Food & Drink: As a sweetener, it's the bee's knees: Honeys derive their different flavours from the variety of flowers that bees feed on, and this distinctive tang can transform recipes

WHEN I was 18, I moved to London and my first bedsit. As bedsits go, it was extremely pleasant, airy and bright, with huge windows looking out over the trees and flowers of a private square. It had only two drawbacks: the sordid state of the shared bathroom, and my landlady's bees, which all too frequently left the pleasures of the great outdoors for a lengthy buzz around my territory.

I am not good with bees in a confined space, but the occasional offering of a jar of their honey sweetened their presence considerably. Unfortunately, there were no such compensations for the squalor of the bathroom.

In many ways, honey is like wine. Cheaper, commercially blended honeys are absolutely reliable. Find one you like and every jar will taste the same. More expensive and rewarding are the regional and single-flower honeys. Just as wine depends on grape variety, so the main characteristics of honey - flavour, colour, consistency - are dictated by the type of flower the bees sup on. Nature ensures variety from different terrains and, less obviously, from year to year.

Some area honeys, such as Jura, Gatinais or Schwarzwalder, depend on the local, multi-flowered flora for their individuality. This allows for a fair amount of variation from one producer to another, but the wild herb-strewn maquis of Provence yield a honey very different from that of, say, a northern European forest.

As for single-flower honeys, I prefer the strongly flavoured. I love the almost burnt, deep richness of chestnut flower honey; the aromatic scent of lavender honey perfectly balanced with a shot of acidity; the resinous clarity of lime-flower (tilleul) honey. I have just taken my first lick of pine-tree honey, which I found deliciously dark but perplexing. Surely pine cones do not provide much for a foraging bee? I found enlightenment in Sue Style's fascinating Honey, from Hive to Honeypot (Pavilion, pounds 9.99).

Honey has been credited with all sorts of medicinal properties, most in the realms of folklore. What has never been disputed is its value as a sweetener, which remains its principal use.

In cooking, it should be used with discretion. In terms purely of sweetness, four parts honey is usually reckoned to be roughly equivalent to five parts sugar. Theoretically, if you replaced the full 5oz sugar in a cake recipe with 4oz honey, reducing the liquid content slightly to compensate for the extra moisture, the cake would end up equally sweet. In practice, however, the flavour would probably be outrageously intense.

Two to three tablespoons of honey are usually enough to impart a generous waft of flavour to your average batch of cake batter or bread dough; it will also keep the cooked item moist, thus improving storability. If you want to use a set honey in a recipe that stipulates clear, runny honey (or if normally runny honey solidifies), liquefy it by standing the jar in a pan of warm water over a gentle heat.

DO NOT be tempted to use an expensive honey for this recipe; the intense heat would destroy its highlights. Double-brushing ensures that the glaze of soy sauce and honey cooks to a burnished, chestnut-coloured lacquer in the heat of the oven - a welcome contrast to the richness of the meat.

Lacquered Duck Breasts

Serves 2

Ingredients: 1 1/2 tbs clear honey

1tbs soy sauce

1/4 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder (optional)

2 boned duck breasts

salt and pepper

Preparation: Mix the honey and the soy sauce with the 5-spice powder and a generous grinding of pepper. Brush the mixture over skin of duck breasts. Leave for half an hour, then brush again with any remaining mixture. Place breasts, skin-side up, on a rack over a roasting tin.

Heat the oven to 240C/450F/gas 8. Roast the duck for 15 minutes, or a little longer if you like it fairly well done, if necessary covering with foil to prevent burning. Once cooked, turn the heat off, leave the door of the oven ajar and cover the duck with foil. Leave to relax for 10 minutes. Just before serving, slice the breasts and arrange on warm serving plates.

FRENCH madeleines, made famous by Proust, are traditionally baked in small, elongated, shell-shaped moulds, though they can equally well be baked in any small bun tin, as long as the depth of batter is no more than 3/4 in (2cm). A really good honey will sing through this recipe unimpaired.

Honey Madeleines

Makes about 20, depending on size of tins

Ingredients: 3oz (86g) butter, plus

extra to grease the moulds

2tbs honey

2 1/2 oz (70g) caster sugar

2 eggs

3oz (85g) flour

pinch of salt

Preparation: To grease the moulds, melt a small knob of butter and brush the tins generously with it. Melt the 3oz (85g) butter gently with the honey, then cool until tepid. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until thick and pale. Sift the flour with the salt and fold into the egg mixture, then fold in the butter. Spoon the batter into the moulds, filling about three-quarters full. Bake at 220C/ 425F/gas 7 for about 10 minutes or until a rich golden brown. Rap the tins against the work surface to loosen the madeleines, then turn out immediately, loosening with the tip of a knife if necessary. Cool on a wire rack.

THIS dark, intense sorbet benefits from being made with a strong, dark honey that can compete with the cocoa. It is extremely simple to make, but tastes rich and sophisticated.

Honey and Cocoa Sorbet

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 3oz (85g) caster sugar

2tbs honey

3tbs cocoa

Preparation: Place the sugar in a pan with 1/2 pint (290ml) water. Stir over a medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved, then bring to the boil. Draw off the heat and stir in the honey. Mix the cocoa to a paste with about 4-5tbs of water, then gradually add a further 1/4 pint (150ml) water. Mix in the honey syrup. Either freeze in a sorbetiere, or use the processor method: pour the mixture into a shallow container and freeze until solid. Break into chunks and whizz in a processor until smooth. Return to freezer. Either way, transfer sorbet to the fridge 10-15 minutes before serving, to soften enough to scoop.

THIS IS an Italian baked cheesecake, scented with honey (an aromatic one such as lavender or perfumed orange blossom is a good bet), lemon zest and freshly ground almonds. Buy unblanched almonds, still in their velvety brown skins, from good wholefood shops; they are cheaper than blanched, processed almonds, and often have a fresher flavour. Although ricotta is now sold in plastic tubs, it is worth obtaining it freshly made from an Italian delicatessen, as long as you use it within 24 hours.

Almond, Ricotta & Honey

Cheesecake

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 10oz (285g) shortcrust pastry

Filling: 3oz (85g) unblanched

almonds

1lb (450g) ricotta

3 eggs, separated

5tbs honey

3tbs caster sugar

pinch of salt

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

Preparation: Line a deep tart tin (2in/5cm deep by about 9in/22.5cm in diameter with removable base) with the pastry. Crimp the edges. Rest in the fridge for half an hour. Prick the base, line with foil or greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake at 190C/375F/gas 5 for 10 minutes. Remove beans and foil, and return to the oven for 3-5 minutes to dry out. Cool until tepid or cold. To make the filling, grind the unblanched almonds to a powder. Beat the ricotta until smooth, then beat in the egg yolks, honey, sugar, salt, lemon zest and juice, and the almonds. Whisk the egg whites stiffly and fold into the ricotta mixture. Spoon into the pastry case. Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 30-40 minutes until just set. Leave to cool in the tin, and chill for 4 hours. Unmould and serve.

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