by Sarah West
Synonymous with sweetness, fragrance and divine sustenance, nectar is a term borrowed from mythology. Stemming from a Greek word meaning “death-defeating,” nectar was the literal drink of the gods that, along with ambrosia (the food of immortality), granted eternal life. Appropriated in the 1600’s to imply a sweet substance, the word nectar has never fully shaken its mythical origins.
As flowers and their ethereal scents came about long before Mount Olympus, the concepts of nectar and ambrosia were surely influenced by the real thing, challenging human imagination to reach beyond their earthly limitations. The word nectar still elicits fondness and wonder, that a thing so small and insubstantial can enter the nose and mouth with such outsized charm. Nectar is sugar, but with complex scent and deepness that still hints at magic.
Pull it apart with the tweezers of analytics and you’ll find that nectar is one thing, pollen and aroma compounds another. Bees are searching for nectar (at base, a sugar solution expelled by plants) as they pass from flower to flower, collecting and spreading pollen on their hind legs as they go. Aroma is less consistent from species to species: sometimes absent, sometimes residing in the pollen or nectar, sometimes exuding from petals or other flower structures.
In biology, nectar is a reward—liquid energy exchanged for pollination or protection—a symbiotic arrangement that is one of nature’s most sophisticated. Flowers direct bees’ ambitions with a multifaceted marketing program that includes elaborate architecture, fragrance, pigmentation and “nectar maps” often drawn in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Now that our species is involved, the dance has become even more complex, with humans manipulating bees and coming ever closer to annihilating them (through no fault of traditional beekeepers).
Though we are certainly not its primary directors, our involvement with honey production and collection has taught us a few things about nectar. Namely that, beyond its sugary sweetness, the flavor profile of nectar is as diverse as the plants from which it is harvested. From light and mild clover honey to aromatic citrus-blossom honey to the smoky dark flavor of buckwheat honey, nectar varietals offer a wide assortment of culinary possibilities.
Even without the nectar-extracting skill of honeybees, the sweet and fragrant flavors of certain flowers have found their way into our culinary traditions. I grew up sucking on the trumpet-shaped tubes of honeysuckle and columbine flowers. I’ve used edible flowers as a garnish for their punch of sweet (and sometimes spicy or bitter) flavors, layered aromatic blooms in sugar to absorb their fragrance, or sprinkled them in a steeping pot of tea.
A versatile nectar to harvest this time of year is that of the black or blue elderberry tree. Flowers from either tree may be used to make elderflower cordial, a simple syrup infused with the rich aromatics of elderflowers.
Elderflower cordial is a popular beverage base in northern Europe, where it is used to flavor sparkling water. I’ve added mine to cocktails, iced tea and even drizzled it over fresh strawberries for a refreshing dessert. Elderflowers may also be added whole to pancake, pastry or fritter batters, and lend a delicate richness to strawberry preserves. Be sure to correctly identify foraged elderflowers before using them, as some varieties are mildly toxic.
Bringing nectar into the kitchen requires a subtle hand. While some honeys are strong enough to hold their own in a barbeque sauce, fresh flowers, especially, have an ethereal flavor that hovers and easily flutters away among more powerful seasonings. Put in the right place, nectar, pollen and flower fragrance offer substance fit for the gods.