Riath Hamed is the honey man - an infectiously likeable chap with a strong Sheffield accent and a family history that can be traced back to Yemen, where he lived for a year when he was 6 years old, in a remote village populated with his relatives.
His love of the viscous, sweet stuff, meanwhile, can be traced to his first taste of bint as sahn - a traditional Yemeni dessert made from layers of baked, butter-brushed pastry dough, which is drenched with honey the second it is removed from the oven.
From that point on, Hamed says he was hooked. He has, throughout his life, sought to taste the very best honey he could find. Raw Yemeni honey, particularly the one sourced from the Wadi Do'an in the Hadramout region of the country, is widely believed to fulfil that brief, thanks to its high quality and distinctive flavour.
As always, its relatively limited supply only adds to the allure.
When he moved to Dubai, Hamed found that procuring Yemeni honey proved more difficult than anticipated; doing so meant traipsing all over town, being passed from one insider contact to the other.
What the UAE needed, he decided, was its very own Yemeni honey supplier. Thus, the idea for Balqees Honey was born.
Inevitably, there were setbacks along the way, the most notable of which was finding the right supplier. But he started selling his products at the UAE's various craft and farmer's markets and, after making a big splash at last year's International Fine Food Festival, he now has a specially dedicated kiosk on the lower ground floor of The Dubai Mall.
"What experience taught me is that to guarantee the quality of my honey, I needed to have my own apiaries. I went into business with a Yemeni honey producer, who is renowned in the industry and made an exclusive deal with him and his farms. That way I know I am going to get the very best," Hamed explains. "I've spent a lot of time in Yemen with the beekeepers, tasting the honey and learning from beekeepers who have been in the industry for generations. They helped me to understand the nuances of the honey, the regional variations, how to know when the honey has been adulterated or when it is absolutely pure."
Although Balqees sells eight varieties of honey, including a couple of fusion flavours (the cinnamon and sesame seed is a must-try), its Sidr honey is the most prized and admired. The tree itself has been revered since ancient times and is referred to as the paradise tree in the Quran.
Although this tree grows in other parts of Yemen, the honey produced by bees that feed on the flowers of the thorny Sidr trees found in Wadi Do'an are particularly sought after by honey aficionados.
Beekeepers have been collecting honey using traditional methods here for thousands of years; chemicals, drugs and modern machinery are eschewed in favour of age-old growing and extraction techniques, all of which help to guarantee potency and purity.
The results speak for themselves. The Sidr Do'ani variety, in particular, is stunning: strong, complex, unusual and aromatic and on another level to the commercial, blended honey that we frequently slather on toast or drizzle over yogurt.
Next time you find yourself in The Dubai Mall, be sure to visit Balqees. Just be prepared for an inevitable sugar rush because the passionate team will no doubt insist that you taste your way through their products.
While Hamed describes this project as both a hobby and a labour of love borne out of his desire for everyone to taste a better class of honey, one can't help but feel that this is the tip of the iceberg for the company. Hamed is due to open a honey boutique in Lafayette Gourmet in March and will follow this later in the month with another in Dubai Festival City.
What is raw honey?
As the name suggests, raw honey is unadulterated. "Unlike much commercial honey, it won't have been heated (pasteurised), processed, filtered or refined," explains Hamed. "The honey comes straight from the farms and isn't messed about with in any way; this means that the enzymes, nutrients and antioxidants in the honey that would be destroyed by heating are preserved."
The purported benefits of this particular superfood are lengthy and wide reaching - so much so that you'll be left wondering if it's worth putting anything else on your toast in the morning.
Raw honey is believed to be an antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal agent, meaning that it has the capacity to weaken and even destroy some types of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
It's also high in antioxidants and is thought to play a role in strengthening the immune system, promoting digestive health and has, throughout history, been used to treat wounds and allergies.
Honey vs sugar
Although natural, raw honey still has a high sugar content and comprises around 55 per cent fructose (also found in fruit). While it is less refined than white sugar, it is still relatively high in calories. According to www.livestrong.com, it contains 64 calories per tablespoon, compared to sugar's 49. Honey does taste sweeter than sugar, though, so you could argue that you need less of it. Raw honey also has a lower glycemic index (GI) than sugar, meaning it enters the bloodstream more slowly and won't cause energy levels to spike as dramatically as white sugar does.
Cooking with honey
Honey and mustard salad dressing
Whisk together 1 1/2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon grainy mustard, 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice. Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in 5 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper and store in an airtight container.
Peel the carrots and slice into thick batons. Cook in boiling salted water for four to six minutes, until just tender. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons honey in a frying pan; when bubbling, add the carrots. Spoon the liquid over the carrots and cook for couple of minutes, until the honey and butter form a sticky glaze. Also works well with parsnips, celeriac, swede and butternut squash.
Ginger- and honey-marinated chicken
Mix the juice of a lemon, 2 crushed garlic cloves, a 2x2cm piece grated ginger, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 tablespoons honey together. Pour over chicken pieces and leave to marinade in the fridge for a few hours, turning occasionally. Bake in the oven or cook under the grill and serve with a green salad.
Prices range from Dh142 to Dh560, depending on jar size. For more information or to buy online, visit www.balqees.com.
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