Title: The Honey Month
Author: Amal El-Mohtar
Publisher: Cheeky Frawg Press
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books
It’s so hard translating a taste into language. Words like “bitter” and “sweet” lack nuance on their own, but our attempts to add that nuance often take a turn towards the cliched and the precious — think of all those labels that describe a wine as having “hints of oak” or an “elegant character.”
The impossibility sharing the experiences of one’s tastebuds is something I face a lot as a tea reviewer. Die-hard tea drinkers will understand what I mean when I say that a black tea is “malty” or “biscuity”, but I don’t have a developed-enough vocabulary to pick out each flavour and organize the taste sensations into an intelligible format.
This is why I find Amal El-Mohtar’s achievement in her anthology The Honey Month so impressive. Once, as a lark by a new friend, she was given 28 different vials of honey to taste and puzzle over. And taste she did, one day after the other for a month. Each flavour was so evocative that she wrote a short story or poem in response. It was only after she finished tasting the entire set that she started to imagine that the whole series of notes could be turned into a publishable collection.
I am so glad that this collection exists, though, because in it, she has found a way to take the flavours of each honey and transform her reactions to them into something impressionistic, yet distinctive and easy to grasp.
(Full disclosure: I’ve met Amal and have had conversations with her. I’ve even taken the rather intimate step of mailing her some tea from my cupboard!)
For example, here are her notes on leatherwood honey, which she tasted on the second-to-last day:
Colour: Chardonnay. I look at its pale yellow-gold and imagine the buttery aftertaste. Beautifully, stickily liquid and clear.
Smell: Candy-sweet with a creaminess to it, white flowers and sugared milk.
Taste: High sweetness; on the register of sweetness this would a top note. A sweetness you taste behind your eyes. Petals and light.
El-Mohtar is not afraid to use her body, her experiences, her memories — or even things that can’t be tasted at all — as points of comparison in her tasting notes. Combined with the loveliness of her fictional accompaniments to each variety of honey, it seems as if she has found a way to embody what she tastes.
Here’s an example; this is part of the vignette she wrote in response to tasting apricot creamed honey on day 24:
The bees come when she lets down her hair.
There is a simple brass stick, two-pronged, with which she binds it up until the moment is precisely right. When she leans over a railing to gaze at the sea; when she bites into an apricot and closes her eyes; when the rain ends and the air drips with the scent of wet leaves, she pulls the stick from her hair, releases it, lets it tumble down in chestnut waves. It smells of honey and ginger, and the bees love it.
When they surround her, she breathes in the vibration of their bodies, exhales music, breathes it in again. They crown and armour her, they hide her while she dissolves into a joy too keen for eyes that come in simple pairs, eyes that could not possibly appreciate the peace, the thrill, the trembling, the way those thousand bodies do. They sing her aching silence out, they chime their wings like champagne flutes, they pat her cheeks and lashes with more love than is commonly thought to be possible. You smell so good, so good, they cry, we love the way you smell. And when the trembling subsides, when their joy ebbs like a wave from the sand, they bestow a final kiss against her hair, her skin, before flying off.
The cascading tumble of hair, the surrounding thrum of the bees, their plaintive cries, the smell of ginger — could there possibly be a more evocative image to describe the juiciness and vitality of the honey in question? I think what strikes me most about The Honey Month is this: El-Mohtar bares herself in these works, is willing to dive deep into various sensations and memories to create new and fantastic images based on what she tastes.
In other words, she’s brave.
And it makes me think: I don’t engage in such flights of fancy when I write my tea reviews. What exactly is it about writing in such a style that scares me? Is it the fact that my wording isn’t as precise? Is it because I’m scared to make the leap towards using unusual but somehow bone-true images to describe what I’m tasting?
I suppose you could say that The Honey Month has given me permission to try a more experimental approach when it comes to tasting and reviewing. I felt a profound sense of “Wait, that’s allowed? You can actually do that?” as I flipped through the pages.
I’m not sure what to make of my own little epiphany just yet. But I do have a jar of linden honey sitting in the cupboard, all thick and crystallized. Maybe, if I’m brave enough, I will send some Amal El-Mohtar’s way.