Last month I took an impulsive trip to Bologna, Italy, to take part in the first English speaking Honey Sensory Analysis Course.
I had heard about it following being given a newspaper cutting from the FT written by ‘Spoonfuls of honey‘ author Hattie Ellis. She had briefly mentioned that the first course to be held in English would be in November and after a little bit of internet searching, I found the details and contacted one of the tutors, Raffaele Dall’Olio. Although I’d missed the registration deadline, there was a space for me if I wanted to attend.
Thankfully, my friend Maria is a super efficient travel counsellor and within a few hours she had selected local flights, a hotel and removed all the stress usually associated with a sudden foreign adventure!
Within a week I found myself sat next to an Italian Astro Physicist (living in Birmingham) on a plane bound for Bologna. I had visited Italy on numerous occasions but never Bologna. Hearing about how it was the home of pasta & bread, I’d packed a healthy supply of gluten free oatcakes, naively thinking I would struggle to find food to eat during my stay!
I arrived late on the Monday evening and was lucky to have a short taxi ride to my hotel room. Maria had ensured that I had a room with a view and chose the hotel San Donato with a gorgeous roof top terrace for me to enjoy a supposedly leisurely breakfast and evening cuppa.
The course began at the CNR research institute at 9am on Tuesday morning. I had spotted a couple leaving the hotel shortly before me who the receptionist mentioned were also heading to CNR. We bumped into each other at the bus stops, all trying to figure out how we were going to get there. Insta (Vet) & Sandris (organic beekeeper & honey producer) had travelled from Latvia. Together we extracted a couple of free bus rides and provided entertainment for the locals as we negotiated the ticketing and route system.
Thankfully, we weren’t the last to arrive, Laura, a delegate from Scotland’s heather honey company joined us as our bus arrived and greeted by Raffaele & Gian Luigi Marcazzan lead us to the classroom, straight away the course began.
We soon realised that there was an awful lot to pack into the following three and a half days so only a brief time was spent introducing ourselves. Delegates from America, Denmark, Germany, Romania, France, Serbia, and Sweden joined Laura from Scotland, the Latvian’s and I. The group included Pollenologists, vets,Bee Professors, beekeepers and mead producers, all of us brought together to understand more about the taste of honey.
Raffaele is a beekeeper and animal biologist with a master’s degree in honeybee pathogens diagnostic and has more than ten years experience in honeybee research and teaching the genetic conservation of honeybee races. He’s also a member of COLOSS ( on Colony losses) and RNSBB (Sustainable Bee Breeding) as well as his 150 commercial hives in Tuscany and queen rearing experience and manuka honey production in new Zealand. He also has spent over ten years as a professional honey taster and a panel leader for the Italian National Register of Professional Honey Tasters. We couldn’t have started with a more qualified tutor and I had to put aside and feelings of academic inadequacy!
Before we could even start looking at honeys let alone tasting them, Raffaele talked us through what exactly Honey Sensory evaluation entails, and why it’s important, and how it had begun, in France in 1965, with an Oenologist (wine taster) Amenne, sensory analysist Pangborn, and statistician Roessler. In 1979 the first class was held in Italy and by 1988 the National register was born and now Italy and their National register is the world class standard in honey sensory evaluation.
During Day one we had lessons and instructions on various aromas, distinguishing sweet, sour, salty and unami ( a recent addition based on Asian flavourings and now considered a distinct taste.) Tiny pots of various scents were passed around for us to identify, and more importantly, associate with our personal memories. This was when our vocabulary first increased to distinguish between subtle differences of smells. Descriptors like ‘wet dog’ old vase water’,were added to more familiar liquorice, aniseed, smoke, burnt marmalade and rose. I was very disappointed not to have recognised a pure rose scent, which I had noted as ‘chemical & phenolic’!
We then were given samples of water, flavoured with varying amounts of sugar, salt, sour, bitter and unami. It was fascinating to learn that our own diets and personal preferences would affect our descriptions. It reminded me that I’d recently learned that meat eaters require and crave more salt on their food than vegetarians as they get a sufficient salt intake from vegetables whereas meat needs more salt to help digest. This resolved the age old dinner table argument in our house of whether or not salt should be added!
We were now suitably confused and full of descriptive words and aromas to be let loose on our first whiffs of honey.Our second tutor, Gian Luigi, is the leader of the Honey Sensory group within the International Honey Commission and the president of the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey. For 26 years, he has been a researcher and technical manager for honey quality control at the Agricultural research council in Bologna. He’s also served as panel leader for the International honey competition BioMiel. Gian taught us about the skills used in smelling unifloral honey samples, and how to memorise the characteristics of a selection we were able to sample. We also learnt about the origin, composition and physical properties of various honeys.
The honey sensory group, after years of tasting, have devised a chart to help with standardising analysis. The chart is divided into seven categories; Animal, Floral, vegetal, chemical, aromatic, warm and fruity, then each category has sub divisions, totalling 23 including descriptors ‘rancid, valerian, smoky, lactic, spicy, tropical fruit, dry, damp, woody etc. There was a short discussion about the word ‘balsamic’ which to the British and American instantly conjures up the memory of balsamic vinegar, however, most Europeans think of balsamic as ‘resinous’ so more like propolis. Otherwise the words were fairly universal, which was the point.
When judging or classifying honey, the honey sensory group need to agree on the qualities of various honeys and so much time was spent agreeing each specific descriptor.
To practice our senses we were given honey samples, a small dollop in a wine glass, and just from the aromas we were asked to write down the descriptors that we observed. We weren’t told which honey each sample was, but purely checked our own descriptors with what the official classification of odours was for each sample. Afterwards we were told what type of honey the actual samples were. I thought that I could recognise rapeseed, as it’s quite a common honey from my region however the sample was dandelion. It was similarities like this that need a more intensive exercise of tasting the two similar honeys until differences can be distinguished. Eucalyptus and honeydew had the same descriptors for me, also citrus and acacia. By the end of day one I wasn’t feeling too confident, but was consoled by the fact that it had been a very long day and only day one of the course! After all the lectures about how honey is formed I really fully understood the importance of ‘ventilation v insulation’ with regard to beehives. before I came away my Bee Team & I had a couple of hives that were really struggling with excess condensation, the wet damp weather with mild temperatures combined to make it difficult for the bees to evaporate the water to help ripen their honey. We had swapped around some of the lifts from empty (dry) hives with the damp ones which seemed to resolve the problem.
The research centre had a very helpful porter, from whom we could purchase bus tickets, and so the return journey into Bologna city centre was stress free and a group of us left the bus at the distinctive stone stair way near the central bus station. A landmark from which I knew I could find our hotel.
Insta, Sandris and I walked along the covered pavements awestruck by the selection of restaurants and stunning shops, closed early that morning, but now all alive and lit bustling with busy Italians. Although I was tired, I couldn’t resist popping out for a short walk after dropping my bags in my hotel room. Staying near the twin towers, (as wonky as Pizza) there was a maze of bars and cafe filled alleyways. I instantly fell in love with the displays, of everything, from food to socks, and I suddenly completely ‘got’ the ‘Eat’ bit of ‘Eat Pray Love’!
I had brought oat cakes and snacks with me thinking that my food options would only be bread or pasta. Lunch in the research centre canteen was a fabulous hot and cold buffet with rice, rich tomato sauce, fish or meat side dishes and huge selection of cheese & salads,as well as pasta & breads, so I didn’t need to eat anything that evening. Near to my hotel was one of those classic patisseries and my attention was caught by a large sign saying ‘Free map’. I thought that would be handy, and I LOVE maps, so I went in to collect mine, confident that they couldn’t sell me anything as I am wheat free. However, once I’d explained, using the only Italian word I knew: ‘Sensa’, she pointed to a magnificent display with pastries and tarts, all gluten free! I was delighted to buy a small chocolate tart, beautifully wrapped, and took it in for my mid morning snack on day two.
I slept remarkably well and awoke on the second morning before my alarm went off at six. The weekend before travelling to Bologna I had spent at the Hay House Writer’s workshop in Bristol and had been re inspired to start my practice of ‘Morning Pages’, Julia Cameron’s recommended daily action for creative people in her book ‘The Artists Way’. She was one of the speakers and workshop leaders during the weekend and I can highly recommend her books and talks if ever you can get to one. So, in the dark, I sat and wrote 3 pages of whatever was going through my head as I awoke. Also known as ‘The chimp Brain’, my inner critic is called Georgia, and she was well away with reminding me of my inadequacies of being on this honey course. I thanked her for sharing her opinions and prepared myself for the day ahead. I had hoped that I would be walking into the CNR from my hotel each morning, but by the time I’d left the hotel, eating my picnic breakfast in my room, it was all I could manage to find and catch a bus in time to get me to the course in time for the 9am start.
Our second day began with learning the tasting technique. Having only smelt honey to this point, and categorised some samples by their aromas, we were all very excited to at last be able to sample the exhibits!
My inner voice couldn’t help but offer the reminder of the phrase ‘tastes like chicken’, which I cannot remember where it initiates from but is a regular phrase when offering the boys at home pigeon, or venison for the first time. I also remember being told this in Peru when offered guinea pig… anyway, for the next few days, ‘tastes like honey’ was the predominant thought.
I had been excited to taste the chestnut honey sample having been really intrigued by it’s nutty, mushroomy,aromatic dry and exotic aroma. As the sample came around I was delighted to help myself to a generous spoonful and let my taste buds set to work. I was possibly the only person in the group who had not previously tasted chestnut honey, I should have noticed that the rest of the class took only small a spoonful. If you haven’t before tasted it, you’re in for a shock. It doesn’t actually taste like honey at all! It is so very bitter and although it tastes of the mushrooms and nuts, it’s also quite metallic with a very distinctive aftertaste. This became a fabulous experience for me, securing plenty of taste associations with chestnut enabling me to pick out the tiniest suggestion of chestnut in any later honey samples!
We had some ‘Single Origin Honey Cards’ in our comprehensive study pack that we could complete as we worked our way through a selection of honey samples.
The samples were all placed in a wine glass and we were taught how to begin by observing the honey, it’s state – either runny, or crystallised, colour and texture. Then with the plastic spoons we whisked the honey around the glass releasing the aromas. Making notes before we allowed our tongues to reveal the rest of the picture to us. Our Single Origin cards were to be of key importance over the next few days. Our initial notes on descriptives for each honey could be referred back to when we later came to have to identify anonymous honey samples.
By lunch time we were all ‘tasted out’. brains overflowing with new vocabulary in both words and senses. We enjoyed another tasty lunch together in the canteen, told to only eat lightly as the afternoon involved mixing cheeses with honey.
Andrea Gibaldi is a nutritionist who specialises in honey and health and after an interesting & thorough,lecture on honey’s properties and relevance in the ‘Mediterranean diet’ we set to work tasting honey with a wide selection of cheeses. This was light relief after so much intensive tasting, and we really could experiment with the variety of honeys provided and the delicious selection of cheeses. Whilst we mixed and tasted, Andrea shared some of his recipes along with samples of some unusual combinations of honey in cooking. A few of us are studying the gut and it’s bacteria and maybe in Britain and America there are different thoughts on the gut’s influence on the immune system than Italian nutritionists, but overall the talk was very informative and interesting, particularly when Andrea discussed the history of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ which actually was the diet of the peasants in rural or coastal areas, and not the olive oil and protein rich diet we are sometimes lead to believe!
I was amazed at how different the samples of honey varied so much in colour and texture, the strong ginger coloured honey was actually an ‘Erica Arborea’ heather honey. Thinking it looked rather like my homemade tomato ketchup ( not as popular with my sons as the bought stuff) was an important factor to assist in recording any associations to make future recognition simpler. Dandelion honey, when crystallised, forms a bright yellow ‘dollop’ and the remaining three honeys, honeysuckle, citrus and thistle, we learned over the following days, could easily be confused with each other, at least to the inexperienced sensory analysist!
This was a more light hearted and social session with us in groups of four sharing our honey samples but each with our own platter of cheeses.
Our coffee and lunch breaks throughout the past two days were brief and either spent discussing aspects of the previous lesson, or all catching up with our emails and messages on our smart phones. I was as guilty as the rest of the class, and as we were all running businesses or from positions of responsibility, it was to be expected. It did mean that we weren’t interacting much as a group, language wasn’t helping as the majority of the group were participating using a second, third or even forth language (I try not to feel inferior with only speaking the one language!). I sympathise with todays teachers in schools and colleges who are having to compete with constant distractions and interruptions. At least we were only checking our phones during the breaks.
It was arranged therefore that we would all meet in Bologna city centre for a meal on this second evening. ‘Trattoria Fantoni’ on Via del Pratello, was the chosen venue and we all managed to find it at the arranged time. on a small side street near the centre, this family run restaurant had arranged two long tables for us and served up delicious large platters of… I have no idea what!
I had a giant bowl of salad presented to me instead of sharing the pasta based platters. We all ate, laughed and talked, no phones out, and learned more about each other in a few short hours than the past two days combined. I had proper chats with the two professors on the course, Dr Sladjan Rasic and Laura Stan from Romania. Wonderful to hear and share bee wisdom and recommended reading. I do hope to be able to visit both of them one day and learn more about their bee work. Laura’s Ph.D was on Propolis which of course fascinated me with my herbal studies. After a very filling dinner ( on top of all the afternoon’s cheese) it was decided that we should try one of the city’s best gelato bars and we were led through the lit and busy streets by Raffaele to a fabulous bar with countless varieties on offer. Once I spotted a chocolate with whole hazelnuts, I looked no further and enjoyed a very generous scoop! After such a delicious evening I enjoyed wandering through the streets to my hotel and fell into bed smiling and very very full!
I shall write more about the final two days of the course in PART TWO