Southerners have always had a sweet tooth, it seems, and sweet treats make up some of the highlights of our vast constellation of favored foods—pecan pie, red velvet cake, caramel cake, chocolate fudge, and other candies—and the list goes on and on. For our forefathers, sources of sweetness were both varied and highly-prized. Refined sugar was one, but it was often costly as it was one of few provisions that had to be store-bought instead of produced on the homestead, along with coffee, salt, and often flour or meal. So, if the purchase of sugar could be avoided by garnering sweeteners in other ways, such was certainly done.
Cane syrup in the Deep South was one option, while maple syrup, though most-often associated with Canada or New England, can be produced in West Virginia, Virginia, and other mountainous regions. Honey, however, was an ideal source of a sweetener even greater in its ease of acquisition and its versatility of application than cane syrup, and for that reason the regions where honey has been most favored overlap with where the majority of cane syrup is produced. While cane syrup was dependent on the time of year for sugar cane harvest—cane pressings and syrup boils normally are done in November or early December—honey is not restricted in this manner to the calendar.
Cane syrup certainly has its own advantages, though: it has a fully unique flavor, similar to molasses but all its own. It was the production of cane syrup in Cairo, Georgia, which gave that town its nickname “Syrup City,” and the “Syrupmaker” became the perhaps odd but beloved mascot of the local high school’s sports teams. In Louisiana and the Wiregrass region of southern Georgia and northern Florida, cane syrup went from being a welcome treat and favored way of adding sweetness to common foods to a valued sales commodity.
While many old-timers will fondly recall dabbing cane syrup on their biscuits or hotcakes at breakfast in the winter months when it has been freshly produced, it also is appropriate for cooking and turns up in numerous red velvet cake recipes, especially in Louisiana and coastal Georgia. The richness of red velvet cake is the perfect setting for the deep flavor of cane syrup.
Syrups, be they cane, corn, maple, or a mixture thereof, also often are visited by bourbon in the South, with the liquor a perfect complement and additional source of flavor given its own sweet, tangy, oak-infused taste. Pecans of course go well with this symphony of flavor, and bourbon-pecan pies are commonplace variants on the traditional Southern pecan pie.
Bourbon-infused maple syrup and candied pecans also turn up as delightful toppings for French toast, waffles, and pancakes. Though such gussied-up breakfast foods may seem like extraordinary treats, keep in mind that at the most humble of Cracker tables there was either cane syrup or honey awaiting the morning’s biscuits.
Which brings us to honey, the most common yet most varied of sweeteners across the South. Sugar, where it could be produced such as in Louisiana, was an export product often too precious to be used even by those who made it (aside from very wealthy planters, though they too enjoyed cane syrup probably more than actual refined sugar), so honey was even common in those areas.
Scientists have discovered a wealth of health benefits in honey, but our forefathers seemed to be on to these before they were proven in any laboratory. It is the variety of honey which is perhaps most exceptional: there is the light orange blossom honey of central Florida, the rich gallberry honey of the Wiregrass region, and the deep and dark honey of the Everglades which nearly tastes like its rival—cane syrup.
This honey from the Everglades would be easy to mistake for something other than honey if you didn’t know better, so dark and complex a flavor it brings, and the reason for its exotic flavors is that bees produce it from rare blossoms, such as those of the lychee, bottlebrush, and longan plants. These plants thrive in the very southernmost portion of Florida but are sparse enough that honeybees visit the entire scope of them, as opposed to bees that court only specific plants such as the orange blossom or palmetto in other areas—the honey made in such cases is known as monofloral, although in the case of orange blossom honey the honey is actually produced from a variety of citrus blossoms in most cases and not just orange.
Gallberry honey sometimes is also found as a “gallberry/palmetto” mixture and is quite delicious. This would be the honey most commonly consumed on those breakfast biscuits in places like Valdosta, Georgia, or the Florida Panhandle. Then there is tupelo honey, another Panhandle specialty and highly-prized today. The Irish singer Van Morrison may have made tupelo honey famous to the world when he named an album for it, but it has always been famous to the South. Pure tupelo honey fetches high prices, and its flavor is distinct.
David and Paula Fogg’s small honey shop in Newberry, Florida, carries all the above varieties, aside from the elusive Everglades honey. While Mr. Fogg sources honey from producers as far away as Texas, Thomas’s Honey of Lake City makes up the mainstay of his stock. Wildflower and tupelo honeys are the local favorites and bestsellers, Fogg says. In Savannah, the Savannah Bee Company has grown from a small production company into a renowned business making and selling honey emblematic of the South. One of Savannah Bee’s most innovative of products is their Honey for Cheese, a custom varietal mixture suited for pairing with cheese plates. I first learned of this unique product—which very much lives up to its claims insofar as being an excellent accompaniment to cheeses—at cheese producer Sweet Grass Dairy’s restaurant in Thomasville, Georgia. If you order their cheese plates, the honey is featured on them, and it really is a perfect match for a variety of fine cheeses.
The South is known for its hospitality, and having sweets on hand for visitors has always been part of that welcome. Even early settlers who didn’t have much in the way of money or resources were resourceful in their efforts to sweeten up their lives, finding sugar and its analogs near to home and putting these to the best of use.
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