PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2005, 12:00am

Although humans have learned to make harvesting honey easier by housing bees in man-made hives, it is one of the few 'real' foodstuffs we haven't been able to reproduce artificially.

What is it? It's probably the first sweetener ever used by humans. The thick syrup is made by bees from nectar they gather from flowers.

When is it in season? It's available year-round but can be made by the bees only when flowers are in bloom.

From what plants is honey made? Many types of trees, flowers and herbs, including eucalyptus, pine, orange blossom, raspberry, chestnut, rosemary and thyme. There is even a honey made from hemp but the soporific effect of the 'herb' interferes with the bees' ability and inclination to work, making their output so meagre few people have tasted it.

What are the differences? Single varietal honeys - made from one type of flower - are usually much more expensive than generic blends, which don't specify the flower on the label. These should be

used on their own so their subtle flavours can be appreciated: spread on toast, for instance, rather than mixed into a cake. Darker honeys tend to be more strongly flavoured than those with pale colours. Honey is sometimes sold with the waxy comb. It looks attractive but because it's so expensive, you're paying a lot of money for an inedible product.

What else? Honeys can be pasteurised and/or filtered, which turns the cloudy product clear and smooth. All honeys will crystallise over time, and solidify if left for too long. To make smooth again, carefully heat the honey in a microwave oven (take it out and stir it approximately every 30 seconds until smooth) or put the jar in a pan of very hot water and let it melt slowly.

Although humans can't make honey artificially, they have tried to interfere with the process by breeding more productive bees. This supposedly led to the emergence of 'killer bees'.

How to use: honey is used in spice cakes such as pain d'epice and some gingerbreads, and in many other baked goods such as biscuits and baklava (see recipe, left). It's also good in syrups for poaching under-ripe fruits.

For savoury dishes, honey can be mixed with aromatics and herbs such as garlic, shallots, chilli, pepper and rosemary, and used in marinades and glazes for barbecued and roasted meats. A few drops of honey in a salad vinaigrette can give a subtle sweetness that's not as one-dimensional as adding sugar.