When to Roman general Gaeus Pompeius lead his soldiers into battle against the Pontus King Mithridates in Turkey’s Black Sea region in 67BC, he got a big shock one morning. A good part of his troops lay around in a stupor, unable to get up, leave alone raise a weapon. They all had a smile on their faces though. Mystified, because they definitely hadn’t overindulged in alcohol it took a while to solve the mystery. The enemy’s secret weapon was a sweet one: honey.
The army had moved through the mountainous and humid area near Trabzon where rhododendron bushes grew in abundance, beehives and honeycombs lined the way and the soldiers indulged happily in their sweet tooth. The Pontians had left them there to entice the Romans into consuming them and thus disabled a good part of the soldiers without bloodshed. Because they knew what the Roman’s didn’t: honey from the rhododendrons contains a good portion of grayanotoxin, a natural neurotoxin which, consumed in small quantities causes a ‘high’, in bigger ones leads to hallucinations, respiratory problems, unconsciousness or even death.
If you have visited Turkey, you’ll know that honey is an essential ingredient in Turkish cuisine. No breakfast without butter and honey, baklava drenched in honey and goezleme, the paper thin pancake filled with honey and walnuts are only a few of the Turkish Delights.
Much of the honey comes from the Black Sea region, but the specialty is mad honey or deli bal in Turkish. Still produced and difficult to come by, it’s totally legal in Turkey and pretty expensive when and if you are able to find a beekeeper who will sell it to you.
The Turks use it as medicine because it’s good against hypertension and diabetes mellitus. But… just a drop or two, boiled in milk and consumed before breakfast. Don’t even think about stirring the reddish ‘gold’ into your tea of spread it on your bread, otherwise you can become very ill indeed.
Deli bal is produced in spring, when the beekeepers drag their beehives up the mountains where vast swaths of rhododendrons flower and no other plants are around, so the honey the bees pollinate is pure and the grayanotoxin content high. The countryside is very pretty, with chalets, woods and nearby Lake Uzun. It’s worth a trip even if you aren’t on the trail of mad honey or can’t get it.
If you are scared of poisoning yourself a much more risk free use of deli bal is as skincare. Do like Cleopatra and rub it into your face for a smooth skin. If you contemplate taking a bath in milk and mad honey though, you better have a very healthy bank account.