Sweet, flavorful, and ubiquitous, meet Lithuania's liquid gold. From tea to a cure for sore throats, Lithuanians use honey constantly. So much so that I'd have to call Lithuanian honey liquid gold.
Is Honey Really That Important In Lithuania?The short answer: yes. More than black rye bread, wild-collected mushrooms, and potatoes, honey might just be Lithuania's number one culturally important food. So much so that it has been incorporated into Lithuania's pagan belief system, proverbs, tourism, and basic healthcare.
A Lithuanian proverb says, "A lone bee cannot create honey." (Viena bite avilin medaus neprines.)
How is Lithuania's honey consumed + utilized?
One of my favorite ways to consume Lithuanian honey is in the form of honey tea, something that I had never heard of prior to moving to Lithuania. Honey tea is made from thick, spun honey with herbs incorporated into the mixture to provide ultimate health benefits. Though there are several brands that sell honey tea, my personal favorite is from Apiflorus.
They sell honey teas in a variety of sizes and include teas infused with herbs that have added health benefits. For example, lemon balm is thought to aid digestion, reduce period cramps, and be calming. The honey tea with lemon balm is excellent for relaxation, in my opinion.
To use honey tea, simply mix a small spoonful with hot water and stir. This can be enjoyed immediately -- I really enjoyed it while I was pregnant with Baby ISO. You can buy honey tea at several gift stores and at the Vilnius Airport, but my favorite place is at Senamiescio Kratuve on Literatu g. in the Vilnius old town.
Honey is used as a traditional sweetener for numerous Lithuanian desserts, although honey is now sometimes replaced by white cane sugar. My favorite Lithuanian cookbook, Taste Lithuania* by Beata Nicholson, even has a wonderful chapter entitled "Rivers of Honey." This entire chapter is dedicated to desserts, most of which use honey as the sweetener and main flavoring. Included in the recipes are gyrabukai -- my favorite Lithuanian dessert -- glazed mushroom cookies. The most famous Lithuanian dessert, honey cake, is also described, and of course, features honey as one of the main ingredients.
Honey cake (medaus tortas) is a labor intensive layer cake sweetened and flavored with quite a bit of honey. Found in numerous bakeries in Lithuania, visitors can easily sink their teeth into a slice of honey cake. Made with a different number of thin, wafer-like layers of cake depending on who makes it, the layers are then soaked in tea before assembly.
I think the best honey cake in Vilnius can be found at Senamiescio Kratuve on Literatu gatve and Pilies Kepyklele on Pilies gatve. Senamiescio Kratuve also has excellent gyrabukai, although they aren't always shaped as mushrooms. If you'd like to try out this recipe at home, the blog Ugne Bakes has a really nice recipe. The blog's writer, Ugne, is the Lithuanian woman who was on Great British Bake Off in 2015!!
The delicious hard alcohol made from honey -- mead -- has likely been produced in Lithuania for thousands of years. At one point, noble Lithuanian families even had their own special recipes and consumed up to 30 barrels per week. If you want to read more about the history of Lithuanian mead, I've written about it here for Culture Trip.
If you want to taste mead while in Lithuania (I know I do!), Lithuania's most famous mead company, Lietuviskas Midus, just started holding mead tastings in Vilnius. Prices are really reasonable, 8 Euros for four beverages, education, plus snacks. Tastings are held on Stikliu g., which is really the perfect location in old town. I'm dying to get a babysitter for the afternoon to do a tasting!
Cure for ailments
"A spoon full of [honey] makes the medicine go down[?]" ... that is how the song in Mary Poppins goes, right? Well, I bet the version translated into Lithuanian would be more culturally appropriate if honey replaced sugar in the timeless song. In Lithuania, honey is thought to be a cure for ailments. Spoonfuls of honey are added to tea, hot water, or simply consumed to prevent or help colds and sore throats.
This belief is actually backed by science, as honey is known to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Its antibacterial properties are actually what makes honey unable to spoil. Using honey (and other bee products) as a medicine is considered apitherapy, and other than ingesting honey, it can be used in facials and spa treatments.
The wonderful resort town of Druskininkai in southern Lithuania has an abundance of spas with honey-based treatments. Though I wasn't in love with the treatments at the spa I stayed at, Spa Vilnius Druskininkai was highly recommended by my friends, and I'm rather envious of their stay! Spa Vilnius Druskininkai offers body massages with honey meant to stimulate the immune system and relieve inflammation.
Where can you learn more about Lithuanian honey?
I hate to say that after four years in Lithuania, I still haven't had the chance to visit the Beekeeping Museum even though it has been on my Lithuanian Bucket List since the beginning. Though way off-the-beaten-path for most visitors, the Lithuanian Museum of Ancient Beekeeping is an open air museum located in Aukstaitija National Park. The museum features carvings of pagan beekeeping gods and goddesses, examples of tree-trunk beekeeping hives, and other beekeeping paraphernalia. It is slightly unclear when the museum is open, so you might want to check with the tourism board and call ahead before visiting. I'm hoping to visit before leaving Vilnius, although some sources say it doesn't open for the season until May, so hopefully we have time for a quick weekend escape!
Rumsiskes: The Lithuanian Open Air Museum
Rumsiskes was also on my Lithuanian Bucket List, but we managed to visit this year for my birthday. This awesome open air museum holds historic houses from all of Lithuania's cultural regions and also has a small area about beekeeping.
Honey + Lithuanian beliefs
Honey gods and goddesses
Honey features in Lithuanian food, culture, and is even wrapped into Lithuania's former pagan beliefs. Lithuanian folklore remembers two pagan bee deities. The first is the female queen bee, Austeja, the goddess of fertility and protector of women, especially pregnant women. The second deity is the male worker bee, Babilas. Further excellent details are given in this blog post.
Who knew honey could be so important. Tell me, is honey used where you live?