Balqees: Honey From a Magical Island

Last year I found a picture of an island called Socotra. I stared at it for a long time, in shock. The island looked like something out of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale: enormous mushroom-like stalks with prickly green tops, known as the dragon"s blood tree, and the bulbous trunks of the desert rose, an almost cartoonishly ridiculous-looking tree with poisonous bark.

I couldn't help myself... a Google search began and returned a 2007 article published in the New York Times. In the 1990s a team of UN specialists explored Socotra and discovered that the island was home to 700 species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. It is almost aggressively unique: 250 million years ago, when almost all the earth's landmasses were joined together, Socotra stood alone. But what most intrigued me in the article was the author's description of what he tasted from one of Socotra's trees:

"I caught the drop of sap on my finger and inhaled a sharp, sweet fragrance; then I put it to my tongue. The torture of the drive was forgotten, and for the briefest moment, under the hot Yemeni sun, I tasted Christmas."

Last week I remembered Socotra. I was visiting Dubai on a trip that had nothing to do with but very quickly became almost exclusively about food. The Dubai International Fine Food Festival had just wrapped and everyone seemed to be talking about a new entrant in the luxury foods scene: Balqees Honey.

Honey always seemed boring to me. I recognize that saying this may upset a certain demographic of readers who happen to be in possession of hordes of swarming bees, but I have to be honest. It's sticky and highly caloric and hey, doesn't sugar do the job just fine? But when I heard about Balqees, I got curious: Balqees is the Arabic name of the ancient Queen of Yemen, daughter of the King of Sheba. You may know her as the Queen of Sheba.

The links began to form in my mind. Balqees, Yemen, honey... the Internet did the rest and revealed what I had been secretly hoping for: honey from Socotra. I picked up the phone and within two days was sitting face-to-face with the founder and owner of Balqees Honey, Mr. Riath Hamed.

Riath is the honey industry's answer to Indiana Jones. Originally Yemeni but raised in the UK, with a professional background in something relating to business and finance, Riath has a long history in honey. Honey is an integral part of Yemen's agricultural traditions, harvested from Wadi Do'an in the Hadramout Region, Usaimat in the north, and the Socotra archipelago. Honey from these regions is precious, cultivated in peculiar environments and harvested by tribal clans in what can be best described as a cottage industry.

Sourcing the honey is not easy. Finding it is one thing, but ensuring a quality supply in an area where commercial regulations are considered to be mere suggestions is almost impossible. It took Riath a lot of time, exploration, and tribal negotiation to secure a network of suppliers for Balqees. But he did it.

As I sat with him at Balqees headquarters, Riath pulled out four jars of sample honey. Golden brown sumar, with a consistency so thick it was almost like taffy. The barely-tinted wildflower, delicately scented and popular with European customers. Do'ani, harvested from the Sidr tree, famous for its medicinal properties. And a new unlabeled blend of ginseng, ginger, Royal Jelly, and propolis. The last one was sweet, of course, but tasted also like pepper and Brazil nuts.

I asked Riath about the Socotra honey and a knowing smile lit up his face. He didn't have any samples available at headquarters, but the remote island was a clear inspiration to him. His experiences in Socotra had set off a string of honey expeditions, the latest one being a trip to the caves of Malaysia, where bees make honey in the dark. Product development in the honey industry is a fascinating thing.

I've been back in Amman for a week now and am exhibiting symptoms of Yemeni honey withdrawal. I finished my jar of Balqees sumar and tried using a generic brand afterwards, only to discover that I had developed honey snobbism. I keep hitting refresh on the Balqees webpage, and stare longingly at pictures of Socotra and its dragon's blood forests. Isn't it amazing how a simple picture on the Internet can lead to something like this? For me, honey will never be the same.

You can order Balqees Honey products online. International shipping is available.

For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.