Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Buzz Is On!!!

In May I received a “save the date” email from the Bakers Dozens membership for upcoming field trips and other meetings.

This year the summer field trip for the bakers would be at Marshall’s Honey Farm in Napa Valley.

Not being a big fan of honey, I didn’t really take much note of the field trip. Sure, I had a plastic bottle shaped like a bear in my pantry.

My husband was the one who liked honey – he put it on his peanut butter sandwiches. Sometimes I would buy a jar of unusual honey, like white honey, to put in the toe of his Christmas stocking.

Instead I noted the October meeting on my calendar since it would be with authors Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher. Now, that was a meeting I didn’t want to miss.

But then a strange thing happened. I started noticing one article after another on honey and bees.

The first article I noticed was an announcement of a shop that had just opened in June in San Francisco. This shop is called Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper. Owner Cameo Wood is an urban beekeeper and her shops carries not only honey, candles and other honey related products, but she also offers some most unusual classes including how to get started in becoming a beekeeper.

Hmm, urban beekeepers? Sounded like crazy talk. But I vowed to check out her shop. Being an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, I liked the name she had given her shop.

Then in early July, Florida became the first state (and actually probably the first in the world) to regulate honey. The regulation prohibits any additives, chemicals or adulterants in honey produced, processed or sold in Florida, which is a big producer of honey.

Regulate honey?

It seems that children’s toys and pet food from China aren’t the only products that this government produces that can make us sick. The claim is that honey is being shipped to the U.S. from China and other countries that are full of additives and much worse.

Then I heard about an upcoming PBS show on bees called “Silence of the Bees.” Like many, I had heard that the honeybee population was on the decline but I had chalked it up to another bad thing caused by global warming.

But it turns out that the disappearance of the honeybee is a mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have relished.

According to an article in Environmental Nutrition, it all started in the fall of 2006 when beekeepers around the world reported that honeybee colonies were mysteriously missing large number of bees. In 2007 the mystery was given the name of colony collapse disorder. According to this article, “colony collapse disorder is a syndrome characterized by the disappearance of all adult honey bees in a hive while immature bees and honey remain. “

The PBS documentary, while not putting its finger on one reason for the collapse of the hives, did identify several possible causes including new pathogens and pests in our environment as well as the push to use hives to supply pollination services.

Hoping to help the bees recover and in the interest of riding the trend of all foods being as local as possible, some chefs are actually raising their own bees.

An article in Caterer and Hotelkeeper noted that the Royal Lancaster hotel in London installed beehives on its roof in an effort to reverse the worldwide decline in honeybees. The hotel, situated next to Hyde Park, is an ideal stomping ground for the bees to flourish. And of course the restaurant in the hotel is looking forward to the use of all that honey produced by the hive.

Closer to home, two chefs in the Washington, D.C. area are also tending to their own hives.

It seems that foodies as well as the mainstream press are all on the bee bandwagon.

In the Atlantic Magazine, writer Ryan Bradley has been treating his readers to the saga of his parents in their new role as urban beekeepers.

And in a recent article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, writer Amy Seidenwurm talks about her adventures in beekeeping and how she was able to use the honey to create a honey driven menu for the exclusive, “Friends Cook at Canele Restaurant “ gig.

The day of the tour at Marshall’s was grey and chilly – a typical summer morning in northern California. The farm is located on the outskirts off the Napa Valley – I must have passed it numerous times on my way to the wineries. As I pulled into the dirt lane that I assumed must be the parking area, I noticed two or three ramshackle buildings – none of which I thought could be the heart of an artisan honey farm.

About 40 of us bakers shivered in the gloom as we waited for owners Spencer and Helene Marshall to begin their talk and tour. Kittens that must have been only a few weeks old threaded their way through our group. I picked up one of the kittens and nuzzled its fur – honey – the kitten smelled like honey!

As I have found over and over again in meeting with small business owners in the food business, Helene and Spencer are very down to earth and passionate about what they do and the product they make.

They gave us the history of how they started their business and how grateful they are that after all these years -- the foodie spotlight was on honey. As Helene put it, “there is a new appreciation for ingredients in our own backyards.”

Their farm has about 600 hives in 70 different locations. They have been around for many years – they provided honey to Postrio restaurant when that restaurant first opened their doors and delivered honey to Whole Foods when it was just a local grocery store. They use no chemicals or antibiotics on their hives.

Helene said that they think of themselves almost as modern day cowboys as they herd their hives around California to assist farmers in pollinating their crops. But they are adamant in not overly stressing their bees by constantly moving them outside of California to various farms as other beekeepers so often do. They agree that these pollination trips might be one of the possible factors in the colony collapse disorder.

We toured the farm including the shed where they remove the wax from the combs, spin the combs and drip the honey into a bucket to be put into small stainless steel vats. Each vat has a different type of honey.

Then it was time for the tasting and also food pairing. As I mentioned, I wasn’t a big fan of the taste of honey so I didn’t intend to taste too much honey.

But then I tasted the orange blossom honey and then the blackberry honey.
Turns out my notion of what honey should taste like was limited, to say the least.

I tasted wildflower, alfalfa, almond blossom, and clover honey among many others.

The food pairing included a fragrant blue cheese topped with a bit of honeycomb all on a rice cracker -- an easy and tasty appetizer. I commented to Helene that I would love to buy some of their honeycomb but had missed out on the limited amount offered for sale that day.

Helene asked me to follow her to the honey-processing shed. She pulled out another honeycomb, asked me how much I wanted and cut a chunk right off the comb.

It doesn’t get much more local than that.

When I returned home, I searched my cookbooks for a recipe that would highlight the flavor of the orange blossom honey I had brought home.

The Honey Peanut Wafers from The Modern Baker by Nick Malgieri was just the right vehicle. These thin and sticky cookies were chewy and full of the great taste of my honey - the honey that Spencer had filled a jar with from one of the vats, screwed on a lid and slapped on a label indicating the varietal -- just for me.

A few days later I visited the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. I couldn’t resist chatting with Bill Lewis, beekeeper and owner of Bill’s Bees. I told him about my tour and how I was a converted honey lover. He seemed gratified not only that I knew a bit about the work involved in keeping bees, but also that I understood his passion for beekeeping. By the way, L.A. Magazine named Bill’s honey Best Local Honey in 2008.

Somehow I don’t think it will be too much longer before we start seeing more chefs keeping their own hives and see honey identified by place of origin and type on menus.

And of course I have to say that when that happens, it will be BEE-UTIFUL! Had to say it.

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