Several years ago I tasted some lavender honey and wrote, “The sample I tried was from Portugal. It was a beautiful medium amber color with almost no flavor other than sweet. It may have had a very slight citrus undertone. Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this famous variety.”
Recently, Dawn Tarin of San Diego read that passage and was mortified. She wrote to me:
I was very sad that you didn’t love the lavender honey that you tasted. I am currently in southern France (Provence) famous for its honey. I have bought some honey from 2015, and to me it tastes fabulous. . . . I would love to mail you a small sample (my gift, of course). It has to be my all-time favorite honey, and would be part of my last meal, if I ever get to make that choice!
When you buy lavender honey, beware of confusing terminology.
The type of honey I have described in this post is honey made from the nectar of lavender flowers. The nectar is collected by the bees, taken back to the hive, and processed into honey.
Many times what is labeled “lavender honey” is really some other type of honey infused with lavender flowers. The flowers are often allowed to steep in the honey for some period of time and then may be filtered out or not.
The labels may say “infused,” “lavender flavored,” “essence of lavender,” or just “lavender honey.” Be suspicious if you see plant parts floating around in the jar.
The taste test
Just as promised, a sample arrived shortly thereafter. The honey was a gorgeous extra light amber and looked like sunshine in a bottle. And the taste? Amazing. I would say (and I’m not good at this) that it had a bright flavor, medium sweetness, and both woodsy and citrusy notes. Faintly in the background, I detected a flavor reminiscent of the scent of lavender, but just a hint, nothing heavy. If this is typical of lavender honey, I can certainly understand why it is a classic favorite.
The beekeeper who produced Dawn’s honey is based in Mougins, in the heart of Provence, an area famous for high-quality lavender honey. Below you can see his label and some notes and translations provided by Dawn, who spoke to him in French (I’m impressed).
Cultivars and terroir
Many variables can make one honey taste different from another. The nectar may have been collected from different species or different cultivars of lavender, which could certainly make a huge difference. More subtle is the difference in geography.
French wine makers refer to the terroir of a region, or how a region’s climate, soils, and geomorphology affect the taste of their grapes. Of late, the term has been used to describe the same phenomenon in coffee, chocolate, cheese, and honey. So even if the bees collected nectar from identical plants, the difference in local growing conditions would make the nectar taste unique.
Toss in the unpredictable
Beyond that, beekeepers have less control over their bees than winemakers have over their grapes. Even if honey is collected from a single crop in a single location, other nectars may get mixed in—maybe some weeds at the side of the road, flowers from a neighboring farm, or a taste of someone’s hummingbird feeder. The idea behind varietals is that the beekeeper believes that the honey was substantially produced from a particular crop at a particular time. Beyond that, we don’t really know.
With that in mind, a second taste—or more—is always a good idea, and Dawn has certainly changed my mind about lavender honey.