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Wednesday
Jun282006

Honey I shrunk the lids

180px-runny_hunny.jpgFrom Tim Manners at Cool Site of the Day comes: "U.S.D.A. Grade A honey is color, not a flavor," says Zeke Freeman, "a former chef who founded Bee Raw Honey last year," as quoted by Dan Bowen in The New York Times (6/14/06). That sweet stuff you buy in the little bear-shaped bottles at the supermarket? Forget about them. Zeke's idea of honey sells for "$14 dollars for an 8-ounce jar, and $78 for a tasting flight of nine packaged in cork-topped single-ounce vials, plus shipping from beeraw.com." The problem with supermarket honey, says Zeke, is that it's a mixture that "honey companies buy from many beekeepers around the country," who "then blend their purchases to achieve that picture-perfect golden hue and predictable flavor."

Commercial honey is "also heat-treated and filtered," which Zeke says "strips it of its nuanced flavor and most healthful attributes (although raw honey like Zeke's "may contain bee residue that people highly allergic to pollen or bees could react to"). Zeke's honeys are not only raw, but typically "single-flower" varietals, "produced when bees feast on one type of an abundant blossom." So, you might have lavender, pine, thyme, Hawaiian kiawe or Tasmanian leatherwood honey. Bobby Flay, the chef, says he uses them all, but his new favorite is "tupelo honey ... harvested in Georgia swamps" and said to taste like "butter and cotton candy." Most single-flower honeys "can taste vaguely of their sources," says Bobby, who likes to put "orange blossom honey ... in his tangerine salsa."

Sometimes the vague tastes are not entirely welcome, as in a certain "urban" honey "harvested at the Bronx Zoo," by beekeeper Roger Repohl. "There are a lot of weird things growing in that zoo," he says. But Roger "has become a mentor to a burgeoning clan of city beekeepers." The city's new taste for honey has meanwhile manifested itself in "the city's first honey bar at the Blue Ribbon Bakery, "serving Mexican varieties they're importing," where "counter cooks drizzle your pick of six over open-faced smoked duck sandwiches." The honeywagon is also a boon to beekeepers like Don Tremblay, who used to sell his crop to the commercial packagers, but now finds there's more gold in "varietal worship ... and now sells raspberry, locust tree, bamboo and other honeys at city Greenmarkets." He says he's doubled his income."

This story interests me because I once worked as a beekeepers assistant. I spent a very unhappy ten days trapped in an un-airconditioned caravan parked in the middle of a purple field of Patterson's Curse out the back of Blayney, New South Wales, Australia. My job was to uncap the honey frames with a hot steam-knife and stack them in a centrifuge to be later spun to extract the honey. Bastard of a gig it was. It must have been 40°C in that bloody caravan and a copped so many bee-stings that my hands swelled up the size of hams after a few days. And there was no respite - we worked early morning to dusk, seven days a week. 231239-377635-thumbnail.jpg
Patterson's Curse
And the red-headed beekeeper knew I liked to cook so he had me frying up steak and three-veg every night in another caravan in the paddock. All the time listening to Country & Western on the local radio station -

"Maybe I didn't love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn't treat you
Quite as good as I should have
If I made you feel second best
Bee I'm sorry I was blind

You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind"

Now honey is interesting stuff. Some deluded hippie-fools think it better for you than sugar. Thing is...it is a sugar - or at least a mixture of sugars. It's a pure product but it's a melange of Fructose(38%), Glucose (31%), Sucrose (1%), Water (17%), other sugars like maltose and melezitose (9%) and a bit of Ash thrown in for good luck. Honey is quite a bit sweeter than sugar.

Liquid honey doesn't spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by plasmolysis (and don't ask me what that is - Google it, mate). Natural airborne yeasts cannot become active in it because the moisture content is too low. It's an excellent natural preservative. Natural, raw honey moisture content varies from 14% to 18%. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey. The ancients knew this - your Egyptians and whatnot.

One important thing about honey and beekeeping is that in the bees collecting nectar to make honey they pollinate flowering plants. One reason why farmers tolerate beekeepers squatting in their fields of Patterson's Curse. That and the fact that the farmer gets a honeypot present each season.

The flavour and colour of honey are largely determined by the nectar source. Common flavours of honey include orange blossom, tupelo, buckwheat, clover, blackberry, and blueberry. In Australia, the most common honey is from the eucalyptus trees, such as redgum, yellow gum and stringybark. But the most lauded is the strong-tasting Tasmanian leatherwood honey. But usually the honey you buy in the supermarket is a blend.

Greece is famous for wild thyme honey, as is France for lavender and acacia honey. Kiwi honey covers a huge range of flavour types and properties. From mild to very strong-flavoured, light to dark- coloured, delicately perfumed to pungent.

New Zealand is a major producer of boutique honey with interesting names - manuka, viper's bugloss, nodding thistle, kamahi, honeydew, thyme, tawari, rewarewa, whykickamoocow and leavethesheepalone. Another is rata (tree) honey, considered by many to be the best of New Zealand Honey. It's white in colour, has a subtle, mild, yet rich and distinctive flavour — not overly sweet, almost salty.

What is honey, anyway? It's food, isn't it. Bee food. Honey is laid down by bees as a food source. In cold weather or when food sources are scarce, bees use their stored honey as their source of energy. And then we come along and rob them. And put it on our crumpets. Least, I do.

Coming back to Leatherwood Honey - The leatherwood tree is only found in Tasmania.

231239-377859-thumbnail.jpgThese slow-maturing trees flower at between 10 and 20 years of age, but don't produce commercial amounts until they're in their 70s. In their 70s! That's amazing, is it not?

Leatherwood's worth nearly twice as much as other honeys. It accounts for three quarters of Tasmania's production. BUT...Logging of the tree has left beekeepers fearful their industry is on the way out. As the resource has been clear-felled and burned it has forced beekeepers out to the edges of the district and now they are forced to use leatherwood that is much less reliable.

They say that within the state forest there is only about 10 years of commercial honey production left. The problem is that the beekeepers only produce $2 million for the state annually in honey harvesting against a background of Forestry producing about $1.3 billion. Money talks.

Beekeepers say the problem is that Leatherwood - which is of little timber value - grows alongside the eucalypts, which the loggers want.

What has happened is that the leatherwood has been clear-felled in order to get to the big eucalypt saw logs.

Clear-felling of Tasmania’s old growth forest may stop in 2010 but by then it may be too late for the Leatherwood Honey industry. Sad eh?

If you want to know more or offer support or donate to a fighting fund, go here - saveyourleatherwoodhoney.com

More resources here - Australian National University

and not forgetting a pointer to a Tasmanian-brewed Porter-style beer made from Leatherwood Honey -

beer.trash.net

Postscript: Media Release from the Office of the Australian Prime Minister

"A Way Forward for Tasmanian Forests" (13 May 2005)

Special Species and Honey Producers

As part of the joint package, the Tasmanian Government will invest $11.4 million to support the special species timber and the leatherwood honey industries.
This assistance will include improved access to resources, and support for sawmills in the west and north-west affected by the reservation of substantial special species resources."

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Reader Comments (3)

Great piece, Malcolm! And right on about honey never spoiling - I think honeypots milennia old were opened somewhere, and what was inside was fine to eat. I dunno that I'd be particularly interested in saving leatherwoods just for the honey, but we forget sometimes while our attention's on saving whales or banning genetically modified foods that otherwise starving people could grow in ice or arid conditions, that the rest of our world's being chopped from under our feet...Saving leatherwoods is a small but great place to start - well done!
June 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
Maybe the Leatherwood Honey industry needs a fighting slogan? "Save the Gay Leatherwood Honey Bees"!
June 29, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterles miserable
Cool piece Mal. I love honey but may have to re-think having raw honey. Bees and I=bad.
June 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWCS

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