A taste of honey

How sweet it is to have an abundance of the golden nectar at this time of year. So make your kitchen a hive of activity, says Mark Hix

I've become an obsessive collector of honey and wherever I travel I find myself picking up any jar I happen to see. I'll come across an eccentric small-time beekeeper selling his wares at a farmers' market, and before you know it, I've added another couple of jars to the line-up in my larder. Some might think honey is just a sweet, sticky commodity that lives with the jams, marmalades and other preserves on the supermarket shelf, but to the honey connoisseur it's something else. I don't usually do much more than dip into my jars to spread the magical golden stuff on to hot buttered toast or crumpets, but even more serious honey devotees use it as an extension of the medicine cupboard, for all sorts of ailments. They'll match the honey to the condition, too, using a local variety to treat hay fever and exotic manuka honey for ulcers. I'm obviously not alone in my obsession if a recent crop of books about honey is anything to go by. Bea Wilson's book The Hive will give you all the ins and outs of the honey bee and us. And another book, Honey and Dust (by Piers Moore Ede) about a quest for honey in far-flung places, has also won great reviews.

A year or so ago, a jar of honey arrived on my desk from a fellow forager, Andy Kress. What interested me about this was that it hadn't travelled far at all. His cycling buddy, Andrew Casson, has hives in the Romford area of Essex, and markets his clear, golden liquid as East End honey. It's a great name and it went straight on the menu at the Rivington, our East London English bistro, where it's served poured over hot drop scones and blueberries. It's our equivalent of maple syrup, which the Americans have with pancakes and bacon. In Italy I've eaten honey with hard cheeses as well as with freshly made warm ricotta, as we would eat our native cheeses with chutney or pickle.

Honey production is on the up in London - literally, in some cases. Many city beekeepers make honey in small spaces such as the roof tops. This helps out urban gardeners as these bees use gardens, wasteland, railway tracks and unspoilt spots where wild flowers and berries grow. Bees can collect a wide variety of nectars from fruit trees, flowers in gardens and allotments, and at the same time carry out and assist the natural pollination process.

If you want to join this merry band of apiarists contact the British Beekeepers' Association, www.bbka.org.uk will fill you in on what it takes. And do look out for all the jars of honey produced in all parts of the country; there's a fascinating story behind each one, and so much more you can do with this extraordinary food.

Maids of honour with East End honey

Makes 12 tarts

These delicate little tarts date back to 1525 when Henry VIII came across a group of Queen Catherine of Aragon's maids of honour eating some dainty little cakes and giggling uncontrollably. He joined them and tasted the cakes. Back at court he got the pastry cook to make some for him and they became afternoon favourites among the courtiers. The delicious little tarts didn't have a name, so he called them after the group of Queen Catherine's maids, which, more than the cakes, had obviously been what attracted him in the first place. By the way, Anne Boleyn was one of the maids and became his wife.

I've made these before slightly larger as a dessert and they are delicious with summer fruits in season or served just with honey. I'm sure Henry VIII would approve of a little East End honey drizzled over his maids of honour!

Neals Yard Dairy has a great creamy goat's curd made by Charlie Westhead at their creamery in Herefordshire in case you can't find curd cheese anywhere.

220g good quality puff pastry, rolled as thinly as possible (about 2mm)
220g soft curd cheese
1 small egg, beaten
Grated zest of 1 medium lemon
15g melted unsalted butter
60g caster sugar
4-5tbsp clear honey

Prick the pastry all over with a fork and cut into 12 x 8cm rounds for small tarts or 6 x 16cm rounds for dessert-sized ones, with a fluted or plain pastry cutter.

Put the discs of pastry into greased muffin or small tart tins, preferably non-stick, pressing the edges with your thumb and forefinger to form a neat edge slightly higher than the tin. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Line the tins with discs of greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is lightly coloured.

Meanwhile beat together the cheese, egg, zest, butter and sugar. Remove the paper and beans and pour the mixture into the cases. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until the filling is just set and a light golden. You may have to allow a little longer for larger ones. Leave to cool a little, turn out and serve warm.

Honey and ginger roast duck with grapefruit salad

Serves 4

Honey, duck and citrus are classic combinations. This time though I've used grapefruit. I'm planning to use more grapefruit over the summer as, apart from at breakfast, we don't make enough of it. I've used grapefruit juice in the dressing here instead of vinegar to really give it a citrus kick and with some peppery leaves such as rocket it makes an interesting and refreshing summer, or spring salad.

4 large duck legs
1tbsp grated root ginger
2-3tbsp clear honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large grapefruit, pink or golden
60-70g small well flavoured salad and herb leaves such as rocket, sorrel, watercress, land cress etc
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5tbsp extra virgin rapeseed or olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Chop the knuckle off the duck legs with a heavy knife. Season them, scatter with the grated ginger and pour over the honey. Cook the duck legs in the oven for 1 1/2 hours, basting them every so often. f

Meanwhile, peel the grapefruit with a sharp knife and remove the segments by cutting them out of the skin with a sharp knife, reserving any juice in a bowl, and squeezing the remains of the membranes to get every last drop of juice. Cut each segment in half, adding any escaping juices to that you've already got. Fish out any pips from the bowl and whisk the oil into it. Season to your taste.

Dress the leaves and toss with the grapefruit segments, then arrange on serving plates with the duck leg in the centre, brushed with a little of the honeyed cooking liquid.

Chestnut honey mascarpone and pistachio cheesecake

Serves 6-8

Cheescakes can be made with and given all sorts of fruity or other sweet toppings. Here I've cut down on the usual sugar content and added chestnut honey. This usually comes from Italy and can be found in delis and good supermarkets, or you could use another clear blossom honey such as lavender or cherry.

120g digestive biscuits or Hobnobs
60g butter, melted for the cheesecake
500g cream cheese such as mascarpone
200ml double cream
60g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1tsp vanilla essence
100g clear honey
50g shelled weight of pistachio nuts
1/2 tbsp icing sugar

In a food processor crush the biscuits to a coarse breadcrumb-like consistency. To do this by hand, put the biscuits in a plastic bag and smash with a rolling pin. Mix the biscuit crumbs with the melted butter.

Press the biscuit mixture into the base of a 14-18cm round or square removable-bottomed cake or deep flan tin (or one of those with a side that unclips) with greaseproof paper. Because the cheescake is soft, the sides of the tin must be detachable. Pack the biscuit mixture into the tin, firming it down with the back of a spoon.

Pre-heat the grill. Chop two thirds of the pistachios then line a grill tray with foil and mix the rest of the pistachios with the icing sugar and lightly toast under the grill for 4-5 minutes, turning them with a spoon every so often until they are lightly caramelised. Keep your eyes on them, and don't have them too close to the grill.

Using a mixing machine or by hand, whip the double cream and sugar until fairly stiff. In a clean bowl, again by machine or hand, soften the cream cheese then add the whipped cream with the lemon zest, vanilla essence and chopped pistachios.

Gently stir in two thirds of the honey - not too thoroughly as you want it to form a ripple effect. Now spoon the mix on to the biscuit base, leaving the top a bit rough. Leave to set in the fridge for 2-3 hours until firm.

Remove the cheesecake from the tin - you may need to run a hot knife around the edge - then slide it on to a serving dish. Spoon over the rest of the honey and scatter over the toasted pistachios.

Fried aubergines with honey

Serves 4-6

This may seem like the most unlikely combination, and you might wonder if it's a dessert or a savoury snack. Like tomatoes, the aubergine is a fruit and it can go either way, turning up in sweet and savoury recipes. The Greeks even make a sugary preserve out of it. Sweet or savoury, it's good whatever you call it.

1 aubergine, halved lengthways and thinly sliced or 5-6 small Japanese aubergines, quartered lengthways
125g self raising flour
250ml water
1/2 tsp salt
Vegetable oil for frying
3-4tbsp clear honey

Mix the flour and enough water to make a thick batter and season with a good pinch of salt, then leave to stand for 10 minutes.

Heat about 8cm of oil in a deep fat fryer or heavy sauce pan to about 180C.

Dip the pieces of aubergines in the batter and fry a few pieces at a time until golden then drain on some kitchen paper while cooking the rest.

Drizzle with honey and serve immediately with chopped mint if you have any.

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