Far earlier than olive oil, long before wine, Greeks fell in love with honey. In ancient Greece, the bee, as well as its products, found itself in high place in the estimate of the people and the men in power. Proof of this constitutes the large quantity of mythological references and representations in ancient Greek vessels of mainly 6th century B.C. These facts prove the significant place of bee products in the daily life, as food but also as therapeutic means. Greek honey is globally famous for its exceptional quality, its unique aroma and its rich taste. Its great diversity in terms of flavour and aroma sets it apart from its competitors, fuelling its international recognition. This advantage to a great extent derives from the rich Greek flora, which comprises numerous wild plants land herbs.
In Greece, 12,000 tons of honey are produced annually. (flower honey). The vast majority of forest honey production is the pine honey, fir honey and oak honey. These types of honey do not crystallise and have high nutritious value due to their high content in trace elements (potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron etc).
In flower honeys, unmixed categories are classified such as the famous thyme honey, the full aroma orange honey, heather honey, chestnut honey, the rich in antibacterial attributes cotton honey and several types of flower honey which are mainly collected by aromatic plants of the Greek countryside, like wild oregano, wild lavender, salvia, and many more.
Today, there are about 25,000 beekeepers in Greece and about 1.3 million hives. Despite the density of hives - one sees them all over the countryside – production is relatively limited. Figures vary depending on the source, but production is fairly stable from year to year. Beekeepers move their hives from place to place, slope to slope, field to field, in order to reap the rewards of the season and provide fodder for their hives. The season begins in March and ends around November in the southernmost parts of Greece. In May, when orange trees bloom, bees are taken to feed off their inebriating flowers. July is the season for thyme honey; September for pine; and May and September for heather, which blossoms twice. As a general rule, the honey is harvested right after the feeding period to ensure the best flavor.
Certainly honey was the first – and for quite a while the only – sweetener Greeks had in their diet. Even now, it remains the most prestigious one. With its importance from ancient times, honey, along with the olive and the grape, marked the beginning of Greek gastronomy and a cuisine that retains its unique and original aspects today.
Cheesecakes sweetened with honey are still found all over the Greek islands, especially at Easter. The chefs of Byzantium simmered Greek honey to pour over their famous layered sweets, baklava, galakobourico, kadayifi, and the fried doughnnut – like puffs called loukmades, all sweets still savored in today’s Greek kitchen.
In cooking, honey adds flavor in a way that other sugars cannot. Greek cooks well recognize this, which is why honey still plays a major role in Greek cuisine. Honey is utilized not just in desserts, but often as an element in classic stews such as stifado and the intriguing kapama from Corfu. In Crete it is sometimes used as a marinade and tenderizer for lamb and added to various meat stews at the end, simmering until it caramelizes. Contemporary chefs mix it with raisin vinegar and orange juice and use it as a sauce for everything from seafood to salads.
There are dozens of books having Greek honey as their main theme, exalting this wonderful product of the Greek nature. Characteristically enough, there have never been any negative critiques on Greek honey – only positive comments, because Greek honey, whether it comes from Crete, the Peloponnesos, Thassos, Epiros, any of a thousand islands or Mount Hymettos in Attica, it invites every one who tastes it into the love affair that Greeks have forever relished.