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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Global Pantry: Corbezzolo Honey

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 1:01 PM

At the end of a long, delightfull suckling pig feast at La Ciccia last fall, chef Massimiliano Conti served us a plate of Sardinian sheep's cheese with Sardinian honey. Such pairings usually do nothing for me--I find the cheese diminished by the honey's cloying sweetness-- but this was an exception.

The honey tasted like dark caramel spiked with coffee and chocolate
, and was delicious with the cheese, or just by itself. When we asked about it, Conti brought out a jar (shown at right). After a long conversation in which we learned that the bees that produce it gather the nectar from a plant called corbezzolo, and that the honey is one of the items he brings back himself on his trips home, he gave us a jar as a gift. (Thanks again, signore.)

Googling "corbezzolo" found that the plant is Arbutus unedo, a type of heather commonly called strawberry tree, Killarney strawberry, or cane apple. Google also turned up a 1996 Atlantic article by Corby Kummer, who liked it the best of various Italian wildflower honeys he tried on a visit to beekeepers around Italy. I found a couple of online sources for the stuff, plus one local retailer, AG Ferrari. Here are my notes on a comparative tasting:

Smeralda di E. Piras Miele di Nettare della Sardegna Amaro delle Fiori di Corbezzolo: Chef Conti's hand-imported honey sets the standard. The distinctive dark caramel flavor is so strong it's almost like a marshmallow that has been toasted until it has some black spots. Best. Honey. Ever.

GourmetSardinia Miele Amaro (Sardinian Bitter Honey), 9 oz., $35.34 delivered from ($3.93 / oz.): This has a hint of the corbezzolo flavor, but mostly tastes like regular honey, especially when eaten with cheese. Perfectly good honey, but not worth the steep price.

Agricoltura di Dr. Pescia Tuscan Honey, 17.5 oz., $24.98 delivered from ($1.43 / oz.): This said "corbezzolo honey" on the Web site, but "Killarney Strawberry Honey" on the label, and the jar and label are different. Supposedly those are the same plant, but this has none of the distinctive flavor of the other three. It tastes and smells exactly like the chestnut honey I wrote about last month, which makes me wonder if there might have been some mixup at the packing plant, especially given that Dr. Pescia sells that, too. Or maybe the nectar just tastes different when grown in Tuscany. It's a fair price for this kind of honey, which is great with blue cheese.

AG Ferrari Miele di Corbezzolo lot 1477, 8.8 oz., $18.24 including tax ($2.07 / oz.): This isn't quite as strong-flavored as the Smeralda, but it's definitely the same stuff, and has the same synergy when eaten with sheep's cheese. The paper seal on the cap says it's produced by the Col Piras farm, so maybe the producers are related. I checked a couple of other branches before finding it at the one at 688 Mission near Third. They had three different numbered lots, which looked quite different, so it might well be that another "vintage" comes closer to the Smeralda.

For the record, I also found a page on for Rau brand corbezzolo honey. However, they've been out of stock for months.

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Robert Lauriston


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