Beautiful Innocenta or The Honey Hierachy

In which we discover that you can still enjoy a story when the prince is clueless, that women you find in strange castles can have hidden talents and its amazing what you can whip up with a few almonds & some honey.

Is this Story Strangely Familiar?

So what did you think of the story? Have you got the feeling that you’ve heard it a few times before but it’s not quite the same? Thats not surprising really, there are variants of this tale in at least 20 different countries across the globe and some countries even have different versions of the same variant. England is one of them but I suspect that the one you know which is certainly the most famous is the the Master Maid from Norway.

A Taste of Sicily

The version we are looking at today is Sicilian and collected by Laura Gonzenbach that we discussed at length in the last episode. Its tale type is ATU313 The Magic Flight and early all the variants have a heroine who assists the hero to escape from a villain by turning into various combinations of things as they get further and further away sometimes they help the hero complete seemingly easy but actually impossible tasks before they escape.

The villain is often an ogre, but sometimes a witch, and sometimes both as in our tale. Our tale has these elements but also a beginning to the tale that comes straight out of the first recorded literary version of this tale.Can you guess where this can be found, yes, its Tale of Tales by Gimabattisa Basile! I do read some other collections of tales I promise but this is a common tale type in Italy.

I don’t know whether the commonality of the oral version of the tale or the Basile version came first. The Basile tale is The Three Citrons should you wish to investigate further. It has an interesting ricotta element which I may follow up myself at a later date. I do really like ricotta but my concern is that is has very little folkloric significance.

Is Your Hero Actually A Waste of Space?

Anyway back to our current tale. This is one of those tales which I nearly didn’t look at as I get very cross with the hero. His thoughtless actions to a vulnerable member of society are what causes all of his future problems. He is rescued from these by a clever and talented woman and then he doesn’t follow her advice because he’s concerned that by arriving as they do she won’t carry enough status.

This results in him nearly forgetting her and marrying another. Innocenta would be the only one of the two to suffer again here as he would be happy enough with his alternative bride but she hasn’t had her memory wiped so would remain distressed and miserable. He also insists she must marry him as he’s gone to so much trouble to win her. She at no point has ever asked him to rescue her from her own parents.

So you might be wondering why I ever set out to tell the tale when I hold the hero in so much disdain? I think its because the part of the tale that I do love is Innocenta’s cleverness and ingenuity which wouldn’t have been demonstrated without our hero’s idiocy. I might personally think she would better off leaving him to his new wife and going off and finding a better man but she clearly wanted him so used all her cunning and knowledge to win the day.

Female Independence

I also think its easier in our time to forget that the idea of female independence is a very modern one. Its only been in the last 50 years that women had a legal right to their own bank account without it being countersigned by a responsible male relative. Even with all Innocenta’s skills she really did need a man if she wanted her own home and a family so maybe it was a question of better the devil you know. I do think its telling though that the prince is never given a name, its all about Beautiful Innocenta.

A Taste of Honey

I think we’ll leave our tale there with the taste of honey in our mouths not bitterness. Do you like what I did there? I’m fairly proud of it. As you may have guessed we’re going to look at honey as our food of choice in this episode. I wasn’t in the mood to research olive oil or almonds but I thought honey might be soothing at this horrid time of year whilst we’re waiting for spring to peep through the murky greyness of a British winter. I also had the last scrapings of the jar of one of my favourite honeys on toast with the lovely butter with the salt crystals in on the day I read this again so it seemed like serendipity.

A Touch Too Much Toast

Honey is important from a historic, culinary and folkloric perspective so it seemed a perfect ingredient to research. I have ended up eating far more honey that I usually do as a result and I’ve been trying to taste all my favourites. They’re not all good on toast, greek pine honey is perfect over rich thick yoghurt instead. Shropshire wildflower honey and Scottish heather honey however are just perfect on toast with butter.

The toast needs to be the sort where you crunch through to a lovely soft middle of the slice and I prefer wholegrain for this. Sourdough would also work here but isn’t necessary. It doesn’t always have the lovely pillowy softness under the crunch but the sourness of the bread enhances the flavours of the honey so there’s that.

Our Honeyed Isle

Anyway I got distracted, we’ll get back to the culinary uses for honey later but first we need to look at the folklore. Did you know that the Druid’s called Britain ‘Honey Isle’ due the prevalence of honey and bees there? Me either. Honey was thought to be a divine substance, a gift from the gods. They Egyptians thought that bees collected the honey that had been left by the gods and so they were considered sacred manifestations of the gods. Other civilisations considered honey to be gift of the the earth mother Astarte, the goddess of fertility, maternity and love.

The ancient greeks also considered it a food of the gods, consumed in ambrosia. It appears as a divine foodstuff in Homer’s Odyssey as well. Even Virgil believed it was ‘heaven-borne’. The Romans offered it as a sacrifice to Proserpina (known by the Greeks as Persephone) the goddess of both the underworld and the Spring. They thought it was enough to tempt her from the Underworld and bring on the Spring.

A Mysterious Substance

Honey has been a mystical substance through history because it was made through a mysterious process. It been used for many purposes, as medicine, preservative, as an offering to the dead as well as for love charms. Honey was an offering to gods (sometimes in the form of mead) and in rituals due to its purity. It has also been used in dishes at weddings to ensure the sweetness of the relationship and increase fertility of the union.

There is sadly little evidence to suggest the truth of the rumour that the honeymoon at start of a marriage stems from ancient peoples being outside of their societies for the first moon (or month) of their marriage and provided with honey and mead to increase the joy of their married lives together. It is a lovely romantic tale though and believing it hurts no-one.

All Honey, No Bees

I’ve tried here to keep the folklore strictly to honey here and away from bees which have even more wonderful folklore attached. Its a shame really as it would have been a lovely time to talk about why St Valentine who was the patron saint of beekeepers as well as romantic love. I’ll just have to save it for Valentine’s Day next year. So we’ll move on now to some honey history instead.

Honey is up there with our big historic food items. Evidence for its use has been found in Egypt in 5000BCE, only 2,000 years after wine and beer (7,000 BCE) and 5,000 years after flour, bread and soup (10,000 BCE). There is even a neolithic rock painting in the Araña cave near Valencia in Spain which shows a man collecting wild honey. Archaeologists have even discovered evidence of a 2,700-year-old caramelized honey and fennel tart alongside mead buried with King Midas in western Turkey.

A Taste of Toxicity

Honey has even been used in warfare. Bees harvested the flowers of toxic (to humans) plants and made honey and this honey was given to enemy soldiers to weaken them so they could be easily killed if they hadn’t already died of the toxic honey. There is evidence of this happening to Greek soldiers in Turkey in 401BCE and to Roman soldiers in 67 BCE.

Trading Empires

Honey was also a vital trade item and was traded throughout the world by various trading empires, including the Greeks, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Romans Arabs, the Chinese and the Mayans. Honey was a wonder product throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, it was used a sweetener, a medicine, a preservative as a food and the basis for mead. Beekeeping was consider an essential skill as honey was sometimes used instead of currency. Some German peasants in the 11th century paid their feudal lords in honey and beeswax.

Candles are Us

Beeswax was another reason that honey was all the rage in the Middle Ages throughout Europe as monasteries often had many hives in order to have wax to make candles for services. Honey was almost a by product and was also used in mead . It is also another reason that the British Isles lost its taste for honey earlier than the rest of Europe.

The monasteries were the biggest purveyors of honey and when these were dissolved under Henry VIII a lot of beekeeping knowledge was lost along with brewing knowledge (both beer and mead) and cheese knowledge. Obviously all these continued but on a smaller scale.

Sugar & Other Incomers

The arrival of sugar cane and later sugar beet as a cheap replacement sweetener meant that by 1800s honey was slowly becoming a luxury. It was also being replaced as a preservative with the other methods such as canning and then freezing being more convenient and cheaper. As medical knowledge increased and better treatments became available in Europe it was also in decline as a medicine. Research is being done now however as into the value of honey as a wound treatment.

Honey is antibacterial and hydroscopic (meaning that it pulls water from its surroundings including wounds), its also sticky so bandages can be attached to the honey rather than pulling at the healing wound when dressings are changed. It remains a folk remedy for coughs and sore throats. I know that hot lemon and honey drink was the first remedy I was given as a child if I had a cough or sore thraat and I still make it now as an adult. I don’t know whether its has any medicinal value but it certainly seems to soothe my throat and makes me feel better.

Finally, Food

So we’ve covered honey in folklore and in history, if only briefly, as its such a huge topic. I’d say you could write a book, but several people already have so there’s clearly lots to be written about honey. We are now going to take a peep at honey as a culinary ingredient. Honey is one of those few ingredients that can be used in its raw state. Just get it out of the hive, wild or kept and indulge.

Take care however, if its wild, unless you know what flowers your bees have been feasting on, remember all those poisoned soldiers. It can also be used in recipes or to enhance the sweetness of a dish. You can also use it to preserve food such as fruit. If you want to try some medieval recipes there are lots available. Its also used in gingerbread and German biscuits like Lebkuchen.

If you are using it remember that it darkens more quickly than things sweetened by sugar, so use other clues when baking rather than colour or you may end up with undercooked biscuits or cakes. No-one wants a soft gingerbread man.

In countries like Portugal and Spain where there was less influence of the Protestant Reformation there are lots more cakes and sweets based on honey. Honey can also be used combined with vinegar to create sweet & sour dressings. Chilli honey has also become very popular recently which can be drizzled across pretty much anything to add heat and sweetness but is particularly popular on pizza. The combination of citrussy, lemony, salty, fresh goat’s cheese and sweet honey is also particularly winning.

A Little Kiss

It is also a popular ingredient as ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern sweets such as Gulab Jamun and Baklava and works beautifully with rosewater and orange water. in honour of the honey and almond paste birds that Innocenta created, our recipe for today stems from there. I was brought up on these and semolina based cakes and much prefer them to a traditional English style sponge cake with buttercream (although that can be nice too so I’ve decided to use one of these as the recipe for today.

The cake is known as Basbousa, a semolina cake, soaked in syrup. Some sources say the name means little kiss in Arabic and that the cake originates in Egypt but others suggest Turkey as the origin of this particular cake.

The recipe I use is that of Claudia Roden but I use honey instead of sugar in the syrup as I love the more complex flavours. This recipe is from her wonderful book – A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. If you don’t have it you should put it at the top of your list. The stories and histories around the food take you to the most wonderful places without leaving your home.

Basbousa with Yoghurt



Prep time


Cooking time



Recipe adapted from A New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden


  • 120g Unsalted butter

  • ½ teacup blanched almonds

  • 150 ml (¼ pint) yoghourt

  • 1 teacup sugar

  • 1½ teacups semolina

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar or a few drops of vanilla essence

  • clotted cream or whipped double cream (optional)

  • 1½ teacups honey

  • ½ teacup water

  • Juice of ½ lemon


  • Make a thick syrup by boiling the honey, water and lemon juice together and simmering until it thickens. Allow to cool, and chill.
  • Melt 120 g (4 oz) butter. Toast the blanched almonds and chop them finely.
  • Beat the yoghourt with the sugar in a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the butter and all remaining ingredients except the cream, and beat well until thoroughly mixed.
  • Pour into a large, rectangular, buttered baking tray and bake in a fairly hot oven (190°C/375°F/Mark 5) for ½ hour.
  • Pour the cold syrup over the hot basbousa as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cut into lozenge shapes and return to the oven for a further 3 minutes.
  • Serve with thick clotted cream or whipped double cream if you like.
Further Reading

The Robber with a Witch’s Head – More Stories from the Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk & Fairy Tales collected by Laura Gonzenbach translate and edited by Jack Zipes
Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind – Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier
The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us – Bee Wilson, (New York, 2006)
Honey, A Global History – Lucy M. Long
Oxford Companion to Food – Alan Davison
Forme of Cury
Greenwood Encyclopedia of Fairy tales – Donald Haase
A New Book of Middle Eastern Food – Claudia Roden

Featured Image: Photo by 卡晨 on Unsplash