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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pure Wildflower Honey, Essex County Beekeepers Association, Topsfield, Massachussetts

This past October I went to the Topsfield fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts. It is an agricultural fair that begin in 1818 "to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County." Nearly 200 years later it is going strong with lots to do and see. If you like fancy chickens, fuzzy sheep, large pumpkins, and pig races, to name a few attractions, it is the place to be! They also have a great website in case you want to know more about it.
Poultry at Topsfield Fair

Needless to say, the fair also has a Beekeeping and Honey Show which has the distinction of being the largest honey exhibit in any fair in North America (according to the Topsfield fair website). It is one of the oldest too, with the first exhibit taking place in 1844. Since 1928 the show has been operated and sponsored by the  Essex County Beekeepers Association. This beekeepers association is a regional organization of beekeepers large and small who are generally found in and around Essex county, a country in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. They educate the public about bees and beekeeping, promote the art of apiculture, and produce bees, honey and related products. At the fair they had four observation hives (very cool) and beekeepers on hand to explain all things bee, honey and beekeeping. They also had lots of honey and honey related items on display and for sale. I came home with two jars of honey and some beeswax.

Essex County Beekeepers Association Honey Competition

The honey I bought was a raw, wildflower honey. In my experience you can't go wrong with wildflower honey. It generally is a interesting honey that can be quite complicated, with layers of flavors and aromas. Although both jars I have are wildflower, given the color of each I suspect that they were collected at different times of the year. I have a very light, clear jar and a reddish/amber jar, which I think were collected in spring and summer, respectively. The wildflower honey for this review is the darker, potentially summer honey. 

Given the amber color and the opacity, because of particulate matter, I thought this honey would be thick, but in fact it is medium-thin in consistency. In small quantities it has a lovely amber yellow glow. It is very smooth, not very sweet and has a very light, floral flavor, which is fresh with a hint of citrus or menthol. If honey was a morning, this would be a clear morning with a fresh, gentle breeze and a warm sun. It would be very tasty in a hot cup of black tea, in plain, thick yoghurt, or on hot buttered toast- pretty well anywhere where a light, floral honey might be needed.

Pure Wildflower Honey, Essex County Beekeepers Association



Sunday, October 12, 2014

UC Davis Northern California Wildflower Honey, Davis, California

I was recently in Davis, California visiting the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) and was really impressed. For starters the campus is a gem: it covers 7,000+ acres and has an incredible diversity of plants and trees, from succulent gardens to old growth redwoods and eucalyptus with peeling bark. The colors and textures of tree trunks were amazing (see photos).
?Paper Maple Tree Trunk, UC Davis

Within this beautiful campus there is also an arboretum (the Davis Arboretum), a public botanical garden along The Waterway that has a collection of plants native to California, among many others. With water views, a well maintained path and benches in the shade, it is a refuge of green and tranquility.

It isn't surprising that all of this green and diversity is found here.
(Very) Old Oak Tree Trunk, UC Davis
UC Davis is located in prime farmland (Yolo country) and it began as an agricultural college. The 1905 University Farm Bill together with Peter J. Shields' vision and commitment created the school which opened its doors in 1909. In its early days it was known at "University Farm" and was affiliated with the University of Berkeley, just a one and a half hour drive away. In 1922 it was renamed the Northern Branch of the College of Agriculture and in 1959 the Regents of the University of California declared it as the seventh general campus in the University of California system.

Redwood Tree Trunk, UC Davis
While UC Davis is probably best known for its agricultural and environmental science programs (especially its viticulture and enology, and animal science programs- they have an on-campus dairy, equestrian facility and experimental farm!) it is a research university with a large menu of nationally and globally ranked programs, and is considered a "Public Ivy"- a public university with the academic rigor and standards of an Ivy League university.

Farmland around Davis:w/ view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
UC Davis is adjacent to the small town of Davis, California. Davis  is a college town full of cafes, restaurants, bike stores, and funky nooks and crannies. It has a farmer's market on Wednesdays and Saturdays (bought some very tasty local almonds and pistachios there) and is home to the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame (Davis and UC Davis are extremely bike friendly and everyone bikes there).

The Davis region is found within the Sacramento Valley and is 15 miles west of Sacramento, about an hour's drive to San Francisco and Napa Valley, and about two hours drive to Lake Tahoe. The surrounding countryside is flat farmland, with views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains inland. It is quite dramatic. Did I mention how perfect the weather is? Cool mornings and warm, sunny days 265 days of the year. It is not surprising that there are solar and wind farms between the fields of crops.

Among the many UC Davis departments, programs and centers is the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, established in 2012 and housed in the Robert Mondavi Institute (for wine and food science). It aims to teach people about honey, bees and beekeeping, and pollinators and pollination. They offer mead making courses and a Master Beekeeping Program is in the works. In addition, they are working to create bee-friendly legislation in California that would allow all communities to keep bees; in many bees are considered as "exotic pets" and are restricted (!) There is also a research facility, the Harry H. Laidlaw Bee Biology facility, that does bee biology and genetic research. Of note it is found on Bee Biology Road (!) With agriculture's reliance on pollinators, bee and pollinator research is an important field.

UC Davis Northern California Wildflower Honey
Amongst all of this teaching, research and political activity, the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center finds time to look after its own hives, and sells honey on campus and on-line. Proceeds go towards funding the Center's work and bee research.

The jar I have is from their 2013 harvest. The floral sources are coastal foothill and Sacramento Valley wildflowers. The honey has been heated and filtered (gently) to delay/reduce crystallization but to retain enzymes and pollen.

The honey is a slightly cloudy, orange-yellow color and of medium to thick consistency. It has a very smooth texture with floral and menthol undertones, and a slight spiciness. It is not overly sweet and its flavors are subtle making it an ideal honey for herbal tea, or wherever you want honey sweetness but not a strong, unusual honey flavor. I think it would be quite nice on hot, buttered toast, in hot cereal, or right out of the jar!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Raw Wildflower Honey, Golden Meadow (Reseska Apiaries), Holliston, MA

Holliston in Massachusetts (in red)
I got this local honey in a nearby grocery store. It is harvested and packaged by Reseska Apiaries out of Hollison, MA, just an hour or so from Boston. Reseska Apiaries is a family business that started on a very small scale in 1996. The operation expanded significantly in the first four years, and in 2000 the Reseskas had enough hives to make it a full time business. Andy Reseska is the founder and owner. He works alongside his wife, Addie, son Evan, and assistant apiarist, Nick Delaini.They currently manage several hundred colonies. They initially distributed their honey under the Golden Meadow and Boston Honey Company brands, but have since consolidated brands. Now all of their honey is packaged under the Boston Honey Company name.

Purple Loosestrife
Reseska Apiaries produce raw, unfiltered (and Kosher) honey harvested in Eastern Massachusetts (wildflower, clethra, Japanese knotweed, black locust, and basswood),  and Georgia (gallberry, tupelo and orange blossom).

In Massachusetts the honey is gathered from the revolutionary battle sites of Lincoln, the farms of Concord, public lands in Sudbury, and other sites in and around the greater Boston area.  It is truly steeped in New England history. Their operation in Georgia is also quite large with several hundred hives. Apart from collecting nectar from southern floral sources, the Georgian bees are brought up north in spring to pollinate apple trees in New England. Since the winters are easier and spring comes earlier in Georgia, the Georgian bees are in full swing for the early New England pollination season.


The Reseskas take great pride in their stewardship of their colonies and the self-sustained nature of their apiary. They raise their own queens, foster strong bee lineages, and generally take looking after their bees very seriously. If I were a honey bee, I'd like to be looked after by the Reseskas. They also take great pains in making sure their honey is of the highest quality. For instance, their monofloral honeys are done in small batches by hand. In addition to honey, they also produce comb honey, bee pollen, candles, lip balms and soap. Check out their website for all their products. You can also order from them online.

I have their wildflower honey and according to their website, the sources for this honey include, among many other flowers, Buckthorn, Black Locust, Purple Loose strife, Goldenrod, Linden, Japanese Knotweed, and Basswood. Of note and of interest, most of these are considered invasive species in New England. Seeing that they produce a good quality honey makes me wonder if there might be some role for them other than as a species to uproot and destroy!

Japanese knotweed

I've had this honey for a while and it has started to crystallize. (Of interest, I learned from the Boston Honey Company website that honeys high in fructose are slower to crystallize than those high in glucose.) The wildflower honey is a rich orange/yellow color with red highlights. It is a medium to thin honey in its liquid form. It is complex in flavor, with a somewhat medicinal taste made up of hints of menthol, licorice, and floral sweetness. It is difficult to describe but a very interesting and tasty honey! Perfect right out of the jar or on hot buttered toast. It might also be interesting in a dark tea or paired with some mild cheeses.
Raw Wildflower Honey from Reseska Apiaries

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Prickly Pear Honey (Miele di Fiori di Fico d'India), Zafferena Etnae, Italy (Sicily)

On a recent family vacation to Sicily I noticed, near Syracuse, what looked like managed fields of cacti- not random cacti here and there, but cacti organized into rows, like apple trees in an orchard. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but then came to discover that cacti are farmed in cacti plantations in Eastern Sicily, mostly for their prickly pears.

Prickly Pear fruit
As far as I can tell, there are two sorts or prickly pears in Sicily (also called ‘tuna’ which is hard for me to wrap my mind around), the ‘bastardoni’ (big bastards), a fat succulent variety, and ‘agostani,” a smaller variety. Opuntia is the genus (named for the Ancient Greek city of Opus) of the cactus family Cactaceae, and the most common culinary species is the ficus-indica (Opuntia, ficus-indica), the type of cacti cultivated in Sicily. DNA analysis suggests that Opuntia ficus-indica originated from a species native to Mexico and the plant spread to parts of the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Post-Columbus it spread to other parts of the world (especially the Mediterranean) in part due to ships carrying prickly pears to prevent scurvy (they are rich in vitamin C). 

Apart from being called tuna, the prickly pear fruit is also generically known as ‘fichi d’India,’ ‘ficurinnia,’or 'Indian figs' in Sicily, although they are not figs or native to India (go figure). In fact the calling of the fruit ‘figs’ seems quite common: in Sardinia they are called figumorisca (Moorish figs), in Crete they are called pavlosyka (Paul’s figs), in Albania they are called fiq deti (sea figs), in Cyprus they are called papoutsosyka (cactus figs), and on Malta they are called bajtartax-xewk (spiny figs). 

The O. ficus-indica plant can produces three different colors of flowers: white, yellow and red. Flowers appear in late spring and the fruit ripens in late summer through the fall. To get bastardoni, you apparently cut off the spring cactus flowers. This results in a second flowering in the fall during the rainier season and this, in turn, produces fatter, juicier prickly pears. Legend has it that this practice started as a result of a feud over the property line between neighbors (cacti are sometimes used to mark boundaries). One neighbor cut off the flowers of the other neighbor’s cacti to destroy his prickly pear crop, only to find that come fall the resulting prickly pears were larger and juicier than ever. 

Opuntia ficus-indica in Sicily
If you want to sample a bastardoni harvest is in the fall and they are usually available through December in outdoor markets. It is a little tricky to eat a prickly pear without hurting yourself. You need to carefully peel it (it is recommended that gloves be worn) to get rid of the prickly spines, or glochids, that are studded throughout. If you don’t do this properly glochids will lodge in your lips, tongue and throat, “causing discomfort.”  Some have dealt with this by rolling the fruit in sand or rotating it in flame to get rid of them. According to one website, the best course of action is to order prickly pears in a restaurant and have the restaurant staff take care of this difficult bit. Good advice as far as I can see.

We visited Syracuse in June when prickly pears are not in season, so we, unfortunately, missed out on this experience. However, I’ve come to learn that the fruit can range in color from white to deep crimson, and it has a mild, citrusy flavor. One website described it "like a pear with an identity crisis." The pulp is also rife with seeds, which you eat along with the fruit. One website advised that eating prickly pears should be avoided by "those who have problems digesting seeds.” Isn’t the whole point of seeds that they are difficult to digest? Who is left to eat prickly pears? Another cautioned that prickly pears can cause constipation if the seeds are eaten, but acts as a laxative if they are removed. I’m starting to feel like we dodged a bullet.

Apart from enjoying prickly pears au nature, you can also enjoy prickly pear liqueur (the Sicilian village of Gagliano Castelferrato produces ficodi, in Malta they produce bajtra, and on Saint Helena island they produce Tungi Spirit) or a sweet prickly pear granite (which purportedly tastes “like watermelon juice imbued with banana and oranges”). The leaves (called cladodes) are also edible, and when stripped of their spines can be cooked like a vegetable. Other prickly pear products include candy and jelly. Cactus leaf sap has also been used in hair conditioners, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Of interest, the insect Dactylopius coccus, from which cochineal is derived (a red dye) lives on Opuntia cacti, although mostly Mexican varieties.

The prickly pear honey that I have is produced by Emanuele Scammacca Barone del Murgo, an operation based in Zafferana Etna, a small town on the southeastern slope of Mount Etna.  They are, however,  known primarily for their wine and olive oil, and have been in this business since 1850. Apparently the volcanic soil around Mount Etna imbues the wine with  "aromatic complexity and personality." 

The head of the operation is Baron Emanuele Scammacca Del Murgo. His sons, Michele, Pietro and Matteo are also part of the family business. According to The Heirs of Europe blogspot, the Barony of Murgo was created in 1409 and first conferred on Blasco Scammacca, a medic of King Martin I of Sicily. 

Honey production seems to be a side business for the Baron. The only information on the Murgo website is that they produce three types of honey (lemon, orange and prickly pear), that the honey is organic, and that the honey is tasty and unique. 

Miele di flori di Fico dIndia
The jar that I have states that the honey was collected in January of 2013. It has started to crystallize with large crystals making the honey chunky. It is a soft yellow, cloudy, opaque color. I think prior to crystallization it was probably a mellow yellow color. It is a sweet, uncomplicated honey with no particular floral or herbal undertones. It has a nice clean, honey taste from beginning to end. What makes it unusual is the large crystal texture. This honey would be perfect on thick, plain yoghurt or hot buttered toast.  In tea it would be wonderful, but you'd lose the chunky texture that gives it character.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sulla honey (Miele fior di Sulla), Zafferana Etnea, Italy (Sicily)

Mt Etna at 2,700 meters, erupting

We were recently in Sicily and one of the highlights of the trip was hiking on and around Mount Etna. We were there for the June 17th eruption so couldn’t go to the summit but, with the help of a hiking map, did other hikes at lower elevations on the southern and western slopes. The diversity of terrain and flora was astounding. From barren black landscapes pocked with craters at upper elevations, above the tree line, to lush forests of ferns to mature oak and pine forests at the lower elevations.  The temperature and wind conditions also varied significantly over short distances, based mostly on elevation.  At 1,200 meters (where we were staying at Zafferana Etna) it was warm (830F), slightly breezy and sunny. As we climbed it became gradually cooler, cloudier and windier. At 2,700 meters (the highest we could go safely during the eruption) it was ‘take your breath away’ windy, and about 400F not factoring in wind chill. If you ever go up, my advice is wear layers, fleece and a solid wind breaker.  There is also quite a lot of variation around rainfall depending on where you are. My impression was that the southern slope, at lower elevations, got a lot more precipitation than the western slope, making the plants quite different from one slope to the next.    

Hiking through ferns, Mt Etna
We hiked through oak forests, beech trees and ferns on the southern slope and mostly pine forests on the western slope. And, of course, recent (and not so recent) lava flows have a biodiversity all of their own with lichens, small shrubs and wild flowers emerging after a time. All this to say that if you ever have the chance, hiking on and around Mount Etna is a real treat, and that from a honey production point of view, it is a gold mine. 
A beech tree we saw on a hike, Mt Etna

This gold mine has not gone unnoticed! I learned that honey production is big business in this area of Sicily. I heard that 20% of all honey consumed in Italy originates from the Mount Etna area. In fact, Zafferana Etnea is called the ‘town of honey’ and there is no denying it. I’ve never seen a town have whole stores devoted to honey (and honey products), or road side trucks that sell only honey. To say the least, I was in my element and came home with a lot of Sicily’s liquid gold. I did try to limit myself to either types of honey that I’d never come across before (e.g. the Sulla honey that I’m reviewing here) or those that were tied to the unique floral diversity of the area (e.g. wildflower or mountain honeys). I'm a little embarrassed to say this resulted in me coming home with seven jars! 

The apiarist whom I spoke with
 I also had a chance to speak with one of the apiarists that produced some of the honey I bought- the Sulla honey was one of hers. Well, I use "speak" rather loosely since I don't know Italian and she spoke no English. I was trying to ask her what plant 'Sulla' was. She tried to describe it but I couldn't figure it out. All I know was that it grew locally and had red flowers. Out hiking I took photos of red wildflowers with the hope that it was Sulla, but it wasn't.
The red wildflowers that I thought might be Sulla- they aren't.

It took me coming home and searching on the internet to find out what exactly I was dealing with. I now know that even if the apiarist had spoken perfect English I would not have been the wiser- the Sulla plant was a complete unknown to me.

This is what I found out about the Sulla plant (Hedysarum coronarium): it is also known as French honeysuckle, Italian sainfoin, and cock’s head. It is from the Fabaceae, or Pea family.  It is drought (but not cold) resistant and likes hilly or mountainous terrain up to elevations of about 1,200 meters.  It is native to Sicily but also found wild around the Mediterranean basin, and in Australia and New Zealand. It is mostly used for animal fodder (hay) and honey production, but has also been used in human herbal remedies (it is thought to have astringent and cholesterol-lowering properties) and to reduce gastro-intestinal infections in sheep. 
Real Sulla flowers, courtesy of the web
I think it is a rather attractive plant and it is purported to have fragrant, red flowers, which look a little like lupin flowers to me. Its Latin name, as mentioned before, is Hedysarum coronarium. The 'coronarium' part refers to the fact that the petals form a 'crown.' It has deep roots, grows 2-4 feet tall, and is branchy. I’d call it a shrub. Usually a plant this attractive that has multiple uses would be mentioned in some ancient source or in poetry. Alas, the Sulla seems to have been taken for granted; I could not find any reference to it from any notable source. 

Sulla honey

The Sulla honey I have is a soft, cloudy yellow with a layer of clearer honey on top. The cloudy bit is due to crystal formation that makes it thick and gives it a very granular taste experience. I understand that Sulla honey is a fast crystallizer, crystallizing within a few months of harvest. I didn't think it had a particularly strong smell, but I've read that others have noted a faint floral and slightly hay-like scent. It is a sweet and uncomplicated honey with slight floral undertones. I think the most unique thing about it is its texture. It would be good in tea, even delicately flavored teas, and quite nice just out of the jar.