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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Raw Jamaica Plain honey, The Benevolent Bee, Jamaica Plain, MA

I was treated to some very local honey recently. I want to stress how local it was- just across the street from where I work in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, MA. I was surprised to find apiarists tending bees and collecting honey in what is decidedly an urban setting, with the 39 MBTA Bus coming by every 15 minutes and the Heath Street T station a short walk away. It just goes to show that if you have a mind to, you can be a beekeeper just about anywhere.

Stephanie and Emile's backyard hives
Stephanie and Emile are the urban apiarists of my Jamaica Plain honey. They (and their growing family) live in a two family walk-up surrounded by a small yard. In the yard are three hives, one of which they built themselves. Work friends and I dropped by one lunch break on a warm November afternoon to get a tour.

Stephanie showed us around, explained what we were seeing, and talked with us about her passion for bees and honey. In addition to collecting honey from their bees they also collect for an apiarist in the Metro-West region whose business is focused more on his pollination service. Their honey is raw, unpasteurized, and unprocessed. They filter only minimally to maximize retaining all the enzymes, vitamins and minerals in their honey. They harvest twice a year, in summer and in fall, and the honey is dramatically different (as you can imagine) depending on the season because the floral sources are so different.
Stephanie with one of her backyard hives

However, it is hard to say what the floral sources actually are. Jamaica Plain is home to a large portion of the Emerald Necklace, a series of connecting parks designed and built by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century. If fact, Jamaica Pond, part of the Emerald Necklace, is a stone's throw away from Stephanie and Emile house. It is a kettle pond- which, according to wiki is a "shallow, sediment-filled body of water formed by retreating glaciers or draining flood waters." It has walking paths, wooden benches looking out over the pond, geese in fall and spring, and a variety of mature trees. Is whatever is growing around Jamaica Pond the source of the honey? Could be, but bees have a range of a few miles and within the catchment area of Stephanie and Emile's bees there are other parks that may tempt them to go farther afield: Olmsted Park, Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum, to name the larger ones. Probably safest to say that their honey is "Jamaica Plain whatever" honey.

A Sampling of Benevolent Bee Products
Apart from honey Stephanie and Emile also manufacture (by hand) beeswax candles, balms, salves and soaps, and offer courses for, and assistance to, new beekeepers. They sell their honey and other products under "The Benevolent Bee" label (they also do all of their own labels and packaging!). They have a lovely website with lots of information and photos. You can buy directly from their website, through Etsy, and/or at local farmers' markets and craft venues.

The Benevolent Bee Honey, Jamaica Plain, MA
The honey I have was harvested in  August 2013. It is a mellow yellow, more of a lemony yellow than sunflower yellow, slightly cloudy (indicative of all the particulate matter that hasn't been filtered out- a good sign of minimally processed honey) honey of medium to thin consistency. It is a very smooth honey that isn't too sweet. It has a delicate herby (eucalyptus?) flavor with citrus undertones that ends with a subtle fresh, almost minty after taste. It has the perfect consistency for drizzling on thick plain yoghurt or on hot buttered toast.

A big thank you to Stephanie for inviting us into her home and sharing her passion and expertise of all things bees and honey!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Miel d'Acacia (Acacia (Black Locust) honey) Brive-la-Gaillarde, France

According to Wiki, prior to 2005 Acacia was a genus of shubs and trees that contains about 1,300 species. Most (>950) are native to Australia and the rest spread around warm-temperate regions including Europe, Africa, southern Asia and North and South America. In 2005 the genus was divided into five separate genera. The genus Acacia was retained for most Australian species and a few in tropical Asia, Madagascar and the Pacific Islands. Most species outside of Australia (and a few Australian species) were reclassified as genera Vachiella and Senegalia, and a few dozen species from the Americas were classified under the genera Acaciella and Mariosousa. To get a better appreciation of the diversity and geographic location of this genus of shrubs/trees I direct you to the French Acacia wiki-site. Of note, the names 'acacia' comes from the Greek for thorn, 'akis.' Also of interest, most Australian acacias are not thorny, while most non-Australian ones are. This makes me wonder how acacia got its name when most of the genera are Australian and not thorny. The answer is that Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, is credited with first describing the acacias and his description is based on a thorny African species. Imagine if he had been working in Australia, the acacias would be called something completely different.

Acacia blooms
 Changing the taxonomy was apparently a very controversial move.Those who don't agree with the changes continue to use the old taxonomy. All this to say that it is a little bit confusing to know what Genus species to attribute to the source of the acacia honey I have that originates in France.

To complicate matters, there is a tree commonly called 'False Acacia' (Robinia pseudoacacia) or 'Black Locust' that is widely found in Europe and North America, as well as in other regions (it is native to North America but has been successfully cultivated in other countries). This is the tree that I had always known as 'acacia.' In fact some online research state that Robinia pseudoacacia is the source of acacia honey in France. Could it be that Acacia honey is in fact not Acacia honey, but Black Locust honey? I think this is the case (!)
Black Locust (False Acacia) blooms

It seems that Black Locust is a major honey plant. It has a very short (about a week) blooming period (usually at the end of May and beginning of June). Blooms, which are extremely fragrant, are very sensitive to weather conditions, though, and this results in inconsistent honey productions year to year.

Apart from an excellent source for honey production, Black Locust wood is hard, resistant to rot and durable, making it suitable for furniture, flooring, etc. It is also planted for fire wood as it grows quickly in a variety of soils. The bark and leaves of the Black Locust are toxic but the seeds, young pods and flowers are edible; whatever poisons they contain are sensitive to heat. I can personally attest to this. My aunt makes acacia doughnuts by coating the flowers in pancake batter, quickly deep-frying them in oil and serving them with powdered sugar. The flowers have a very sweet, floral fragrance and the doughnuts taste as good as they smell. Acacia doughnuts are a real treat and a sign that summer has almost arrived.

Acacia doughnuts (beignets d'acacia)
My acacia honey comes from Brive-la-Gaillarde in France and was produced and distributed by Armondo and Dominque Filipe who are apiarists near Ussac, just north of  Brive-le-Gaillarde. Brive-la-Gaillarde is located in the south west of France in the Limousin region in the Corrèze department. The Filipes have produce honey and other products under the "Miel du pays de Brive" et "Limousin Gourmand" brands for over 15 years, and also make and sell hives.They have a wonderful website describing their operation and products (including acacia, bourdaine (black alder), tilleul (linden), montagne (mountain) and Châtaigner (chestnut) honeys, royal jelly and pollen). They also welcoming visitors, in case you are ever in this lovely region of France.

Brive-la-Gaillarde, France (in red)
 Their story is interesting. In 1995, out of curiosity, they bought 2 hives. Fast forward 15 years and they now have >400 and a thriving honey business. Also of note, the Filipe's label for their honey depicts St. Martin's church in Brive-la-Gaillarde (see honey photo below).

If the truth be told, I've had this honey for a while. I got in on a trip to Limousin years ago (the label says that it is best to consume it by 2004!) Acacia honey is usually a very clear, very light yellow color, but my honey has mellowed and is now a robust reddish-orange, although still very clear. It has a medium consistency and a very clean, uncomplicated, delicately floral, moderately sweet taste from beginning to end. Given how long I've had this honey I can confirm that acacia honey is not a fast crystallizer. In fact, even after all these years, this honey is clear and crystal free. 

Acacia (Black Locust) honey From Brive-la-Gaillarde, France
Acacia honey is ideal drizzled on plain yoghurt, in teas (the flavor is delicate and won't change the taste too much), in hot cereal or in baking. It is also very tasty on its own. The fact that is is a very slow crystallizer also makes it a good choice to spread on toast or for people who don't use honey much but when they do don't want to warm it up to get rid of crystals.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Miel de châtaignier (Chestnut Honey), Desaignes, France

Desaignes, France (in red)
The chestnut honey that I have comes from producers Stephanne and Sylvie Manganello. They have a farm in Hameau de Grangeon near Desaignes (Ardèche) close to the north side of the Monts d'Ardèche regional natural park. They produce honey, propolis, pollen, royal jelly and spiced, honey bread.

It is an absolutely beautiful part of France. Desaignes is surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and woodlands. Desaignes is also listed as one of the villages of Ardèche 'with character' because of its monuments and architectural qualities. It has a Protestant church, gothic houses, and at the center of the old medieval section of the town is the Chateau de Desaignes, a 15th century, fortified chateau. It is open to visitors and houses a museum.

Chateau de Desaignes
 The area is also known for its chestnuts. Of note the park, which was created in 2001, was the result, in large part, of the efforts of chestnut growers in the area to preserve the region's cultural and natural heritage. Also of interest, the Ardèche chestnut was given the 'appellation d'origne contrôlée' or 'AOC' label in June 2006 for its fresh chestnuts as well as its dry chestnuts, pieces of dry chestnuts, entire peeled chestnuts and chestnut puree. Receiving the AOC is a great honor as it is official recognition of quality. The Ardèche produces about 50% of France's chestnuts, so it is a very big deal.  

European Chestnut in Bloom
I'm always amazed at how many different types of the same plant or tree there are. Chestnut trees, which belong to the same family as beech and oak, consist of nine different species.  According to wiki, the four main species are the European, Chinese, Japanese, and American chestnut. The European chestnut (Castanea sativa) is the only chestnut in Europe, and while in appearance it is very similar to the horse chestnut, it isn't related to the horse chestnut at all. So, I think it is safe to say that the honey I have is European chestnut honey. Within a species there are a number of varieties. In the Ardèche 65 different varieties of European chestnut are grown, with the most well known being: Comballe, Bouche Rouge, Sardonne, Précoce des Vans, and Merle. 

Miel de châtaignier (Chestnut Honey)
My honey has a very deep brown-ish, mellow color with red undertones that are more obvious in bright light. I've had it for a while but it is still liquid, which, while unusual for many other types of honey, is not so unusual for chestnut honey- it is a slow crystallizer. This is apparently due to its high proportion of fructose. It is a very thick honey with a pungent, somewhat bitter, herbal taste, with the bitterness accentuated in the after taste. This honey is not for everyone. It has a very distinct and strong flavor that hardly resembles the sweat, floral taste that more typical honeys have. It is much too flavorful for a delicate tea, but might be very tasty on hot buttered toast, in a strong dark tea, with goat cheese, or in baking.
bon appétit!


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Oak Forest Honey, Aley, Lebanon (Jabal el Sheikh Honey)

Lebanon (officially known as the Lebanese Republic) is an eastern Mediterranean country that borders Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.


Lebanon has a long history of human settlement, dating back thousands of years. It was home to the Phoenicians (1550 to 539 BC), and then later (64 BC) was part of the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire also ruled it for many centuries, after which the French governed it (post WWI). It finally gained independence in 1943.

Given its maritime tradition and history, it has an interesting cultural and religious heritage that is reflected in the diversity of the people who live there. For instance, the Maronites and the Druze call it home.

It is a rather small country, roughly 217 km by 80 km, that has the Mount Lebanon mountain chain running through the center of it. These mountains rise from sea level to about 2,100 meters and contain a wealth of micro-ecosystems and biodiversity.

The Mount Lebanon mountain chain is known for its forests, especially the Lebanese cedar forests. In fact if you think about "forest" in Lebanon, the Lebanese cedar probably comes to mind. This is not surprising since forests above 1300 meters are dominated by the Lebanese cedar. In fact, the Lebanese cedar is  a symbol of Lebanon and appears on the Lebanese flag.
Lebanese Flag showing Lebanese cedar
But Lebanese forests have more than just Lebanese cedars. Of note, and of particular interest for this blog, oak (Quercus spp.) also grows there. 
There are a lot of different kinds of oaks, over 600, in fact. I tried to figure out what kind of oak might be growing in Lebanon; there is a Lebanon oak (Quercus libani) which seems like a safe bet. 
Quercus libani

When you think of how bees make honey you probably think of them flitting from flower to flower collecting nectar which they then transform into honey. While this is how bees make honey from floral sources, it isn't how they make  honey from forest sources, like oak. In fact, honey from forest sources is made from "honeydew" which is collected by aphids (most usual) or other sap sucking insects/caterpillars (less usual). Aphids excrete honeydew, a sweet substance, as a byproduct of consuming plant sap. Bees then collect it, process it with enzymes, and make honey. Honeydew, however, is chemically different from nectar and results in a honey that is darker, more aromatic, and has a higher mineral and antioxidant content. In fact some honeydew honeys reportedly have one hundred times the level of antioxidants as a cup of green tea. It is not surprising that medicinal qualities have been attributed to honeydew honeys.
There are many different types of honeydew honeys depending on the sap source and type of aphid (or other creature) that collects it. For oak honeydew honey, the most common aphids are Tuberculalus annulalus, and T. borealis.  In the hierarchy of honeydew honeys, spruce and silver fir, however are thought to produce the best quality of honeydew honeys.

Mountainous Oak Forest Honey, Lebanon
The oak honey that I have is produced by Jabal el Sheikh out of Aley, Lebanon. They have a lovely website but mostly in Arabic, so I'm not able to glean much about their operation other than they produce a variety of honeys and honey products (e.g. pollen).

I have one of the itty-bitty sampler jars of their Mountainous Oak Forest honey. It is a deep, warm amber color and of medium thickness. It is an uncomplicated honey- true sweetness with no changes in flavor throughout. It is somewhat floral, however, which surprised me. I was expecting a more smokey, rich flavor of other forest honeys that I've had. It does have a warm, herbal undertone though, so it isn't completely "simple." Overall, I'd say it was a tasty honey. It isn't strong, so would be good in tea, hot cereal or on yoghurt, or used in cooking or baking.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Lime Tree Honey, Yemen

The lime tree honey that I have comes courtesy of my friend Ben who got it in Kuwait during his deployment last year (thanks Ben!). It is honey from Yemen but distributed by Alshifa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (as far as I can tell). Alshifa has a lovely website but, being in Arabic, I'm going mostly on instinct. Apart from honey- and they distribute quite a few kinds- Alshifa also deals in oils (e.g. almond oil), soaps and dates, among other items. They have a nicely done video showcasing their business on the website and also have a commercial about their honey on youtube.

Citrus was introduced into southern Yemen from Egypt, Iraq and Italy- mostly sweet orange trees, but also mandarin, clementine, grapefruit, lemon and lime. The lime is Balady lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and the area it is cultivated in is the Say'un-Tarim area of Wadi Hadramawt, but there are also Balady lime trees in the coastal Zinjibar-Gaar area.

Common lime, Citrus aurantifolia
 I wasn't familiar with the fact that there are different types of limes but soon discovered that there are. (and why wouldn't there be?) If you are interested, there is a website dedicated to citrus information and it has a nice section on limes. Of note, while many are called limes and have similar culinary qualities, only a few are true limes. The common lime (also known as Mexican or Key lime) is a true lime and is what I think of when I think of limes. Of note, some limes are actually lemons (e.g. Mandarin lime). Balady (also spelled Beladi) limes, also known as Egyptian Rashidy limes, are a type of common lime.

Limes are extremely sensitive to frost and so only thrive in subtropical or tropical climates. The color of limes changes from dark green (immature) to a yellowish green (medium mature) to yellow (fully mature), at which point the fruit drops from the tree. Limes, however, are collected when they are green. Limes are apparently juiciest and have the best flavor when they are only medium ripe and collecting them when green also sets them apart from lemons.
Yemen, showing Say'un in the center

Yemen is found on the Arabian peninsula, in the southwestern corner.  In 1990 North and South Yemen united to form the Republic of Yemen. The area of Hadramawt is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shebam Hadhramawt (the capital of the Hadramawt Kingdom and home to the mud-made highrises), Tarim, an important center for Islamic learning, and Seyoun, a city of Kathiri palaces. While honey production doesn't figure largely on the sites showcasing the many attractions of the area, the area is known for its quality honey. Janie Baxer posted a photo of hives in Wadi Haramawt.

Janie Baxter's photo of hives in Wadi Haramawt next to what looks like a lime grove

The lime honey I have is a clear, golden, honey color with a medium-thin consistency. There are no particulates in it at all. It has a smooth, somewhat bitter flavor with a taste of lime from beginning to end. It is unusual and delicious! The flavor is true throughout with the bitterness gaining some strength at the end.

Alshifa Lime Tree Honey

I think this honey would be particularly good in a strong black tea, on hot, buttered scones or toast, or in hot cereal. It may be too strong for a more delicate herbal tea. I'm not sure where you can find this honey (other than in Kuwait). If you understand Arabic, you may be able to order it online from the Alshifa site.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Miel de Fenouil (Fennel Honey), Les Ruchers de Normandie, Gisay-La-Coudre, France

I was traveling with my family this summer and visited Normandy, France. In Étretat I found a shop selling regional products with lots (and lots) of different kinds of honey. One caught my eye. Fennel honey. I'd never seen it before. And it had a sticker proclaiming that it was a silver medalist at the 2013 Ministry of Agriculture and Food's General Agricultural Competition. That was all I needed to make a beeline to the cash with it in my hot, little hands. Actually, it had me at Fennel. The 2013 prize was just icing.
Flowering fennel

So what is fennel? It is an aromatic, perennial herb indigenous to the Mediterranean region but now widely grown all over the world that has culinary and medicinal uses. However, some consider it an invasive weed since it propagates well by seed and can be found in open spaces like pastures and along the road. I think the plant is quite elegant with its feathery leaves and umbrella like flowers.

If you are a licorice fan, you are probably already acquainted with it since it has a licorice flavor (like anise and star anise). I am a licorice fan. Not surprising it is a major ingredient of absinthe, a highly alcoholic beverage distilled from herbs. It is one of the herbs what gives absinthe its licorice taste (but not its psychoactive properties).

In addition, you can cook the bulb part of the fennel (great with salt, butter or cream) or eat it raw (great in salads). The leaves and seeds of the fennel plant are also used in cooking. If you've ever cooked Indian food, you may have noticed that fennel seeds were called for. Or, if you've ever eaten at an Indian or Chinese restaurant at the end of the meal roasted fennel seeds (sometimes sugar coated) might have been served as an after meal digestive or breath freshener.

Fennel is also purported to have a number of medicinal properties. It has been used to treat flatulence, airway inflammation, and colic, and it is thought to improve eyesight (some animal studies suggest it may be useful in treating glaucoma), and reduce hypertension. Of interest, Pline wrote about how fennel improved eyesight in the first century. Furthermore, powdered fennel has been used in kennels and stables as an anti-flea preparation.

In addition, the Greeks considered fennel a symbol of victory after their victory over the Persians at Marathon. The plain of Marathon was a field of fennel.

And, bees make honey from it in Gisay-La-Coudre in Normandy. One website suggests that fennel honey happened by accident. A apiarist from Marseille, Gerard Jourdan, regularly put his beehives on the plateau of Valensole to collect lavender honey. However one year the Ricard Society requested that local growers grow fennel on the plateau for the production of pastis. Bees on the plateau split their time between the fennel and lavender, and the resulting lavender/fennel honey was a slightly green honey with an unusual flavor. Given its mixed origins, it couldn't easily be sold in France. Therefore, the next year, Mr. Jourdan positioned his hives in the middle of the fennel fields to get a pure honey from just fennel. This began fennel honey production.

Florant and Melanie Maugeais of Les Ruchers de Normandie
Gisay-La-Coudre is a small community (population 244) in Haute-Normandie where apiarists Florent and Melanie Maugeais have 200 beehives. They are a young couple with agricultural roots, advanced studies in agricultural business and beekeeping, and pride in producing quality, organic honey.
The red dot in the NW corner of France, showing Gisay-La-Coudre

At Les Ruchers de Normandie, the Maugeais' label, they produce a number of different kinds of honey: acadia, linden, wildflower, and fennel, to name a few. 

The fennel honey that I have won the 2013 Silver Medal from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food's General Agricultural Competition.  This competition, which was created in 1870 and happens every year, is a big deal. Honey is judged in the Regional Products and Wine division. Producers are anonymous to judges and judges, who are regarded as experts in their fields, come from all over France to participate. Products, like honey, are obtained in the marketplace by anonymous buyers and then sent to the competition. It is the oldest competition of its kind in France and has many safeguards in place to minimize bias. Winners can label their products as medalists and have the glow that comes from knowing that their products are worthy.

The fennel honey is a deep amber color and slightly opaque. I thought it would be very thick because of the way it swirled in the jar but in fact it is a very thin honey and difficult to capture on a toothpick. It has no crystals or texture, just clear, thin honey. It has an extraordinary herbal, medicinal flavor with an undertone of molasses and a spicy aftertaste. I've heard it described as also having an almond, nutty flavor, but I think the herbal/spicy may overpower this.The aftertaste reminds me a bit of radish honey. It doesn't have any licorice taste at all. Quite lovely! Too strong for a delicate tea, too good to put in baking, but probably great on buttered toast or on crepes. Why it did not win Gold I'll never know. It is very unique.

You can buy this honey and other Les Ruchers de Normandie products on the Les Produits Normandie website. Well worth the bother!