Honey tasting in the Caucasus is Darwinian tourism at its best.
There are no signs, guides, routes, regulations, and only a handful of English speakers who know a whit about bees or honey. Needless to say, this endeavor is not to be undertaken lightly, and could even prove life-threatening.
One variety from the Black Sea known as deli bal (“crazy honey”) notoriously poisoned a massive Greek army beating its retreat from Babylon in 401 B.C. (witnessed firsthand by Xenophon who recounted the tale in his Anabasis). Even in modern times, accidentally consuming a few spoonfuls could send you to the hospital.
To be fair, honey tasting in this region barely exists. Though the Caucasus can boast of the highest concentration of bee boxes in the world, the world’s oldest honey, and the world’s first beekeeper, beekeeping is so ubiquitous here that few locals give it a second thought or take steps to leverage their honey-making heritage as a unique selling point.
For example, late one night, when I had stumbled into a Turkish-Georgian village perched on a high mountain ridge, I encountered 15 young men playing cards. After surveying me with quizzical looks on their faces, one of the men asked why I had come. “I am searching for beekeepers,” I replied. They all laughed, and the man asked the rest of the group, “Raise your hand if you are a beekeeper.” With a smirk, every card player held up a hand. One cocked his head and gave me a look that said, “See? No big deal.”
The Caucasus is one of the most diverse places on Earth in terms of languages, alphabets, ethnic groups, climates, geographies, and religions. The primary factor uniting the people here is shared food traditions that stretch back to ancient times. But there’s a twist. If the traditions don’t figure into narratives of nationalism and pride in some meaningful way, they are often overlooked.
Once, while celebrating with a group of Georgians, the tamada (toast master) waved his cigarette at me as a signal for me to offer up a toast. I held my glass of home-brewed chacha high in the air and pronounced, “to Georgian honey!”
The merriment ground to a halt.
“Honey? No honey. Georgian wine!” one of the drinkers rallied, ready to embark on the evening’s fifth account of how Georgians are actually the world’s first wine drinkers. Armenians are also eager to weave viticulture into their national identity, with recent discoveries positioning the Areni cave complex near the Turkish-Armenian border as the world’s premier winery.
But wine can only be produced in a few climates across the region, whereas honey is produced nearly everywhere, with each microclimate yielding a distinct flavor. In each village and valley, the sweet delicacy is consumed and prepared in line with traditions entirely unique to that people, place, and honey variety.
At Turkish tables in the valleys of Macahel I ate honey with its wax, harvested directly from traditional karakovan log hives and served along with cream, butter, cheeses, and breads.
Near the rolling hills of Imereti in Georgia I tasted sweet mountain-flower blends smeared on khachapuri, drizzled on cakes, or served with beans and fresh yogurt, each complemented with wine and chacha.
In Azerbaijan, at the base of steep mountains in Zaqatala, spoonfuls of mono-floral honeys — yellow clover, Christ’s thorn, rose, and thyme – served as chasers for bottomless glasses of black teas.
In Armenia on the rural fringes of Yerevan we smeared a white honey that tasted of citrus on grainy lavash breads or on cucumbers, followed by smooth Cognac. (In fact, the honey-and-cucumber combo is a lauded hangover remedy here, but not to be confused with honey and melon, which when combined, at least according to one beekeeper I spoke with, results in sudden death).
As a bee enthusiast who has traveled across four countries, sampled hundreds of honeys, and visited thousands of hives, I have experienced the wealth, diversity, and controversy of honey hunting in the Caucasus. But this kind of honey-tasting adventure – for better or for worse – comes with no guarantees. The way things stand right now, the near non-existence of regulations means that the market can be corrupted and confused by vendors who adulterate or falsely label honeys.
While honey-tasting in the region remains well below the radar, even among its purveyors, I’m confident that will change someday soon.
But if you visit the Caucasus, regardless of what draws you there, give honey hunting a try. Start by asking just about anyone where you can find the best local honey and keeping your eyes peeled for bee hives — in trees, on roofs, in logs, on moving trucks, in open fields, next to nomad’s tents, or perched on front porches. (If your interest is piqued, consider joining a honey-tasting trip in northeastern Turkey with my young company, Balyolu: The Honey Road.)
Even if you don’t discover what you were originally seeking, there is no better way to bridge the different cultures and climates of the region than through a food that’s been around just about as long as its inhabitants.
Explorer Project Background:
In 2012, National Geographic Young Explorer Cat Jaffee and photographer Claire Bangser traveled more than 6,000 km along former Silk Road trade routes in Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to map historic honey traditions and modern honey corruption in an effort to turn honey into an agent for social good.