My host father Misha came home one recent evening clutching a plastic bag to his chest like a baby. He carries it to the kitchen, calls for the largest pot in the house, and carefully unties the knot from the top of the bag.
He opens the sack to reveal two flat wooden frames filled with natural comb and dripping with sweet, slightly herbaceous nectar. One he removes immediately, cutting the comb out of the frame and dropping the chunks into a colander he has suspended over the pot. The honey drains down in long, languorous swoons.
Unless you know a beekeeper (or are one yourself), you’re unlikely to see honey on the comb very often in the United States. I remember only a few instances as a child, when my parents used to take my brother and I to get honey ice cream once a year at the Minnesota State Fair. In front of the ice cream stand was a transparent plastic box with several frames inside lined up like library books, bees buzzing ceaselessly around them as they built their combs diagonally from top to bottom. The honey glistened in the sun, tantalizing my tastebuds as I waited for Dad to hand the long-awaited cone down to me.
Tonight’s honey comes from the village of Kobuleti, a resort town several kilometers up the Black Sea coast from Batumi, where I live. Its flavor is grassier and more pungent than the mild clover honey most Americans are raised on, and its scent fills the kitchen as the second frame is pulled out to drain.
My host mother Shushana views this as the perfect opportunity to make a batch of halva, which is one of the few things her 27-year-old son Dato will eat with evident pleasure. This confection appears in a variety of different guises from the Indian subcontinent across the Middle East and into eastern Europe and northern Africa, each so different from the next that it’s difficult to offer a generalized definition.
Here in Georgia (and in Russia as well, judging from my own experiences there), “halva” refers to a sweet, slightly nutty-tasting crumbly mass composed of flour, butter, and sugar or honey, with the possible addition of crushed peanuts or sunflower seeds.
The night is cold, so Shushana pulls her electric oven in from the balcony and plugs it in on top of the kitchen table. (There is a gas oven in the stove, but I’ve never seen her use it for anything but storing pots and pans. I suspect this is because gas is more expensive than electricity here and it is not centrally run to my family’s apartment, so they must call the city for a new propane tank every time it runs out.)
She roasts a cookie sheet full of flour inside until it turns golden: this provides the nutty flavor. Then we sift it, work in sugar, honey, and butter, and press handfuls of the mixture hard against the back of a spoon to form tasty, fingernail shaped lumps.
I enjoy one with my Turkish coffee the next morning, but by the next day they are gone: Dato must have had his fill.
4 cups (1/2 kilo) white or wheat flour
1 cup (1/4 kilo) white sugar
1/4 cup (80 grams) flavorful honey
2 sticks (230 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (230 C). Roast the flour on a cookie sheet for about 25 minutes or until it turns golden and smells nutty, stirring every 8 minutes or so. Pour into large bowl.
Stir in sugar, then add butter and honey, working the butter into the mixture by flattening chunks of it between the back of a spoon and the side of the bowl. The mixture should be crumbly and slightly sticky.
When well mixed, use your fingers to press small handfuls of the mixture into the bowl of a spoon, flattening the open side against your hand. Serve with coffee or tea.