedy. (John Home: "I wouldn't argue with that. It's a marvellous treatment for burns, it excludes the air.")

Malta was originally called Melita, after the Greek word for honey (literally "honey island"). And the Romans were passionate about it. Half the recipes in the late Roman cookbook credited to Apicius contain honey. In medieval cooking it left its mark in various festival honeycakes, the oldest of which are British gingerbread, French pain d'epices, German Lebkuchen and Jewish Leckerli and Lekach.

Honey today is enjoyed as a flavour rather than a sweetener. Commercial blended honey by and large doesn't deliver the flavour. Premium honey is a dramatic ingredient to glaze ham, or even a slice of gammon, or roast chinese pork (char siu) or barbecued spare ribs. Use it on grilled figs, peaches or bananas. It lifts bland desserts of milk (rice pudding), cream (especially ice cream) and yogurt. Thick, strained Greek yoghurt with astringent hymettus honey is a marriage of the gods.

HONEY CHICKEN THIGHS

This is such a simple recipe, from Willi Elsener's World of Flavours (Pavilion pounds 19.99) but it is irresistible. The marinade gives the chicken thighs a sticky, slightly spicy coating, which is complemented by the coriander and yoghurt dipping sauce. When baking the chicken, keep a close eye on the temperature - the honey in the marinade has a tendency to burn quite easily.

Serves 3

25g/1oz butter

1 tablespoon honey, preferably clear

1 teaspoon prepared English mustard

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

salt

freshly ground pepper

6 chicken thighs

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon plain yoghurt

2 tablespoon single cream (light cream)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)

1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a frying pan. Add the honey, mustard, turmeric, curry powder, salt and pepper and stir until mixed. Remove from the heat. Roll the thighs in the mixture to coat and place them in an oven proof dish. Bake in the preheated-heated oven at 170C/325F/ Gas 3 for 30-35 minutes or until cooked and tender.

Whilst the chicken is cooking, prepare the sauce by simply mixing all the ingredients together. Serve the chicken hot, with the sauce handed separately.

BORRACHUELOS

Honey-soaked Anis and Sesame Fritters

Sweets from Arab frying pans, dulces de sarten, are eaten at festivals in Spain and given to children in late afternoon for merienda (teatime). The name means they are "drunk" with syrup. This recipe is taken from Pepita Aris's Andalusia (Headline pounds 9.99).

Makes about 45

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

3-4 strips of orange zest

2 teaspoons aniseed

1 tablespoons sesame seeds

50ml/2fl oz amontillado sherry

juice of 1 orange

juice of 1/2 lemon

200g/7oz plain flour plus extra

150g/5oz honey

finely grated zest of 1/2 orange

caster sugar to serve

oil for deep frying

Starting some hours ahead, put the oil and orange zest in a small pan and heat until the zest browns round the edges. Discard it and let the oil cool somewhat. Add both seeds, the sherry and fruit juices.

Tip in the flour and beat together until the dough comes together with a pastry consistency. Add more flour as necessary (Spanish and hard flours are more absorbent, so more is needed). Turn into a food processor and/or knead to a smooth dough. Let the dough firm up in the fridge, covered in a plastic bag.

Heat clean oil, at least 4cm (11/2in) deep in a wide pan. Pinch off the dough and make balls rather larger than unshelled hazelnuts. Roll these out thinly, six to seven at a time, and fry them in batches. The borrachuelos will bob to the surface as they start to expand. Flip them over with a slotted spoon and fry them until golden. Drain on a tray lined with kitchen paper, and leave until cold.

To make the syrup, melt the honey with five tablespoons of water and the orange zest. Pour the syrup over the fritters in a shallow bowl, turning them several times. To serve, drain the fritters and sprinkle them with sugar.

HONEY-BASTED FIGS WITH RASPBERRIES AND ICE-CREAM

Figs warmed on the grill and basted with a little honey and white wine makes a sensuous and enticing dessert, writes Marlena Spieler in The Classic Barbecue and Grill Cook Book (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99). The honey brings out the sweetness of the fruit, as does the heat of the grill. If ice- cream is not to your taste, fresh goat's cheese may be used instead.

Serves 4

3-4 tablespoons honey

1-2 tablespoons dry white wine

12-16 ripe firm figs

600ml/1 pint vanilla ice-cream

250g/8oz raspberries

Light the barbecue, or preheat a gas barbecue.

Heat the honey and wine together, stirring until the honey completely dissolves into the wine. Remove from the heat. Halve the figs and brush with the honey-wine mixture. If the figs are very small, use skewers or a piece of foil to prevent them falling through the bars of the grill.

Place the figs over medium-low coals (this is a perfect dish for using the last of the coals after cooking dinner). Cook for only a few minutes, brushing once or twice with the basting mixture. Serve the hot figs in bowls with a scoop of ice-cream and some fresh raspberries.

LEKACH

Makes 1 loaf cake

The modern version, from Evelyn Rose's The New Jewish Cuisine (Robson Books pounds 12.95) is lightened with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and eggs, which make it moist and spongy, but it is still made with the same three ingredients Jewish housewives have been using for more than 2,000 years.

This is a particularly moist lekach, whose flavour is enhanced with ginger preserve as well as the usual powdered spice. The cake rises at least 212 cm (1in) in the oven, so to prevent the mixture bubbling over the sides it is important to use the specified size of tin.

To serve the lekach, cut it into slices 1cm (1/2in) thick and then into fingers.

250g/9oz self-raising flour or 250g/9oz plain flour plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

225g/1/2lb clear honey

125 ml/4fl oz oil

75g/3oz soft dark brown sugar

1 egg

125g/1/4lb ginger preserve

175ml/6fl oz hot water mixed with 1/4 level teaspoon baking soda

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2. Grease a 1kg/2lb loaf tin measuring approximately 22 x 12 x 7cm (9 x 5 x 3in) and line the bottom and the two ends with one long strip of silicone paper.

Sift the flour and the spices into a bowl. Put the honey into another bowl, then add the oil, sugar, egg, preserve and half the flour mixture. Stir until smooth, then add the remaining flour mixture and the hot water mixed with the bicarbonate of soda, stirring until the batter is thoroughly blended - it will be very thin. Pour carefully into the tin. Bake for 11/2-13/4 hours or until the top is springy to gentle touch and a skewer comes out clean from the centre. Place on a cooling tray and leave until cool to the touch.

TURRON DE ALICANTE

This recipe, for traditional sweet, honeyed Spanish nougat, is taken from Maria Jose Sevilla's Spain on a Plate (BBC Books pounds 14.95).

rice paper wafers

175g/6oz honey

11/2 tablespoons water

100g/4oz caster sugar

1 egg white

350g/12oz almonds, skinned and split

grated rind of 1/2 lemon

Line some bun tins with rice paper and have some circles of rice paper ready to place on the top. Heat the honey and the water gently in a heavy- based pan until all the water has evaporated, then stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon.

Whisk the egg white until it forms stiff peaks, then fold it into the honey and the sugar. Stir gently over a low heat until the mixture turns to caramel, then immediately add the almonds and the lemon rind and mix well.

Pour the almond mixture quickly into the prepared, lined bun tins, cover with another rice paper wafer and baking sheet, and weigh the turron down until it is properly set.

BANANA AND HONEY SORBET

This recipe was created by Anton Edelman, in his book Creative Cuisine (Pavilion pounds 12.99), which will be published in September.

Serves 6

600g/11/4lb ripe bananas

100g/31/2oz honey (orange blossom is good)

31/2 tablespoons sugar

Peel the bananas; there should be 400g/14oz net weight. Puree them in a blender or food processor.

Combine the honey, sugar and 100ml/31/2fl oz of water in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add this syrup to the bananas and mix well. Leave the syrup mixture to cool.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream machine or sorbetiere, according to the manufacturers' instructions.

Alternatively, you can pour the mixture into a large freezer-proof bowl, cover and freeze until almost set. Transfer it to a food processor and whizz until broken up and well mixed. Return to the bowl, cover and freeze for two hours or until almost set. Using a fork, mash the sorbet well to break it up. Cover and freeze again for about an hour. Just before serving, mash the sorbet once more.

If the sorbet is left in the freezer and has frozen very hard, transfer it to the fridge so it can soften slightly, for between 20 and 30 minutes before serving.

HONEY AND GINGER ICE-CREAM WITH A PLUM COMPOTE

Nothing beats a home-made ice-cream, write Paul and Jeanna Rankin in Gourmet Ireland (BBC pounds 15.99). Using quality ingredients ensures that. We always use an ice-cream machine as you cannot quite reproduce the same quality by hand. Fruit compotes provide an excellent accompaniment, but they can be a dessert in their own right with just a dollop of fresh cream.

Serves 6-8

For the ice-cream:

500ml/18fl oz milk

500ml/18fl oz whipping cream

2 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh root ginger

1/2 vanilla pod

12 egg yolks

150g/5oz caster sugar

100ml/31/2fl oz clear honey

chopped candied ginger to garnish

For the plum compote:

900g/2lb plums, halved and stoned

about 450g/1lb sugar, depending on the tartness of the plums

1/2 vanilla pod

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 slice orange

mint leaves to garnish

To make the ice-cream, put the milk, cream, ginger and vanilla pod in a large pan. Bring to the boil, remove from the heat and leave to infuse for an hour.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until light and fluffy. Return the milk mixture to the boil and then, whisking continuously, pour on to the egg yolk mixture. Return the whole mixture to the pan over a low heat, and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon. If you draw your finger across it, it will hold the line on the spoon. If it does not hold the line then it is not cooked enough. Remove from the heat when the right consistency has been reached and strain through a fine conical sieve. Leave to cool, stirring continuously then stir in the honey. Leave to cool.

Turn in to an ice-cream machine and proceed according to the manufacturer's instructions. Alternatively pour into a freezer container and freeze until firm, whisking every 30 minutes to break up the ice crystals. Candied ginger can either be sprinkled into the ice-cream during the final whisking or used as a garnish to sprinkle over it.

To make the plum compote, place all the ingredients in a large heavy- based pan and place over a low to moderate heat. Taking care that the sugar does not burn on the bottom, cook the compote for 10-20 minutes, carefully stirring occasionally, trying not to mash the plums, until they are soft. The time will depend on the size and ripeness and the plums. They should be soft but still hold their shape. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the juices released during cooking.

There is usually a lot of liquid released. Strain this off the plums back into a pan and boil until reduced by half to concentrate the flavour. However, if it is reduced too much, it tends to be bitter, so taste regularly.

Meanwhile, with the tip of a sharp knife, the job of skinning the plums should now be relatively easy. These plums can be kept in halves, quarters or chopped roughly. Serve the ice-cream in a brandy snap basket (see below), surrounded with the plum compote. Garnish with mint leaves.

BRANDY SNAPS

This delicate, crispy, lacy-looking biscuit can be shaped in various ways depending upon the intended use - it can be served on its own or as an accompaniment. If you like, you can freeze the batter to use later.

Makes about 24

120g/41/2oz unsalted butter

225g/8oz caster sugar

120ml/4fl oz golden syrup

120g/4oz plain flour

a pinch of ground ginger (optional)

Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a mixer, until they are light and fluffy. Heat the syrup gently until just warm enough to be in a more liquid state. This allows it to mix in better with the other ingredients. Slowly add to the butter and sugar mixture. If it is too warm, the butter will melt and this should be avoided . Slowly work in the flour and ginger, if using, and then place in the fridge for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Grease a baking sheet. Pat out spoonfuls of the batter, using a damp finger, to about 3cm (11/4in) in diameter and place on the baking sheet, leaving lots of room to allow for spreading. Don't try to cook more than a few at a time because after they are cooked and cooled slightly, they will only stay malleable for seconds.

Bake in the preheated oven for three to five minutes until they have spread, gone lacy and turned a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and do not touch for about one minute. They need this time to start to set. Using a palette knife lift and quickly shape each biscuit as needed. The inside of a bowl gives a lovely shape to serve ice-cream scoops in. If the biscuits harden before you have shaped them, just return to the oven for a few seconds and they will soften again. The biscuits will stay crisp for a couple of days if stored in an airtight container.

RENA'S BAKLAVA

This is a real mouth-opener, nothing like commercial baklava. The recipe comes from the distinguished Greek cook and food writer, Rena Salaman, and is published in The Baking Book, by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake (Conran Octopus pounds 20). It is made with commercial filo pastry, plenty of walnuts and some cinnamon.

Cuts into about 24 pieces

500g/1lb 2oz filo pastry

380g/131/2oz walnut pieces

2 tablespoons caster sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

185g/61/2oz unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons water from the cold tap

For the syrup:

330g/113/4oz granulated sugar or caster sugar

300ml/101/2fl oz water

1-2 cinnamon sticks, depending on their size and your tastes

2 teaspoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons clear honey, preferably Greek and thyme-scented

a roasting tin, about 30.5cm/12in in diameter if round or 37 x 25cm/141/2in x 91/4 if rectangular (see recipe)

If the pastry is frozen, thaw according to packet. Once unwrapped, keep it covered with cling film or a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Chop walnuts to the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Mix them with the sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

Unfold the filo sheets and choose a roasting tin that best fits their shape: round or rectangular. The sizes of tins suggested usually fit almost perfectly, but you can use other size tins and then fold in the edges of the filo sheets a little. Using a pastry brush, grease the tin liberally with melted butter.

Cover the bottom of the tin neatly with a sheet of filo and brush it with butter. Continue adding sheets, buttering each one. When you have layered about six sheets of filo, spread with about a third of the walnut filling. Cover with two more sheets of buttered filo and spread with half of the remaining filling. Place two sheets of buttered filo on top and spread evenly with the rest of the filling. Fold in the edges of the filo sheets all around to enclose the filling, rather like a parcel. Place the remaining filo on top, buttering each sheet before lifting it. Place the remaining filo on top, buttering each sheet before lifting it. Trim the excess pastry around the edges using a small knife or a pair of scissors - remember that filo pastry tends to shrink so do not trim too much.

Now comes the tricky part. Filo pastry is too brittle to be cut neatly after it has been baked, so the pieces have to be cut before it goes into the oven. Using a sharp knife cut the baklava carefully into oblong pieces. Ideally the pieces should be the same size, but if not it is not the end of the world. Sprinkle cold water over the surface with your fingertips: the moisture will prevent the pastry edges curling up.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then turn up the temperature to 190C/375F/Gas 5 and bake for a further 15-20 minutes or until the surface is crisp and light golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil. Add the remaining ingredients, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes to make a light, syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and let the syrup stand for 10 minutes.

Pour the syrup slowly through a fine sieve all over the warm baklava. Leave to absorb all the syrup. The baklava is delicious freshly made, but it will also keep very well for three or four days if covered tightly with clingfilm.

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