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Kitchen Index Irish Kitchen Library

Ireland, the land of milk and honey
by Hartson O'Doud

The remarkable honey story as learned on a visit to Ireland.

Ireland has been described by many poets and story-tellers as the land of milk and honey, and there is little doubt that there was milk and honey in abundance in earliest times. Numerous references and legends refer to Ireland’s sweet honey. Up to the end of the 12th century, when sugar was introduced by an Anglo-Norman baron, honey was the only sweetener in Ireland. However, it took until the 16th century before sugar was being used as a sweetener by the common folk.

Honey was so important in early Ireland that a whole section of the Brehon Laws was devoted to bees and beekeeping. Tributes were paid in honey and no banquet table was complete without honey and mead, the legendary drink made from it. Honey was used not just for cooking, but also for basting, and as a condiment in which to dip meat, fowl and fish at the table.

At a number of Bed and Breakfast homes in Ireland, they have a few hives in their gardens, where the bees gather pollen from the apple blossoms and flowers in the gardens nearby, and reward their owners with delicious comb honey for family and guests, even in a poor year. There’s still a charming, yet poignant custom in many parts of Ireland that if a death occurs in a family, one must go down to the hive to ‘tell the bees’ otherwise they would swarm or die in the hives.

In many of the homes where we had breakfast, there was a small pitcher containing Honey Syrup on the table - here is a recipe given to us on on one of our trips.

Honey Syrup
in a large saucepan, combine all of the following ingredients:
1 cup sugar
2 cups honey
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
two 2-inch pieces cinnamon sticks
2 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean
1 cup of water

Bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice and stir to combine. Remove the cinnamon, cloves and vanilla bean.
Serve warm.

On the table also, would be plates of Buttermilk Pancakes, and Griddle Cakes. Pancakes are still made in virtually every house in Ireland. We saw children, lined up by the cook, eating them hot off the pan with a brush of melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, or a sprinkling of Honey Syrup.

We were also told it was a common folk belief that an unmarried girl's skill in tossing pancakes was an indication of her future prospects - if she dropped it, she had no hope of marriage during the coming year. Weddings were forbidden during Lent, so there was always a tremendous rush to the alter before Shrove Tuesday. A great deal of pressure was put on marriageable bachelors and spinsters as the day approached - with plenty of pranks and practical jokes. Shrove Tuesday has always been seen as the last chance for some merriment before the rigors of lenten fasting began. During Lent, Catholics were urged to abstain not only from meat, but also from eggs, milk, butter and cheese. Hence the tradition of using up these ingredients in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began.

Curious about how honey is made?

Bees gather honey by drawing the flower nectar into their proboscis (tube extending from their head). The nectar then passes through their esophagus into a honey sac (storage pod) located just before the intestine. The nectar is stored until the bee arrives back at the hive. While the nectar is in the sac, enzymes are secreted that begin to break down the starch into simple sugars and fructose. A hive contains one mature queen, about 100 male drones, and 20,000 female workers. The bees utilize 8 pounds of honey for daily activities for every 1 pound that reaches the market. Bees must forage an equivalent of 3 times around the earth to provide sufficient nectar to make 1 pound of honey. For every gallon of honey the bees consume, they travel 7 million miles. When the workers reach the hive, they pump the nectar in and out of their proboscis until the carbohydrate concentration is about 50-60%. Then it is deposited into the honeycomb.

Note: We would like to take this opportunity to thank the O'Douds for their many wonderful contributions to this web site.

Your comments
Wonderful article, my Mother had 3 hives on our property when I was in high school; she would have loved that syrup recipe. My Grandmother made a honey, lemon and garlic cough syrup. I loved it! Audrey excellent read. I have always been a honey fancier and now, will have a special treat for friends and family, thanks to your website. Kathy
(Editor's note: And the O'Douds)

Any purchase made helps to support our site (and provide Honey for our coffee). Thank you.


Wed, Mar 30, 2016

"...the freshest of food and
the oldest of drink"
- Irish Proverb

We haven't read this book - yet. It does sound intriguing. Included are recipes, cures and folklore all provided by beekeepers.
Click for Taste of Honey

The New Irish Table
by Margaret Johnson

Margaret Johnson’s love of Ireland permeates page after glorious page of mouthwatering Irish dishes, from Smoked Salmon Chowder to Raspberry Buttermilk Tarts. Lavish color photographs of the food, the landscapes, and the people are woven through the text, making The New Irish Table the next best thing to sitting down to dinner in Ireland itself.
Click here for New Irish Table.


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March 4, 2011
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