The first time I saw extracted honey in a jar with no comb, I wondered why anyone would do that. Why would someone separate two things that belong together? Imagine eating a yolk without the white or a chocolate chip without the cookie. What’s the point? Where I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, honey came in a comb in a little wooden box. There was no alternative. This regional tradition apparently began in the “comb honey era.”
According to The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture, the comb honey era lasted from 1880 to 1915, and was a time when most beekeepers in America produced comb honey. Before the enactment of the pure food and drug laws, liquid honey was frequently “extended” with corn syrup, so consumers preferred honey that came straight from the bees with no human interference. When they ate a chunk of comb honey they knew it was pure, just as the bees had intended.
As time went on, several things happened. Laws came into being that assured better food handling and labeling, honey extraction equipment improved, and beeswax by itself became popular for industrial uses. Beekeepers could make more money by selling the honey and the wax separately. In addition, if a beekeeper re-used his wax combs year after year, he could get bigger crops of honey. It takes a lot of bee-power to make the comb, so providing ready-made comb allows the bees to store more honey.
Unfortunately, we lost a real treat when comb honey disappeared. Each batch of honey retains the floral essences of the plants from which it was made, but the flavor of wax comb also differs according to what the bees ate and adds a richness to the flavor that extracted honey doesn’t have. Add to this the aroma of the basswood section box in which the comb was built, and you have a combination of flavors, textures, and aromas you can’t find anywhere else on earth.
Today comb honey is experiencing a re-birth, but it is now considered a luxury item. I’ve seen it for sale for as much as $26.95 for a 12-ounce square—and it’s usually made in a plastic box. Plastic! Take away the basswood box and you’ve lost a major component of the comb honey experience. But this product is fast disappearing. As far as I know, there is only one manufacturer of basswood section boxes left in America.
So if you have the opportunity to try comb honey in a basswood box, go for it. For novice honeycomb eaters, I always recommend the following:
- Toast a piece of your favorite bread or an English muffin. While it is still very hot, spread it lightly with butter. With a knife, cut a chunk of comb honey and spread it over the toast. You may have to mash it a bit, but the heat will soften the comb so it flattens into the toast along with the honey. It doesn’t melt, but becomes soft and aromatic. It is also good on hot biscuits, French toast, or pancakes.
- The upscale restaurants often serve comb honey in the center of a plate surrounded by a selection of expensive cheeses and multi-grain crackers. The idea here is to cover the cracker with a piece of cheese and top it off with a small chunk of comb. This works great with cheddar or brie, but any cheese will work.