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A behind-the-scenes look at the quest to make honey the key ingredient in Orlando’s 'signature dish'

So bee it



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"Florida has the largest variety of honey of any state," says Beth Fox, spokesperson for the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association. "You have a lot of diverse nectar sources and more wildflowers, so you get all different colors and flavors."

Fox says orange blossom honey and tupelo honey are Florida's most coveted exports, though she's particular to a dark-colored variety she calls "Miami honey," a tropical product that includes avocado, mango, mamey, papaya and lychee plants as nectar sources.

To make orange blossom honey, beekeepers fix agreements with citrus growers to keep their bees near groves. Despite the commonly held belief that these two hold a symbiotic relationship, Fox says what started off as a cooperative agreement has declined because most citrus varieties are self-pollinating. Some growers don't want bees in their groves because insect pollination increases the amount of seeds in the fruit, though many still coordinate pollination services with beekeepers. Ironically, the greening disease that has ravaged Florida's citrus trees and the pesticides used to stop it has had a secondary impact on the creation of orange blossom honey. In 2013, the state fined one citrus grower $1,500 after the owner illegally sprayed pesticides that caused the death of millions of bees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked Florida fifth in its annual report on honey production for 2016, below North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and California, at roughly 10.8 million pounds of honey produced. Fox says honey is a "very Central Florida thing" because so many beekeepers are registered in the area. A September beekeepers registration count from the state department of agriculture lists Orange County as having 118 beekeepers, but other Florida counties like Hillsborough and Pinellas topped Orange with 236 and 185 beekeepers, respectively.

"I think this contest is nothing but positive," Fox says. "I loved the fact that the mayor came up with this idea, and they didn't say honey was just the signature food. You can put it on everything – toast, coffee, tea. I make my own salad dressings with at least a teaspoon of honey. I eat it every day."

Fox says it's difficult to truly know exactly where grocery store honey is coming from, so the best option is to buy honey from a beekeeper you know, like someone selling their product at a farmers market.

With the announcement of its signature ingredient, Visit Orlando also introduced a culinary competition open to all Orlando restaurant chefs to make a dessert using local honey as a key ingredient. The public would vote online to narrow it down to 10 entries, from which judges would later choose a winner. Those 10 finalists reveal something singular about this city: It's overflowing with culinary prowess.

Using honey as their signature ingredient, chefs crafted mouthwatering desserts that look enchanting. There's the deliciously complex dish by Chef Gloriann Rivera of 1921 by Norman Van Aken that combines honey crémeux with spiced cake topped with honey sponge candy, pistachio crumble, candied persimmon and chocolate black tea sorbet. On the opposite end, there's a rich simplicity from executive pastry Chef Rabii Saber of Four Seasons Resort Orlando, with his peanut butter-swirled gelato that's lightly scented with orange blossom honey and topped with crunchy candied peanuts. Saber, who was on the 2017 American team for the prestigious Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie competition in France, says local officials gave no guidelines for how simple or complex the dish should be. So Saber tried to create something he thought would be easy for mom-and-pop businesses and smaller ventures to replicate.

"Orlando is known for its attractions and Florida weather is always warm, so what's better than ice cream or gelato?" Saber says. "For the Coupe du Monde competition, we had to dig deep into the recipe. We worked months to make the best chocolate cake in the world. We had to get the perfect measure of density of sugar in each component, so it's a lot of science. But for this competition, I didn't want to make it so complicated you couldn't duplicate it. I wanted to contribute to my community more wisely."

According to several interviews with local chefs, Visit Orlando officials didn't give competitors many guidelines on how the winning recipe would be used. Would it be used in promotional materials? Would they ask every restaurant in Orlando to have their own version of the dessert?

When OW asked, Orange County officials said Visit Orlando was responsible for every aspect of the competition. Visit Orlando spokesperson Spiegel said the agency would be "promoting the dish and looking at ways it may be adopted, including a possible integration into Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month," with more details to come. In a previous statement, Visit Orlando president and CEO George Aguel said the initiative "celebrates the culinary talent in our region, unites the community through a friendly competition, and allows us to create some great 'buzz' about Orlando's dining scene and chef artistry."

Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, owner of Se7enbites, made it to the final 10 competitors with her creation, a three-layered honey velvet cake brushed with orange blossom honey syrup, filled with orange blossom honey pastry cream and topped with buttercream and crushed roasted salted pistachios. The only requirement she received was to use local honey, though she tried to make something that would be easy to share.

"Everybody's baking skill is different," she says. "In my mind, when I think of a signature dish, I would have to say I think it would be accessible to the public. A Key lime pie – that's pretty accessible. Someone who comes to Orlando to taste this dessert should be able to re-create it at home."

Gregory-Propst says she appreciated that Visit Orlando officials dove a little deeper, past theme park foods and into something that really speaks to Orlando. Rife, owner of East End Market, agrees.

"All of us at the table wanted to celebrate the culinary scene in Orlando," he says. "It's such a diverse place, and this signature ingredient authentic to Central Florida plays to the heart of who we are."

That said, it's hard to predict how much of this will catch on with local consumers or tourists.

"I think the notion of a signature dish has to grow organically," Morris says. "It's part of the cultural identity – you can't just force it upon us and say this is our dish. The Philly cheesesteak, for example, is street food, and we don't have so much street food here. I love the Asian food here, and Orlando has great Spanish and Puerto Rican food as well. There are so many great eating places here in the city because of the diversity. I think whatever it is they come up with, as well-intentioned as it might be, it's going to seem contrived."

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