First published in The Franklin Journal
“Most honey is made by bees. But sourwood honey is made by bees and angels.” wrote Carson Brewer, an American journalist and conservationist, known for his documentation of the folk life of the surrounding Appalachian communities of East Tennessee.
I first became acquainted with the rare delicacy of sourwood honey when a friend brought a small jar of it back from Tennessee. I’m sure she was perfectly aware I would fall in love with it. I’d say Mr. Brewer was spot on. There’s nothing sour about sourwood honey. This honey tastes like the sweetest droplets from heaven. It is light colored, with a classic, nearly clear, appearance, although, it darkens with age. Some say it’s spicy or reminds them of gingerbread. I say these are background notes which harmonize perfectly well with the overall butter/caramel tasting goodness, forming a symphony for your mouth. It’s no wonder Tennessee has made biscuits, slathered in sourwood honey, its official food!The sourwood tree (oxydendrum arboretum is a bit fickle. It’s hard to transplant and keep growing. Here in the United States it grows from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, but best in the Southern Appalachians, with the largest in the world on the west side of the Smoky Tennessee Mountains and growing as tall as 100 feet. The leaves are pointed, oval and green, turning bright yellow, red and purple in the fall. Their flowers do not produce nectar everywhere the tree grows and the blooming time of the tree’s delicate, bell-shaped, creamy, white flower (think lily-of-the-valley) is June – August. Care needs to be taken that bees brought in to harvest the nectar are not brought in too soon, so that they don’t harvest from other flower sources, such as the sumac. If there’s even the smallest of a percentage of other varietals, the honey cannot be sold as sourwood. On the other hand, if the bees arrive too late, they miss the beginning flow of nectar. The honey starts flowing in August, but the success of each crop can fluctuate, depending on the rainfall, or rather the lack of it, affects the quantity of nectar. Last year the crop was not plentiful. This year, according to reports from various harvesters, it is expected to be epic.
For thirty-nine years the “Black Mountain Sourwood Festival” has been held in August each year to celebrate this liquid, golden sunshine. Attendance is more than 30,000 and is designed to be family oriented. No alcohol is served, but according to the local paper, Citizen-Times, you’ll find plenty of crafts, food – especially those options made with honey, music, kid’s activities and of course lots of bottled sourwood honey! Black Mountain, North Carolina sounds like a charming place to visit with great restaurants; golf courses; breweries; hiking; and within driving distance of other tourist friendly attractions. I think I have to put visiting here on my travel bucketlist!
I think any honey should be used sparingly, as the flavor should be complimentary, not overpower. This honey truly is liquid gold, so I am particularly, selective using it. As most honey coming from trees, it doesn’t crystallize. It’s a welcome addition to chamomile or lavender tea. Drizzle it lightly over roasted sweet potatoes. Mix it with basil and add to a ham sandwich. It’s excellent as a dip for fruit, served with a selection of cheddar cheeses and almonds.
Tennessee has biscuits, but Maine has King and I English muffins, made in Franklin County, by Dennis and Sara Wilk. They have just the right balance of nooks and crannies to accommodate a pleasant serving of sourwood. Remember, you don’t need much for it to be satisfying.
So now you want to know where to get your own stash of sourwood honey. You can take a trip into the region where it’s made, of course, where you’ll find companies that market it commercially, as well as folks who bottle it and sell right from their garage. For many of us that’s not a convenient option and will have to resort to the kindness of friends or have it shipped. I connected with folks in the Appalachian region to ask for sourcing suggestions. Two readily floated to the top. Tennessee Mountain, which is where my current supply is from and Savannah Bee Company which gets high ratings for shipping. They sell it in regular jars or elegant, fluted, bottles.
Honey is delicious and versatile. Keep in mind, it shouldn’t be fed to infants 12 months or younger.