I was grateful for another good night’s sleep and awoke early, again before my alarm, then decided that if I was going to walk to the Research centre, then today had to be the day.Excited by a third day of Honey Sensory Analysis in mind I was quick to get myself up and out, including eating the random selection of dried foods I’d brought with me and a quick look out on the terrace that until now had always been in the dark when I had any time to enjoy it! Georgia (my inner critic) had argued with me about the pros and cons of washing my hair so early in the morning, with time so precious, and we also debated my choice of outfit for the day.
I’d recently got to know a stylist, Lindsay Punch, who had given me tips on dressing to suit my ‘style personality’ as well as how to maximise the contents of my wardrobe by mixing and matching. I had never even given clothes combination much thought, but was often faced with that all too common dilemma when looking into a full to bursting wardrobe declaring ‘I just don’t have anything to wear!’
A course I’d heard about, but hadn’t attended, was ‘building a capsule wardrobe’ which Lindsay runs regularly not only to help when travelling, but to assist with mixing and matching your current collection of clothes to give you the most options when selecting what to wear.
The past few years I’ve been making dresses for myself, using the same vintage 1940s pattern of a slightly fitted straight dress. It fits me like a glove, is easy to make, and I now have around 20 all in different fabrics, from silk and wool & tweed to summer cottons and linens. I’d brought along two of these dresses, a tartan wool one and my favourite ‘Bee Dress’. Georgia was of course reminding me that ‘who did I think I was’ wearing a bee dress amongst all these Bee experts. However, after a lovely evening getting to know them all, and with my suitcase not giving me too many alternatives ( I’d taken up valuable packing space with oat cakes & gluten free cereals!) With washed hair, I put on my bee dress and set off on the 50 minute walk to day 3 of the course.
I had been eager to see what lay above the grand steps by the central station and so using my map, and my iphone’s compass, I set off through the unfamiliar back streets towards the entrance to the park which would lead to the top of those steps.
November probably isn’t the best time to visit any garden, the piles of dead leaves and remnants of the previous week’s snow fall, made for a slightly untidy impression and it was quiet with the odd mum power walking buggies with toddlers to the nursery at the other side, and a few men ‘hanging around’. I walked with speed and purpose and luckily made a direct route through the park and arrived at the top of the grand stairway. It was a lovely view and worthy of a fanfare of sorts to descend to.
From my elevated position, I recognised a familiar figure walking beneath me, and after a swift descent, I was able to catch up with Domitille from Paris. We had a fascinating talk as we walked in together. We shared our interest in fabrics, as Domitille had working in the upholstery fabric industry for many years in Paris and London. I was also excited to learn of her reasons for being on the course and her plans for a honey website marketing and selling the best of the world’s honey. Domitelle was able to explain to me the meaning of the ‘Kiss & Ride’ signs I’d spotted during my walk. ( In case you were also wondering, it’s an area where you can drop off your loved ones, giving them a kiss before riding away!)
The atmosphere was both relaxed and focussed on this third day. All knowing each other a little better and appreciative that there was still much to learn, with little time left. A few of the delegates were leaving after todays session, leaving the rest of us to have a long morning of blind taste tests and sampling of honeys brought in from some of us.
“Lucia gave us samples of faulty honey to taste, one was tainted by the smoke that a beekeeper had used whilst extracting the honey, another was fermenting, and a third had pesticide residue.”
We studied in greater depth about the crystallisation process of honey and possible defects detectable both using technology and taste. We had a very inspiring tutor, Lucia Piana with awe inspiring credentials! With over 40 years experience working with honey related topics. As a biologist she spent her early career working as a honey analysist within a honey company, responsible for the quality control, physico-chemical, melissopalinological ( pollen analysis) and sensory. Since 1991, Lucia worked as a consultant for various research institutions and beekeepeing organisations still in the area of honey quality and teaching sensory analysis. She is one of the founders of Italian Register of Honey Sensory Experts. Her resume shows that she has spoken in more than 350 lectures and courses, conducted over 450 sensory training courses and seminars and written more than 150 technical articles on honey analysis, including ‘Apidologie’ a special issue booklet on European unifloral honeys.
Lucia gave us samples of faulty honey to taste, one was tainted by the smoke that a beekeeper had used whilst extracting the honey, another was fermenting, and a third had pesticide residue. We learned how the handling and storing of honey can affect it’s quality and longevity, storing honey in cans or heating in metal pans can also cause the flavour to be tainted. This presentation also taught us how valuable sensory analysis is as there are limits with testing honey using technology.
We ended the morning with more discriminatory triangle tests. I was feeling more confident about these tests after all of our knowledge and was eager to get started. We were offered, one after another, three honey samples. Two were the same and we had to note which they were by using appearance, aroma and taste. This was made more difficult by being advised that the samples could have been modified artificially to affect their consistency and colour. We were reminded how honey can have very different characteristics in it’s runny and crystallised forms.
These tests were also increasingly tricky as the honeys weren’t monofloral, but blends of two or more honeys! We were able to use our completed Single Origin note cards to remind ourselves of the descriptive words we’d use for the monofloral honeys over the previous two days, which did help, but also reminded me of how vague many of my descriptions were. This is where distinct childhood memories associated with the aromas and tastes really helped. Citrus, and lemon peel scents can be very confusing. For instance, sunflower honey can have a citrus aroma even with a hint of burnt orange peel, it tastes of marmalade, or even mango, definitely tropical fruit. Lemon or orange blossom honey, however, has a floral aroma to match the scent of it’s blossom, easy to recognise if you’ve visited an orchard of citrus fruits in blossom, not so obvious if not!
“….what exactly it did smell like and an Italian bug ‘cimice’ was mentioned. This had to be looked up for translation and became the infamous ‘stinky bug’, not something I’d come across before!”
Coriander was a honey I was so excited about tasting, but I was unable to recognise it each time it was presented. My notes state that it smelt like coriander seeds, but as a group we had a fascinating discussion about what exactly it did smell like and an Italian bug ‘cimice’ was mentioned. This had to be looked up for translation and became the infamous ‘stinky bug’, not something I’d come across before!
We tasted blends of honeysuckle with eucalyptus, citrus and rosemary, thistle with alfalfa and clover, Lime tree, tree of heaven, clover , rape and metcalfa were all examples of honeys used in the various blends.
This was an extremely difficult test as each sample was removed before the next arrived, so no opportunity to re taste or check the samples against one another. We were all more than ready for lunch after this and congregated outside for a brief burst of sunshine having our group photograph taken before Martin returned to Denmark and Finn & Sebastian to Germany that evening.
Gian and Raffaele tested us all after lunch on our knowledge of monofloral honeys, blind. one by one, wine glasses were p[assed around with a dollop or a drizzle of honey in for us to sniff, attentively observe, and finally taste, scribbling whatever descriptive words came to mind during the process, then writing down which variety of honey we believed we’d tested. Gian had produced another useful chart to help with grouping the various monofloral honeys with their aroma & taste categories. For instance, ‘Floral & Fruity’ honeys included citrus, thistle and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). The ‘Animal/ Coarse’ honeys included eucalyptus, dandelion and rape. You could have heard a bee buzzing at any point as there was no talking or discussing, just lots of sniffing and whisking of plastic spoons in wine glasses. We had fresh apples to cleanse our palettes with in between samples and drank copious amounts of water. It was incredible just how dehydrating honey tasting is.
During a brief respite after tasting the 18 varieties, we learned more about the technical side of honey analysis and EU requirements for honey labelling and processing. The science of melissopalynological analysis,( study of pollen in honey) osmophylic yeasts, (naturally present in honey) and honey microbiology, each subject worthy of a course or two in themselves.
The afternoon ended following a descriptive evaluation of two honey types including samples from course participants. The first selection was all of Linden ( Lime Tree) honey. With score cards to complete, guiding us through the judging criteria used in honey competitions. This was a whole new concept of analysis where scores were given to each sample, in each category, and any faults noted and marks deducted accordingly. We learned how important it was to be able to identify honeys as often a good honey can be entered into the wrong category, for instance a rape into a Lime tree group and so it would be marked down because it wasn’t an actual Lime Tree honey. A delicious Latvian sample was included from Sandris which interestingly didn’t have the sometimes distinctive bitter taste associated with Linden honey.
“A rogue rape honey was included in the test ensuring that we were all using our senses to their best capacity!”
The following test was with heather honeys including samples from Carl in Sweden and Laura’s Scottish variety. A fir honeydew sample had been placed in the selection to keep us in check!
Inspired and exhausted, we bade farewell to the three not staying on to our final day. Catching the bus back together we all made the most of the last evening enjoying Bologna, trying to find gifts to return home with and somewhere to eat before crashing exhausted into our beds for one last night.
Attendees on this final day would receive a National Register Certificate, and I was relieved to know that none of us were likely to fail or go home empty handed! We began with a recognition test of unifloral blends of honey, stretching our knowledge and experience to the limit.
As a respite between exams, we visited the sensory analysis laboratory where testing on new varieties of apples was taking place. It was interesting to see the small booths that enabled focus and protected from distractions whilst analysis was taking place.
We began with tasting honeysuckle honey as a reference which we needed to memorise , then samples were brought around to us with a variety of unifloral honeys added to the honeysuckle base. Not only were we to identify the added flavour, but also to estimate the percentage of the honey that was added! This was very difficult, and relief was found only when distinctive honeys, like chestnut & rape were added. The biggest surprise to me was how small the percentages were, the chestnut was merely 9.5% to the honeysuckle, I had guessed 25% as it was so distinctive! I was realising now that this practice was something that needed far more time and experience than four days. Only regular and consistent sampling would enable me to be able to identify such a vast quantity of honeys.
“I resolved during my last day, that I would now learn how to taste my own bee’s honey and by tasting single variety British honeys start to develop my own knowledge and sensory database.”
We had focussed on just 18 and yet barely any English plants were included so I realised I have quite a mammoth task ahead of me to learn the aromas and tastes of the honey that my own bees would be producing. I have seen plenty of rape honey, but was aware that my own bees are not in reach of rape and so was curious to learn what their honey was made up from. I have rosemary, mints, sages, borage and cosmos in my garden which I know they love. One hive is situated beneath a holly tree and I know that they adore the blossom on that. We also have a mixed fruit and a cider orchards, a manuka bush and fields surrounded by hawthorn, bramble and old man’s beard with ivy a plenty during the winter.
I resolved during my last day, that I would now learn how to taste my own bee’s honey and by tasting single variety British honeys start to develop my own knowledge and sensory database. By understanding what plants are making up the honey our bees produce, we can better understand the health of bees, why are they choosing one plant over another. Cardiff Botanical Gardens had recently performed a study on their own bees and the make up of their honey. Expecting the wide variety of exotic and non native plants to give the bees a veritable feast, and yet on testing the honeys they discovered quite the opposite, the predominant plants making up their honey were bramble, dandelion and other native species. Why might this be? Jacqueline Freeman writes that the bees self medicate, I like to believe this as I do feel they are far more in tune and connected to their environment and well being than we as humans are. As I progress with my Herbal Medicine studies I wonder if learning about the medicinal properties of various plants could relate to the health of the bees, and naturally can the medicinal properties of the plants be transferred to us through the honey? Many ancient peoples believed this but we are waiting for modern science to prove it so.
We were all sad when the course ended, all too soon, leaving many of us on a new path of discovery and able to take all our new found knowledge back to our bees and our homes.
My honey tasting has continued following a wonderful gift from Mr C, my first ever Fortnum & Mason’s hamper, with 7 varieties of honey, some British and a few citrus and thyme to keep my taste buds tingling and to be able to continue evolving my practice of sensory evaluation. I had also been given a tin of delicious greek honey, which I have identified as eucalyptus, but don’t quote me on that! I didn’t have plastic spoons, so I improvised, using chopsticks to whisk the honey and transport the liquid specimens onto my tongue.
There are two more courses that need to be completed before becoming recognised as a honey sensory analysist, each needs at least 6 months practice before the next. This was the first time the course had been taken in English, but it has inspired me for the first time ever to learn a language-Italian!