HONEY is one of the most ancient foodstuffs to be enjoyed by man. The earliest documented beekeepers were the Egyptians, who were constructing manmade hives as early as 2500 BC.
Today, honey is still enjoyed around the world for its culinary and medicinal properties. For example, if you're allergic to the pollen in your area, eating honey produced from vegetation in that area is considered a homeopathic way to desensitize you and relieve your allergy symptoms.
But that's just one reason to buy locally produced, artisanal honey. A honey's primary flavor is determined by the plant pollen and nectar from which it is derived. So, like cheese or wine, the flavor of honey varies with the seasons, the climate and the landscape.
Anyone who hasn't tasted an artisanal honey is in for a treat. Small apiaries, such as the 40-hive Santa Cruz Mountain Honey from Whitethorn, Tunitas Creek Apiaries in Stanford, and Marshall's Farm in American Canyon, keep their hives in specific locations so their bees can produce specific varietals of honey. The honeys are then separately packed and minimally processed to ensure that the final product retains its unique flavor complexities.
By contrast, commercial honeys are generally accumulated in hives throughout the year, then collected in one big harvest. The honey, which may come from a variety of locations, is then mixed together and pumped into 55-gallon stainless steel drums for storage. The pumps are often lined with lubricants that can add impurities to the honey and affect its flavor. Ironically, the honey is also passed through fine filters in order to remove any excess debris such as pollen, so that the consumer will end up with a 'pure' product.
Because of temperature changes, the honey will often crystallize, so commercial honey processors often heat it before processing and packing.
"While heating further contributes to flavor changes and the loss of a honey's character, mass-produced honeys come primarily from a co-op, so you end up with a product that has a less refined flavor anyway," says Jim Talboy, owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Honey. "With our wildflower honey, it can be up to 25 years before I get another specific 'vintage.' It all depends on climactic conditions, which affect plant production."
Talboy shares a business with Tom Von of Tunitas Creek Apiaries. Talboy specializes in slightly medicinal-tasting eucalyptus honey and forest honey, which is redolent of tan oak and conifer. He also sells beeswax products such as candles and a lusciously scented hand cream.
Although Spencer and Helene Marshall of Marshall's Farm have 650 hives in more than 100 locations throughout Northern California, they're still a small operation by apiary standards. The Marshalls specialize in a number of Bay Area varietals, including a syrupy, raisiny, Buzzz-erkeley honey, Mt. Tam honey, a clean, bright S.F. City Limits Blend, a dark, rich Manzanita honey, and an intensely floral Pumpkin Blossom honey. In the fall, the Marshalls also sell fennel honey.
"The Bay Area is really special," says Spencer. "We can be 10 to 15 degrees warmer than other nearby regions, so the bees stay strong and active for a longer period of time -- often through November."
In the rainy winter months, bees tend to spend most of their time hunkered down in the hive, feeding off of the honey and fanning their wings to generate warmth. The average temperature inside a hive is a steady 90-95 degrees, which is why honey should never be refrigerated -- colder temperatures will cause it to crystallize. If you have some honey that needs to be softened, just place the container in very warm, but not hot, water until the crystals dissolve.
Some beekeepers sell "organic" honey, but the term can be misleading. Even though bees only travel up to a two-mile radius outside of the hive, it's virtually impossible to ensure that all of the plants the bees feed from are uncontaminated by pesticides or other chemicals.
Instead, the term organic, as it's applied to honey, means that the wooden hives haven't been treated with any chemicals or toxic paints, and the processing equipment is free of fumigants. Some commercial beekeepers spray their hives or honey houses (where the honey is processed) to protect their bees from mites or disease.
Because artisan beekeepers are constantly out in the field collecting honey, the consumer can often have a product that is only a day or two out of the hive.
"We like to say our honey is so fresh, the bees don't even know it's missing," says Helene.
Raising bees that are gentle and suited for the apiary's particular climate are important factors in beekeeping.
"Mediterranean bees thrive in warmer climates," says Talboy. "A Northern species such as Carniolan bees are more hardy and can tolerate the cold." Both Talboy and Marshall raise a gentle species of Italian bees.
At Marshall's Farm, Spencer will kill off any queen bees that exhibit aggressive traits and install a more gentle queen in her place.
If feral bees are strong enough to swarm, it's a sign they're healthy and disease-resistant, so they can actually be a positive addition to my existing colonies.
Each pine hive has a number of wood and wire frames on which the bees build combs comprised of thousands of individual cells. The combs are made of wax, a body fat produced by the bees. The cells serve as nursery chamber for larval and developing bees, and later as collection cells for honey.
Each hive is specially designed to permit the bees a maximum amount of space in which to work among each other. Special wooden frames that don't have wire supports are used for the production of comb honey, which is sold in chunks.
After the frames are removed from the hive, they are passed through a "decapper," a machine that pops the wax caps off the cells. The frames are then lined up in an extractor, a centrifuge that forces the honey out of the cells and allows it to trickle out of the extractor and into a collection bucket.
Artisan honeys are usually unfiltered. The honey will be passed through a piece of cheesecloth to remove any large impurities, but that's it. "The minute you filter, you start to remove some of the enzymes and pollen that make artisan honeys so special," says Spencer.
In addition to their varietal honeys, the Marshalls also make a lavender-infused honey.
"Varietals of honey are not flavors," explains Helene. "The plant nectar determines the color and flavor of the honey."
Flavored honeys have the flavoring added, usually to a neutral honey such as clover. Herbs or blossoms can be steeped in a neutral honey to infuse it with their flavor. Infused honeys are a good substitute for when certain plants are out of season.
Tunitas Creek Apiaries sells its honey at the Berkeley and Palo Alto farmers' markets. Marshall's Farm honey is available at the Berkeley farmers market and at specialty stores throughout the Bay Area. You can also order online at www.marshallshoney.com. To arrange a tour or visit the tasting room and store, call (707) 556-8081.
RICOTTA WITH BERRIES & LAVENDER HONEY
1 cup clover honey
1/4 cup fresh or dried lavender blossoms
2 pints assorted fresh berries
11/2 cups fresh, good quality ricotta cheese or creme fraiche
Edible flowers or fresh lavender blossoms for garnish
Bring the honey and lavender to a boil in a stainless steel pot. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain and store honey tightly sealed.
Divide ricotta into four small bowls or martini glasses. Top with fresh berries, drizzle with lavender honey, and garnish with edible flowers. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Per Serving: 462 Calories; 12g Fat; 11g Protein; 83g; Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 47mg Cholesterol; 82mg Sodium. Exchanges: 11/2 Lean Meat; 1/2 Fruit; 11/2 Fat; 41/2 Other Carbohydrates.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org