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Tupelo Honey: Sweets from the Swamp
According to singer Van Morrison, there is nothing sweeter than tupelo honey. His song, “Tupelo Honey,” reached #27 on the U.S. Pop Chart in 1972 and introduced the legendary, almost mystical sweet to a worldwide audience. But what the heck exactly is tupelo honey?
There are certain things that are considered the cream of the crop in every category: Cuban cigars, Rolls Royce motor cars, Tahitian pearls, blue diamonds and those spicy chicken wings from Buffalo, NY are all considered “the crème de'la creme” in their particular world, regardless if the rating is appropriate or not.
To that list you can add tupelo honey. However, unlike ceramic pearls, lab-created diamonds or wings from that pizza joint down the street, there isn't any faking the unique, sweet-but-not-too-sweet taste of this special treat from the Apalachicola River swamps in northern Florida.
Tupelo honey is a “monofloral” honey made by bees only during the short time when the tupelo trees are in bloom. What makes it so rare and difficult to produce is the fact that tupelo trees, in a monument to obstinance, only hold court in the deepest, darkest of Florida swamps that are also the home to things like water moccasins, alligators and horrifying spiders big enough to eat medium-sized dogs.
As there is a singular lack of pasture land in the swamp, tupelo beekeepers must put their hives on special rafts floating on the black water so the bees don't get their feet wet. Then, as soon as the tupelo bloom is finished, the hives must be harvested and moved to dry land for the remainder of the growing season.
So why would any sane individual go to all this trouble for something that can otherwise be found inside a little plastic bear on the shelf at any local grocery store? The answer is pretty obvious: the taste.
While the palate-challenged might have trouble distinguishing tupelo honey from motor oil, most folks can immediately tell that the amber liquid is something special as soon as it hits the tongue. We have found over the years that trying to accurately describe taste sensations via the printed word is pointless so we'll just state for the record that if you sample tupelo honey, you'll immediately realize that all the other honey you've tasted in your life isn't quite this good.
For the technically-minded, tupelo honey is also unique in that it is one of the few honeys that contain a higher ratio of fructose to glucose sugar and thus resists forming sugar crystals that typically occur in other honey varieties within a few months. Sugar crystals don't hurt anything but they do give a gritty mouth-feel. Pure tupelo honey solves that problem.
The literal epicenter of the tupelo honey industry is the tiny town of Wewahitchka, Florida. Located 30 miles east of Panama City, it also happens to be just a few miles up the road from the beach from where we just spent ten days basking in the sun, trying to develop a nice, deep, unhealthy sunburn on our tender Midwestern epidermis.
Between beach sessions, we took a side trip to “Wewa,” as it's known by the locals, to score our supply of this special treat from the best-known tupelo honey producer in the country, L.L. Lanier and Sons. L.L. Lanier and his wife started the company in 1898 and did much to popularize the honey across the U.S. Lanier is synonymous with tupelo honey and in fact the family served as technical advisors and extras for “Ulee's Gold,” a 1993 movie about a tupelo beekeeper that starred Peter Fonda.'
The company is now in the third generation of ownership and as you might expect of such an internationally-known business, they have a huge gift shop, processing plant and theme park just outside Wewahitchka.
And I'm lying. In fact, “rustic” might be too pretentious to describe their headquarters. With scores of rusty barrels, a slightly overgrown yard full of orange trees, a boat of dubious age, cats and a hand-lettered sign that says “Honk for honey,” it is the kind of place that more fastidious readers might decided to bypass. But they'd miss out.
The folks at Lanier subscribe to the southern code of hospitality that is still alive away from the beachfront hullabaloo and they are happy to talk to you about their one and only product. After choosing a bottle, you get invited inside the back porch to their sales office/shipping department/corporate headquarters where the transaction is consummated. After a polite goodbye, it's time to head back to the land of sand, surf and t-shirt shops.
But later, after you're back among the muddy March fields of the Indiana, you'll still have a little jug of spring sunshine right in the pantry: the sweetest taste on earth, tupelo honey.