Now I know just how sweet Van Morrison’s girl, his angel of the first degree, was to him.
Although as a youngun I thought she was “as sweet as stupid ol’ honey,” I’ve long since understood the correct lyrics, but hadn’t tasted the real thing until very recently.
She must have been one sweet mamma-jamma. I’ve never tasted anything like tupelo honey.
Part of the reason this was only a recent revelation is because I’ve never been able to find it around this area, although I see that Ann Arbor’s foodie magnet, Zingerman’s, now carries it. Could be because of its relative rarity; tupelo honey is produced in only one place in the world, and contrary to what you may have assumed, it’s not northeastern Mi’ssippi.
It comes from the pastel green blossoms of the tupelo gum trees growing thick on the banks of the Apalachicola, Choctahatchee and Ochlockonee rivers and their tributaries in northwest Florida. This is where the Peter Fonda movie, Ulee’s Gold, was filmed.
Producing pure tupelo honey is no easy deal. Bee colonies have to be stripped of all other stored honey — some of which is sold by low-lifes as pure tupelo at pure tupelo prices. Then clean hives are placed on elevated platforms along the rivers’ edges, hopefully just in time for the blossoms of April and May. Once the critters fill their empty hives, the pure, raw tupelo honey has to be pulled out before it can be tainted by other types. To make matters worse, and the honey even rarer, dry conditions in the swampy area last year wiped out almost the entire crop.
But I found a nice, corked, fluted bottle online for $18, and tasted it as soon as it arrived. In keeping with the habits retained by my inner child, I stuck a finger into the bottle, then into my mouth. Holy Hay-zeus. First there was this remarkable “clean” flavor, then the faintest taste of licorice, then this ineffable sweetness, unlike any I’ve tasted anywhere. As a recovering boozehound, I have a howling sugar jones, and this played right to the center of it.
Because its sugar content is nearly all fructose, it’ll never crystallize. Because it’s honey, it’ll never spoil (the only such food). And because it’s a very delicate flavor, I’ll only ever use it on my finger, or plain white scones or bread. Cornbread just isn’t cornbread without a thick slopping of honey, but in that case any type will do.
That’s what I’d suggest you do with the following recipe. And not too far into the future, I want to tell you not only some other things about honey in general, but also about one that’s even more exotic than tupelo — manuka, from New Zealand. Reading about it is like being hit with a snake-oil pitch, but I can testify to its many unusual qualities.
For now, grab a jar or bottle of whatever honey you have in the larder, and have at this fine dish, adapted from the recipe index at honey.com.
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup snow peas, cut into 1-inch pieces
1-1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 green onions, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
6 cups cooked white rice
1. In small bowl, whisk together honey, soy sauce, vinegar, cornstarch, orange peel and red pepper flakes until thoroughly mixed and cornstarch is dissolved. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in wok or large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in garlic and ginger; stir-fry until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add bell pepper and snow peas; stir-fry 1 minute until crisp-tender. Add shrimp and green onions; stir-fry until shrimp just turns pink, about 1 minute.
3. Stir in reserved soy sauce mixture; cook and stir until sauce boils and thickens. Serve over cooked rice.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]