For many years, água-mel (“honey-water”)was considered the “poor honey” of bee keepers, a by-product of working the honey, which for the families of the Alentejo and Algarve areas in southern Portugal has always represented an important source of nutrition. Tradition says that in Mértola, a town in the mountains of the Beja district, when a traveller knocked on the door to ask for water, it was customary to offer the traveller água-mel with a piece of bread. In the north of Alentejo, on the other hand, it was said to be common practice to offer água-mel and olives to travellers.
Água-mel is obtained by boiling the water that was used to wash honeycombs. At the end of the honey extraction process, the wax is immersed in hot water, which is enriched by the residual substances on the honeycomb, including honey, pollen, and propolis. The color of the resulting liquid depends on how dark or light the honey in the combs was. The liquid is filtered and sieved through linen cloths to eliminate any residual solids. It is then boiled again until it turns into a thick syrup; the cooking process, which can last for several hours up to an entire day, must be closely monitored, and the liquid is constantly mixed to homogenize the consistency and to avoid burning. The abundant foam that forms on the surface must also be removed. This work was traditionally entrusted to the older woman of the house. Depending on the production area and the various recipes held by the local families, água-mel could also be aromatized with orange or lemon peels, cinnamon, or other spices, but in most cases nothing was added.
Água-mel is difficult to find nowadays–some small bottegas sell it, but otherwise it is necessary to go directly to the few beekeepers who still produce it. Traditionally, it is spread on pieces of toasted bread to accompany fresh or aged cheeses, as a condiment in salads, or even with dried cod. During holidays it is used to prepare an água-mel cake, a delicacy very popular in the southern regions of Portugal, which also contains flour, egg, and extra virgin olive oil. Finally, água-mel is also used in the preparation of liqueurs and as a soothing treatment for respiratory diseases.