by Chef Jenn Farmer
Honey is what I would consider a sort of miraculous. Yes it is sweet and tastes delicious, but there is so much more to it. Honey never spoils, it has been found in Egyptian tombs, still edible. Honey possesses antibacterial properties and has been used in healing since ancient times. It is a natural preservative, and has been touted to reduce allergies. In other words honey is very valuable in many ways.
To create honey, bees must first gather nectar from plants. Bees have a slight electrostatic charge, which attracts pollen, dust, and other tiny particulate. As the bees gather more nectar, they help in the pollination of plants. Humans don’t realize how much this impacts the food chain. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council in an article published March 2011, at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants need to be cross-pollenated—without bees they would die. Those numbers might not mean too much, so let me clarify in dollars. The same article states that in the U.S. alone $15 billion (yes with a “B”) dollars in crops are pollenated by bees and that does not include the 150 million dollars worth of honey that they produce. So bees are not just critical for our food sources, but for the economy too. Sadly, bee populations are on the decline, for a variety of known and unknown reasons. One way to support the local bees is to eat local, and encourage the local farms to be organic (herbicides and pesticides harm bees). Another way is to support your local beekeepers by eating more honey (although. as stated above, their income is mostly derived from the pollination process not the honey harvest, but every bit does count).
My fascination with honey started when I was a youth, but was fueled by a trip I took to Lithuania in 1994. It is a long story, but I ended up staying in a village near the town of Taurage. I stayed with a widower who had a beautiful garden and bees. Fortunately for me he was harvesting, and though I spoke little Lithuanian, and he spoke no English; he showed me how to help him harvest the honey. We would silently work, slicing the thinwaxy caps from the comb frames, load them into the large stainless steel “barrel” and spin them until the honey started to flow. We would strain the honey into large bucket, place it in jars with lids, and label it. When we completed our morning work, we would have our breakfast. It consisted of tea, fresh peasant bread with a slice of soft farmer cheese drizzled in honey and black and red currants I had picked from the bushes surrounding the house. The bread and the cheese were dropped off earlier by the neighbors who had made them, and we left them jars of honey. Though it was all so simple, I am hard pressed to think of a more satisfying meal or more satisfying work for that matter. In fact I enjoyed it so much I cried the entire trip back to the states which took two days. There was sobbing on the plane to Denmark, tears whilst in Copenhagen, the next morning more crying on the flight back to New York, then to Chicago, and
Iowa… it was pretty pathetic.
That same very same year a botanist from Siberia was visiting my family. He had a friend who was a beekeeper, and he brought us the most unique honey I have ever seen. It was light green and nearly clear. It tasted like the most delicate perfume in the world. He claimed the nectar and pollen came from a type of pine or fir tree. It was a small jar and when the botanist asked if I would like to visit Siberia I jumped at the chance, even if it was just to get more of that honey. Whilst in Irkutsk, I was disappointed because I found honey, but not the type I was looking for. It was more like typical wildflower. Luckily a few days and a train ride later, I found some at a farmer’s market in the town of Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal. The seller was from a remote area. It was incredible and just as amazing as I had remembered it.
A couple of years back, I was introduced to a local Nantucket beekeeper, David Berry, to whom I retold these tales and my desire to someday have an apiary of my own. We kept in contact, and last week I was invited to see the harvest. I got so nostalgic, the aroma of hot beeswax, and scalding honey emanating off the hot knife, as David sliced the caps off the frames. There was a small group of us watching the harvest, and he was kind enough to let us give it a try. My 5-year-old was even involved and had the time of his life. The process is as I remembered: simple and therapeutic. What a lovely treat, and the honey was, as expected, amber in color, fragrant, and quite excellent. David explained that the flavor, color, and aroma of honey depends on the time of year and the source of the nectar. If I wrote all I learned that day, this would be a book not an article. I am sure you will hear more from me about honey and miraculous bees very soon. Thank You David! It was a treat that we may never forget. Happy harvest.
RICOTTA AND HONEY WITH CURED MEAT
- 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
- 4 tablespoons honey
- One quarter pound Prosciutto or other cured meat, thinly sliced
- Whole grain Crackers
Smear a bit of the ricotta on a cracker, add a little prosciutto, drizzle with honey. Eat immediately. Sometimes simple is the very best. Serves 4
Honey never goes bad, but it can ferment. Mead is made by fermenting honey on purpose.
- 4 pounds honey
- 1 gallon water
- 6 cloves whole
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 lemon thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon activated yeast
Boil together EXCEPT the yeast for 30 minutes, then strain into a crock that is large enough to accommodate it, plus some headspace. When the mixture cools, and then adds the yeast and stir in. Allow to ferment someplace cool (55 degrees is perfect temperature) lightly covered. It will be ready when it stops bubbling and the liquor looks clear. Then the mixture can be bottled or jarred and capped. It is best to allow it to mellow for about a month, but it should be consumed within a year of making. Makes about a gallon.
ARUGULA AND HONEY VINAIGRETTE
- 4 cups cleaned arugula leaves
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- One half cup sliced parmesan cheese
- One half cup croutons
- one quarter cup lime juice
- 3-4 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Fresh herbs (optional)
Toss together the arugula, tomatoes, parmesan and croutons. Make vinaigrette with the remaining ingredients, and whisk together well. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad and enjoy. Serves 4