We have no clear evidence of when honey and wax – the two main substances produced by bees – were first put to use. Members of the ape family are still honey-eaters, and sometimes even use rudimentary tools (sticks or branches) to gain access to it. Honey is an important source of energy, so there can be little doubt that it was always a basic element in the diet of early hunter-gatherer early man. Wax, too, would have been extremely useful for Paleolithic man, and it seems likely to have come into habitual use with the discovery of fire (as a fuel) and the emergence of religious practices (as an element in ritual).
The oldest graphic depictions of honey gathering in the world are to be found in the Iberian Peninsula, in whose eastern coastal region there are several caves and overhangs containing cave paintings. These are of uncertain - and disputed - age (some experts place them between 4000 and 1200BC), but they possibly date from around the period between 9000 and 6000BC. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the honey shown being collected is wild or cultivated.
French food historian 2. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat acknowledges the important role played by Spanish honey, both in history and in the contemporary marketplace when her book was published, back in 1987. She observes that, like hunting, honey-gathering was originally a male pursuit, requiring attributes such as bravery and dexterity, qualities traditionally associated with masculinity.
It is equally difficult to put a date to another ancient product, quite possibly the oldest alcoholic drink: mead was made from a mixture of one third honey and two thirds pure rainwater which was then left open to the sun and wind for forty days so that the sugar in the honey fermented and turned into ethyl alcohol. This beverage, with an alcoholic strength around 15°, resembled certain of today’s sweet white wines in both appearance and taste. It seems that the Celtiberian people and the original coastal inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula were already habitual drinkers of mead before the arrival of the Romans.
In the centre of the peninsula and in the upland areas of the Cantabrian mountain chain, honey had been an ordinary family subsistence food. The Greeks were already regular honey consumers before the Romans since it had a reputation as a food that regenerated the body, stimulated the mind and possessed aphrodisiac properties. Athletes ate it as part of their diet, especially in preparation for competitive events. Greeks the likes of Democritus (460-370BC), who lived to be over a hundred, attributed their longevity to eating honey every day, and it was an ingredient in many dishes that imitated what it was believed the gods ate. Ambrosia (drink or food of the gods) seems to have been a type of honey, or at least to have contained pollen and honey along with its main ingredients, while mead was apparently consumed in quantity on Mount Olympus! Two of Ancient Greece’s (1100-146BC) most classic dishes contained honey: hyma, made of minced meat, onion, cheese, thyme, vinegar and honey; and hyposphagma, made of blood, cheese and 3.honey. Pythagoras (582-507BC) appears to have lived almost entirely on a diet of bread and honey. Certain foods were boiled or fried in honey. There were also two honey-based drinks in Ancient Greece: oinómeli, made from aged must or wine and honey; and 4.hydrómeli, a mixture of water and honey which was either boiled or set aside until it fermented.
Honey in Rome
The Romans’ use of honey continued very much in the Greek tradition, but under the Roman Empire, however, it became another product that could be cultivated and exported in large quantities. Hispania was the Roman Empire’s beehive. Strabo (64BC-24AD) mentions it as a major producer and supplier of wax and 5.honey: “From Turdetania much wheat, wine, oil are exported, not only plentiful but also very good. They also export wax, honey…”. During that period, honey was a product for which Baetica was famous. Among myths attaching to the origins of honey is Latin historian Justin’s attribution of the discovery of apiculture to Gargoris, mythological king of Tartessos.
Among the products that the Romans made out of honey was also were mead, known as aqua mulsa, and oxymelth that they used as a sauce, made up of two thirds honey and one third vinegar and spices, reduced by boiling to a toffeeish syrup, that was used as a dressing for stews, meat and fish.
Honey was used in ancient times in ways that extended beyond its many gastronomic uses. It was believed by all the ancient civilizations to possess countless cosmetic and therapeutic attributes: it was used for preserving foodstuffs (such as fruit and vegetables), as a skin rejuvenator, and even for coating corpses to stave off putrefaction; it served as healing ointment, antiseptic, moisturizer and toothpaste. It also functioned as currency, prizes, and even punishment, being smeared over the wrong-doer who would then be set upon by bees. In its medical role it was ingested, rubbed in as an ointment, and applied as a poultice; it was used as a treatment for burns, fractures and contusions, for ocular glaucoma, ulcers and boils, bronchitis and pneumonia, for expunging the remains of rotten or unhealthy flesh, and for purifying the blood. And it was used to treat animals as well as humans.
In Arab cuisine, honey was an essential ingredient in confectionery, as were nuts – both are key ingredients in turrón (Spanish nougat). One classic dessert, whose recipe has barely changed since Ancient Greece, is alajú, a Moorish cake very like the Greeks’ melipoecton and the Romans’ panis mellitas, made by frying a mixture of (usually sesame flour), honey and spices and then coating it in honey.
During the agricultural revolution in the Muslim world (8th – 13th centuries), the Arabs and Berbers imported sugar cane from India for planting as a crop and were the first to establish plantations with their own sugar factories and refineries. Cane sugar began to arrive regularly in Europe, via Spain, after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, and started to rival with honey. Beyond the confines of al-Andalus, however, trade in this commodity was desultory even though, from the 11th century on, supplies were augmented by consignments brought back by crusaders returning from the 6.Holy Land.
In the 14th century, sugar cane plantations in Andalusia, southern Portugal, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Rhodes all prospered economically and, after 1420, it was also planted as a crop in the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira.
Thus in the medieval period, production of honey for export dropped, albeit not to the point of disappearing completely, but it continued to be used and consumed as before.
13th c. regulations of honeycombs in Spain
Nevertheless, with the exception of those occurring in the wild, honeycombs were subject to regulation just like any other privately owned livestock. The 7.Fuero Juzgo, a legal code drawn up in Castile in the 13th century, sets out the penalties applicable for the theft of honeycomb products, and for owning bees that cause harm to persons or animals because of having been placed too close to a centre of population. In the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era, trading in honey was also regulated as to price (established by each town), warehousing and sale, to prevent resale and speculative dealing.
Although cane sugar was common in Europe from the 15th century on, it was still beyond the reach of most. Because of its exceptional keeping properties, honey was one of the first foodstuffs to travel by Caravel to the New World, yet the opportunity to plant sugar cane in New Spain and Puerto Rico was soon seized, and the first sugar mills were built there in 1519 by order of Charles I of Spain (1500-1558). Native American civilizations were also eaters of honey, though theirs was reported to have a bitter flavor.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish apiculture underwent a critical period. There was little or no technical interest in the field; honey and wax were still used in much the same ways as they had been in Antiquity, and the few surviving references to honey and bees suggest that the level of knowledge about the insects and their nectar-making had remained similarly rooted in the past:
“The fruit that the bee gives us having collected the morning dew, and particularly that which we call manna, of which it makes its honeycombs, or in the words of Discorides: common honey is none other than a dew from heaven, which falls upon the blades of grass and the leaves of trees, which the bees deflower, eat and lick up most hungrily because of its natural sweetness, and after changing it somewhat within their bellies, feeling very swollen by it, because of its over abundance, they vomit it up 8.perforce”.
In the 18th century, with the Enlightenment at its height, and despite the publication of three monographs on the subject of 9.apiculture, honey and bees remained relatively unstudied and little understood. There was an increasing tendency for cane sugar to replace honey as a sweetening agent. Meanwhile, from the 16th century on, the turrón (Spanish nougat) industry in Alicante and Jijona had been developing gradually; it would eventually supply the whole of Spain, and then the rest of the world, with this honey and almond (later honey, sugar and almond) sweetmeat.
As a result of the drop in production in the preceding centuries, when the 19th century began honey was still a subsistence commodity in most of Spain. It was still the preferred sweetening agent in rural society, cane sugar remaining in the luxury bracket until the end of that century, when large-scale production of beet sugar brought the price down.
The publication in Spain of a work by Frenchman Jean Rozier (1734-1793) entitled Diccionario de Agricultura (Dictionary of Agriculture) in 10.1797, reawakened interest in beekeeping with its account of modern techniques used in 18th century Europe. One technical advance achieved in the 19th century that changed apiculture fundamentally and allowed it to advance rapidly was the invention of the movable frame hive from which honey could be extracted without having to asphyxiate its occupants. The definitive model was patented in 1851: essentially, it is fitted with a series of removable wooden frames that contain the honeycombs and can be removed, inserted or changed without affecting the rest of the hive.
Other important technical advances achieved in the 19th century included the invention of ‘comb foundations’ (sheets of stamped wax which saved the bees time and increased hive productivity), and the Smelatore (a centrifugal device that extracts honey from the comb without breaking 11.it.)
Another revolutionary change that took place in Spain in the latter part of the 19th century concerned Castilian honey, which accounted for a high proportion of the country’s total production and distribution: honey-makers in La Alcarria, a region famed for the excellence and sweetness of its honey, adopted peddling as the method of selling their product. This custom, which persisted until half way through the 20th century, enabled them to sell their honey all over Spain.
Beehives on the move
The introduction around 1920 of transhumance of beehives on an industrial scale was also important. This system of moving hives from one area to another to capitalize on plants in bloom at different times of year had been used since Antiquity, but became more sophisticated after readily and safely transportable Layens hives were introduced in Barcelona in 1875.
Modern apiculture began to take off in a big way in Spain in the latter decades of the 20th century. Today, there are two Protected Designations of Origin for Spanish produced honey: Miel de Granada (a product that has been known for two thousand years and amply documented since the 14th century), and Miel de La Alcarria (recognized at least as long ago as the 17th century, Spain’s Golden Age) There is also a Spanish honey with Protected Geographical Indication status, quality certified by a Regulatory Council: Miel de Galicia a high proportion of whose production was still non-industrial at the close of the 20th century.
Spain is the EU country with the highest number of registered beehives (over 2.5 million, or 20% of the European total) and is the biggest producer and exporter of honey: it produces nearly 88 million pounds of honey a year for export, mainly to France, Germany, the UK and Portugal.
Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).
Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).
Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.
Honey in medieval Hispania/13th C regulations of honeycombs
Cover of the 1815 edition of the Fuero Juzgo, 13th C. legal code, where penalties were set out for the theft of honeycombs, from the digital library Miguel de Cervantes.
Tough competition: cane sugar
Bodegón con dulces y recipientes de cristal. Still life with sweets and crystal recipients (one with mead), Juan van der Hamen y Léon (1596-1631), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
The 19th and 20th C.: honey on industrial scale in Spain
Cork beehives in Salamanca (1945-50). Elena Matas Pérez ©Aula Apícola Municipal de Azuqueca de Henares.