Don’t forget the honey… honey! That’s exactly what I would say to anyone visiting Greece. Yes, you may accuse me of being biased, and I admit, I probably I am, but I do believe that Greek honey is the best in the world. And I have ample support on this from health experts and chefs to royalty and gourmands who come to Greece seeking this specialty food item.
For us Greeks, honey is everywhere. It is extrinsically linked with our culture, our summers, our breakfasts in the village or by the sea, it can be found in our traditional sweets and in our drinks and is believed to be a divine gift.
The Bee in Ancient Greece
To this day, beekeeping is still a primary source of income for many Greeks in the countryside but the practice dates back to ancient times and to Minoan Crete, where bees were considered sacred and as such celebrated in intricate tomb decorations.
Actually, did you know that Mycenaean tholos tombs are beehive shaped? Back then… priestesses worshipping Artemis and Demeter, the goddesses of hunt and harvest, were called “melisses” which means “bees”.
At the same time, the “Thriae”, a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses (nymphs to be precise, with a human head and a bee’s body) could foresee the future. Objects of art dedicated to them were found on the island of Rhodes. The beehive and its complex operational system also inspired Aristotle to coin a metaphor describing a particular political model.
Greek Wild Honey: The Varieties
So it’s no wonder that some 2,500 years later, we continue to worship the bee and its delectable gift to us: honey. Greece produces some of the world’s finest aromatic honey. The diverse landscape and the mild climate contribute to the wide variety of wild honeys available, including my favourite, “vanillia” (a thick, not very sweet honey from the mountains of Arcadia in the Peloponnese), “pefkomelo” from pine trees, “anthomelo” (honey tasting of wild flower blossoms), “meli elatis” (fir tree honey), the latest – “meli koumarias” (from the arbutus berry), “oxymelo”, a sharp-tasting honey which beekeeping experts say dates back to antiquity, and of course, the uniquely Greek “Thymarisio” (the golden-coloured, thyme honey).
Besides the taste and versatility of this natural wonder, research points to nutritional and pharmaceutical benefits of Greek honey. In post-war Greece, when there was a lack of food, “houmeli” – a mixture of honey and water reduced into a dark-coloured syrup drizzled with olive oil on bread for lunch – nourished generations of Greek youngsters. And to this day, the bride and groom are still treated to a tablespoon of honey and walnuts on their wedding day to “ensure” a sweet and harmonious bond.
How Greek Honey Sneaks into English Words
When you describe someone as “mellistalaktos”, you are referring to the one whose mouth “drips of honey”, speaking a word ever so sweet.
The gift of eloquence is bequeathed upon those whose “lips are anointed with honey”. And even the Father of the Gods, Zeus himself, was raised on honey, nursed by the nymph “Melissea” (bee).
In Greek, honey is used to mean sweetness of body, mind and soul. And when there’s Greek in English, linguistic hints of “meli” (honey) appear in words such as mellow, melody, mellifluous, melodrama…
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All You Need to Know About Greek Honey
There are many varieties of Greek honey. Try them and all. Remember the most popular is the “thymarisio” thanks to its light but aromatic taste.
- Most of Greece’s islands have their own varieties of honey – each with a unique taste and color depending on the flora and the weather conditions. Among the best in the world is the honey from Kythira island, said to be found on the breakfast table of Britain’s royal family.
2. Greeks use honey in a wide variety of their sweets from the famous traditional Cretan “myzithropita” (myzithra cheese pancakes with honey) to the world-famous baklavas, honey-dipped classics melomakarona cookies, and diples (ultra thin turnovers) prepared for Christmas and New Year’s. Go here for recipes and suppliers.
3. Make sure to taste the famed myzithropites when on Crete: a paper-thin treat, crisp to perfection, with the subtle sweet and sour taste of the local myzithra cheese heightened to the divine by the golden drops of Cretan honey. [Hint: the finest-tasting myzithropita ever I found one lucky day in the village of Kato Symi.]
4. In the Cyclades, the famed sesame honey bar the “pasteli” – which is not only a Greek version of a super healthy breakfast bar but is traditionally offered at island weddings on a lemon tree leaf as a symbol of health and prosperity.
The ubiquitous and all-time favourite “loukoumades” dipped in honey, covered in chocolate, almonds or cinnamon and served at home or at “panegyria” (open-air fairs).
And lastly, don’t forget to sample the intoxicating “rakomelo” – a traditional alcoholic drink made with luke warm honey and “raki” served in shots on Crete or “psimeni” – a similar version made of “tsipouro”, herbs and honey on the Greek island of Amorgos.
✓ Where can I buy Greek honey?
If you’re visiting Greece, I strongly suggest you first ask a local at the hotel, kafénion (coffee house), or taverna if they know anyone selling honey. Sometimes you can find local honey at cafes or mini-markets. You can also stop on the side of the road where bee-keepers often sell their products. If you’re abroad, buy online or visit Greek food products shop in town.
✓What is Greek honey called?
✓What is the best Greek honey?
This really depends on your preference. Do you want your honey aromatic? The why not try anthomelo. Seeking something with zing and dozens of health benefits? Then definitely get some “meli elatis vanillia” from Mt Menalon in Arcadia made from the local black pine tree. This is also a PDO product (Protected Designation of Origin). And of course, the smooth thyme honey from Kythira island.
✓Honey events in Greece
Every year, Athens hosts a three-day Greek Honey and Bee Products festival. Honey-inspired events are also held on the Greek islands particularly during summer. Don’t miss out.
✓What are the health benefits of Greek Honey
Honey is rich in plant compounds and antioxidants, which may help reduce risk of heart attacks, strokes and some types of cancer. Studies have also found that honey consumption may improve cholesterol levels. What’s more, in the past, honey was (and still is) used in Greece to heal burns or wounds and to relieve a sore throat.
♪ We conclude today’s sweet post with a song from the 1955 classic Greek film “Laterna, Ftoheia kai Filotimo” starring Tzeni Karezi and Vassilis Avlonitis performing Manos Hadjidakis’ “To Fili Sou Einai Meli” (Your Kiss is Like Honey).