On the trail of Western honey.
DO YOU TRAVEL TO collect honey? It's not as strange as it might seem. Searching out the West's specialty honeys is a sweetly rewarding pursuit--and great fun when you're on vacation or traveling around the West. All 13 Western states produce honey; California is the top honey-producer in the nation. Distinctive Western plants and climates support many different-tasting honeys.
FOLLOWING THE BEES
What bees eat makes a difference. The nectars they collect from flowers within a 1-mile radius of the hive determine the honey's aroma, flavor, body, and color. A great variety of flower nectars accounts for the diverse flavors of Western honeys. Alfalfa, clover, dandelion, star thistle plants, and sunflower are the most common nectar sources. Other plants valued for the flavors they impart to honeys are buckwheat, eucalyptus, mesquite, sage, and thyme. Avocado, blueberry, lavender, orange blossom, raspberry, and a blend of wildflower nectars also flavor Western honeys.
Western climates affect the honeys as well. Drier climates have plants with drier nectars, resulting in lower-moisture, thicker honeys.
LOOKING FOR REGIONAL HONEYS
Point your car toward the desert states of New Mexico and Arizona to locate mesquite honey, a light-colored honey with a mild flavor.
If you get to the mountain states of Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, check out the classic clover honey. (Clover honeys do not all taste the same.)
In Washington and Alaska, search for fireweed honey. The farther north it's produced, the paler and milder the honey will be--some is almost clear.
Tropical Hawaii produces two special honeys, macadamia nut and lehua (made from nectar of the lehua tree). Lehua has a pronounced flavor with a slightly salty aftertaste. It's frequently sold as creamed honey because it tends to crystallize. Macadamia nut honey, on the other hand, is very slow to crystallize. It has a nutty flavor and aroma.
Specialty regional honeys are frequently packaged by small honey producers. You'll find them in specialty food shops, farmers' markets, and health food stores. State and county fairs also feature honey, and sometimes sell honeycomb-on-a-stick.
If you want to dive into a serious honey search, call the local beekeepers or honey producers' associations of the state in which you're interested. In Alaska, call the Department of Natural Resources, (907) 745-7200; in Arizona, contact the USDA Research Service, (602) 670-6380.
Once you get home with your honey, don't be alarmed if it crystallizes. Many honeys naturally become opaque and hard within days of being harvested; some never do. Honey producers can't control crystallization; it depends on the honey's components. Honeys high in glucose tend to crystallize more readily than those higher in fructose.
If honey crystallizes, make it liquid again by heating the jar (without the lid) in hot water or in a microwave oven at full power, checking at 20-second intervals.
COOKING WITH HONEY
The unique chemical structure of honey makes it ideal for baking. It's hygroscopic, which means it holds moisture in baked products.
You can substitute honey for sugar in muffins, cornbread, and breads, but be sure to reduce another liquid proportionally to take into account honey's liquid and its hygroscopic qualities.