Yemeni honey has a reputation as one of the finest in the world. This is because of the land’s vegetation and fertile pasture for bees which results in many varieties of honey which taste incredible. Genuine Yemeni honey is so highly prized that its possession is considered a status symbol in Arab culture and being offered Yemeni honey when entering a Yemeni home means that you are truly an honoured guest.
Why is Yemeni honey (including Balqees honey) so expensive? The effort that goes into bringing the product from remote areas and the highly nutritional value is part of what makes this honey so special and unique. Cave honey is particularly expensive but with good reason, and the story behind it is quite extraordinary.
Yemen's recorded history started three thousand years ago, being on the main spice route from the East to Europe. It was known as Saba (Sheba), and was a significant power in the world at that time. The Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon appears in both the Holy Qur’an and the Bible. The reputation and high demand for Yemen's honey also dates from this period, famous to this day for its high quality, potent medicinal qualities and nourishment for the body.
Honey and Yemeni culture
My own connection with Yemeni honey is part of my culture and an important part of my life. I grew up in Yorkshire, UK but my roots are in Yemen. My family moved to the UK in the 1950s and brought with them many of the strong traditions. One of my favourite memories from childhood is eating Bint Al Sahn (Yemeni honey cake) with lashings of Sidr honey. My mother and I still make it today when we get together.
Sidr and Elb are the trees that provide some of the most well-known and most expensive Yemeni honeys, the trees are so special they are mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. The Yemeni honey we harvest for Balqees is from Wadi Do’an in the Hadramout Region, Usaimat in the north, and the Socotra archipelago which I've visited many times and have got to know well the nomadic beekeepers who use traditional methods to havest the honey which they supply us direct. Raw honey from these places is precious and rare as it is cultivated in challenging environments and harvested by tribal clans in what can be best described as a cottage industry
The work is labour intensive with the production and delivery from both the bees and human. You can still find traditional beekeeping methods in Yemen, as described in the book, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting by Ethel Eva Crane. Bees have protected themselves from the intense heat by making their hives in caves in the mountains for centuries. The book explains how the people of the mountains learned to mimic the cave environment and create their own versions and cultivated their honey that way, learning from nature. The use of small wood, cane or pottery hives for both stationary and nomadic beekeeping are still practised and the techniques of beekeeping and honey extraction remain mostly intact, although some modern methods have been introduced in recent years.
Yemeni Sidr Do’ani, Sumar, Wildflower Honey, Sidr, Socotra Honey and Marai Yemeni Honey, which we bring from Yemen to Balqees, all have amazing taste profiles and healing properties. We also use this for our fusions. I'm always thrilled to see the look on people's faces when they taste this honey for the first time and the different varieties strike a different chord with each individual according to their palates and preferences. I think it also offers a unique insight into the honey culture of this part of the world.
Kahouf or cave honey from Yemen
The most expensive Yemeni honey is Kahouf (cave) honey, from Wadi Amd. There, in the remote mountains, inside caves as mentioned, the bees make wild hives. Hidden from the sun this liquid gold retains its thick consistency, amber colour and all its rich nutrients. We work with a cooperative of beekeepers and can only get around 300 to 400 kilos every two years as it's so difficult to find and harvest. The beekeepers have to crawl inside the caves through narrow fissures in the rock and collect just enough so that the bees can still thrive without damaging the hive or these precious creatures. It is so rare and so raw and so good and it costs at least AED 5,500 (1550 USD) a kilo.
For centuries our forefathers have understood the remarkable healing properties of raw honey and Sidr honey is often called the Manuka of the Middle East. Yemeni Royal Sidr honey is lauded in ancient religious texts for its curative abilities and considered medical grade with healing properties far higher than standard table honey.
Potent properties of Yemeni Sidr
Both Manuka honey and Sidr honey have antibacterial and antiseptic properties handed down to them from their mother plants. While the tea tree bush (Manuka) is widely known for its oil, the Sidr tree is used medicinally from bark to berry. Each part of the tree has a purpose in healing. In addition to its many medicinal uses, Sidr berries are also extremely nutritious — something passed down to the honey as well, thanks to the rich soil in the region.
Sidr honey is reported to be particularly good for liver problems, stomach ulcers, respiratory infections, digestive problems, infected wounds and burns, surgical wounds and strengthens the immune system and promotes general health and vitality. Some honeys are found to have as much as 75-150 mg ascorbic acid per 100g, while others have less than 5mg per 100g. Research has found that darker honeys like the Royal Sidr Cave honey has higher antioxidant properties which helps combat the signs of aging.
So as you can see, there is good reason why this rare raw honey carries a hefty price tag, for its highly medicinal qualities and difficulty of sourcing it. Finding it is one thing, but ensuring a quality supply in an area of conflict (that I’m hugely saddened by) and with commercial regulations a challenge. It has taken me a long time and exploration, and tribal negotiation to secure a network of suppliers for Balqees. But I’m happy I have, as it is such a special premium product and I feel I’m giving back to the people and land of my ancestry and allowing people around the world the opportunity to taste this amazing honey.
According to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health & Wellness Survey, as reported in Forbes Magazine, people are prepared to pay more for products that claim to boost health and weight loss. The survey polled over 30,000 individuals online and the results, some 88%, said they were ready to pay more for products that are natural, can aid illness and combat weight loss. Whether for medicinal, therapeutic reasons or just pure, unrivaled taste, I hope you'll explore the amazing world of raw Yemeni honey.