Feb. 22, 2017

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Eight weeks ago, if you had asked me if fermented honey was even possible, I would have said no. But then I was working on a fermentation story for Bon Appétit‘s February issue, and I came across a mention of thick, fermented honey at Butcher and Bee in Nashville, T.N., where it’s served with whipped feta and cracked black pepper. I mentioned the dish to my colleague Amanda Shapiro, the editor of Healthyish, who promptly tasked me with finding out what exactly fermented honey is.

Still, I was skeptical. I knew that, in addition to being a rock star for your immune system, honey is antimicrobial. It’s great at soothing a scratchy throat and at lasting indefinitely in your pantry, but not at harboring healthy yeast and bacteria (essential elements for fermentation). After a few dead-end interviews with honey makers and Google searches showing up nothing but mead and other fizzy kombucha-like drinks, I turned to nerdier resources, namely our in-house fermentation guru Amiel Stanek. I explained my dead ends, and he thought for a while. “If anyone can ferment honey, Cortney and Nick can,” he said, referring to Cortney Burns and Nick Balla, the co-chefs of Motze, whose cookbook is an experimental-food-lover’s bible.

Sure enough, right there in the Bar Tartine book, nine lines and a recipe were dedicated to the subject. They’d done it, and, based on the picture, they’d even achieved that jammy texture I’d heard about from Butcher and Bee.

To find out more, I called Burns. “It’s totally possible,” she confirmed. She’d found a jar of fermented honey at the famed food co-op Rainbow Grocery about six years ago and liked its complex flavor so much that she started making large batches of her own for the restaurant.

The key, as with most fermented foods, is to find raw, minimally processed honey, ideally with the cappings (crunchy bits of propolis and honeycomb) still included. “If it’s ultra-pasteurized, there’s no way you’re going to get anything to live in that,” Burns explained. To weaken the honey’s super sterile environment, she stirs in a small amount of water. “You’re making it a volatile substance, but also allowing more healthy bacteria to come in and change the landscape.” After a few days on the counter, the honey bubbles like a sourdough starter and starts to smell like turned orange juice.

At Motze, Burns folds the fermented honey into a peanut butter truffle as a replacement for refined sugar. The “treat of all treats,” she says, is spreading it over seeded bread with apple butter and salty nut butter.

Burns also connected me with Frantz Walker, the owner of Really Raw Honey, who had made the jar she picked up at Rainbow so many years ago.

Walker usually produces unfiltered raw honey from bees in upstate New York, but, sometimes, because of humidity in the air or more moisture in a batch of honey, his stock spontaneously ferments. “I would give the jars away because I didn’t think anyone would want to buy them,” Walker said. But then doctors at the Weston A. Price Foundation, known for popularizing the Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet, heard about it and bought a few pallets to promote it as a digestion aid.

Walker’s fermented honey comes with dark sediment at the top of each jar. “In the beginning, the beekeepers couldn’t believe anyone would want to buy something like this,” he said. “It didn’t look good.” Walker had to build special relationships with his beekeepers and pay them “a lot more than they were used to being paid for honey” to leave in the unglamorous bits of pollen, honeycomb, and debris.

The company sells its fermented honey exclusively online because of its niche following. Each batch happens literally by accident, which makes it pretty hard to come by. (His unfermented raw honey is available at Whole Foods and many health food stores nationwide and looks identical, save for a frothy layer on top of the jar.)

When Walker sent a few jars to our office, I couldn’t help but dip a spoon in for a taste—after all the research, I deserved it. The complex floral flavor instantly coated my mouth. It was unlike anything I’d ever tried: tangy yet sweet and thick like Marshmallow Fluff.

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