In medieval times, Catalan cooking was one of the most important cuisines of the Mediterranean and formed the bluepring of classical Catalan cookery as we know it today. Its influences were many: the dishes of Naples and Sicily, in particular, since they were tied to the Catalan-Aragonese crown, but also those left behind by Roman and Moorish invaders. The result is an eclectic mix of dishes and recipes, and a level of sophistication quite different to anything else in Spain.
The Libre del Coch - one of the earliest cookbooks - was written by the cook to King Ferran of Naples, and published in Barcelona in 1520. It describes a lavish style of cooking that incorporated the skills that previous conquerors had left behind with the bounty of the Catalan seas and lands. As time progressed, the cuisine of this land evolved into one of the most sophisticated in Europe, spawning super chefs like Ferran Adrià and some of the world's most innovative restaurants.
In his paper on the development of traditional and modern Catalan cooking, Fernando Orejas of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya suggests that what makes modern Catalan cuisine so great is its use of "strange food combinations" including the mix of "dessert ingredients like fruits, honey, cinnamon or chocolate" in savoury dishes.
Pigeons, for example, were prepared with a marinade of rose water and honey, not dissimilar to the revered pigeon pastilla of Marrakesh palaces. Contemporary texts, such as Colman Andrews's Catalan Cuisine, which turns up time and again as the single most useful source of information in English on contemporary Catalan cooking, cites several recipes that call for honey in a savoury dish: fried aubergines drizzled with wild mountain honey, for example; and bacallà amb mel (salt cod with honey), a mountain dish dating back to the 17th century. "If sweet and salt are balanced skillfully," Andrews writes, "the result can be extraordinary."
Up until the 16th century, honey was the most important sweetener in Europe: a situation that only changed with the advent of sugar cane as an economic heavyweight from the plantations of North America. The use of honey in cooking, however, goes back to the beginning of time, or at least to the beginning of people keeping records about what they ate.
The first traces of honey as an important food date back to 7000 BCE to a Neolithic rock painting in the Araña cave at Bicorp near Valencia, which depicts a man collecting wild honey from a tree. The oldest written reference to honey is believed to be Egyptian, dating back to about 5500 BCE when Lower Egypt was also known as Bee Land. Fossils of honey bees, however, have been discovered that date back some 150 million years. In short, few foods are older.
Bees traditionally are creatures of habit and will travel up to two miles in search of nectar, typically returning to the same type of plant again and again. Before re-entering their hive after a nectar-collecting mission they dance a little wiggle at the entrance, their stingers pointed in the direction of their nectar stash. The greater the wiggle, evidently, the better the stash of nectar and the better their friends' chances of making excellent honey.
Honey itself is the substance that is formed after the nectar collected by the bees from the blossoms of trees and plants is deposited into the waxy honeycomb. Evaporation of water makes it thick and viscous. And of all foods, including wine, it is perhaps the substance that best expresses from whence it came, reflecting completely the taste and smell of herbs and flowers. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all is that without honey we'd be missing about one third of all the food we eat. Plants provide the bees with food. In return, the bees carry cross-fertilising pollen from one plant to the next. Without one there would be none of the other. Not only would we have less of the green stuff, but there would be less to feed livestock and, eventually, humans too. The worrying thing about this is that beekeeping is a dying tradition with fewer and fewer folks entering the world of apiary.
Lucky for us then that Spain remains an important centre of beekeeping with productions today ranging from the most primitive to the most advanced in the world. There are roughly 2.5 million hives in Spain, about 70 percent of which are tended by professional apiarists (beekeepers). These produce about 300,000 metric tonnes of honey a year, much of which is exported to Germany, the UK and France. The most common type is milflores (a thousand flowers), a blend that tends to be sweet and mild such as Granja San Francisco honey, Spain's number-one brand. Indeed, if you are cooking with honey, there is little point in using anything more refined or expensive since the flavour breaks down on heating. Avoid the commercial stuff, however. In this type the bees have been fed on a sugar water solution and the resulting honey is sickly-sweet and flavourless. Like most foods in a world increasingly conscious of the shortest distance from source to plate, it's worth seeking out the small, local producers.
Those who enjoy honey on their bread, use it in salad dressings or partake of the traditional Catalan dessert mel i mató (honey and curd cheese), will reap the rewards of investing in single-variety honeys and experimenting with taste and texture. Wild honeys have a more complex flavour and a thicker, coarser texture that crystallises when left to stand, and tend to come from single plants. They are knowns as 'monofloral' honeys and there are about 300 different kinds in the world. Those of us resident in Barcelona have one of the best sources if honey in the region right here on our doorstep: the artisan food market that takes place on the first Friday and Saturday of the month in Plaça del Pi is an excellent source of small, independent honey harvesteres who sell rosemary, lavendar, eucalyptus and chestnut honeys as well as milder orange blossom and clover.
A report in the September 2005 issue of Health and Age, by Susan Aldridge, confirmed that including honey in your diet can increase your intake of antioxidants but, until now, the actual proven health benefits of honey have been negligible. Regardless, it has earned itself a reputation as the healthy sweetener despite being higher in calories than sugar. Beekeepers' blogs and apiary magazines believe it has some magic to it. The truth is that it is such an incredibly complex substance that we don't really know what it can do for us. Certainly, a spoonful a day will do you no harm.
RECIPE: BACALLÀ AMB MEL
Adapted from Colman Andrews's Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret (available in Castilian, Catalan and English)
Combine 60g plain flour and 1tsp dried yeast in a bowl with a pinch of salt. In another bowl beat one egg, 1tbsp honey and about 60ml water to form a batter. Mix in the flour mixture and beat until it forms a batter thick enough for coating. In another bowl, mix 1tbsp honey with 60ml water and set aside. Cut 750g of desalted salt cod into 1-inch cubes. Heat olive oil in a deep pan until hot. Dip the salt cod cubes in the honey batter and fry until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper. Arrange on small heaps of shredded escarole lettuce dressed with vinegar. Drizzle with honey water to finish. It makes an impressive and unusual winter starter.
First published in November 2005