Everything I know about honey and honeybees I learned from Red Bee Honey founder, beekeeper, and “honey sommellier” Marina Marchese. My lessons came during a visit last month to her apiary in Weston for a special honey tasting event.
We sat down to a table tastefully set with a flight of seven honeys, each from a different nectar source, that varied in color from very pale yellow to dark amber. The honeys we tasted came from blueberry blossom, alfalfa, goldenrod, tulip poplar, star thistle, and wildflowers like Japanese knotweed and varied in flavor from delicate and lightly sweet to rich and raisinated, reminiscent of a dessert wine.
Marina recounted the story of how she came to be an “accidental” beekeeper and connoisseur of fine honey. “It all started with a visit to a neighbor’s backyard where I tasted honey straight from the hive. I was blown away. It was the freshest and most delicious thing I’d ever had and I was intrigued by the Italian honeybees.” That was ten years ago and marked the acquisition of her first hive.
It was Marina’s attendance at The Honey Show in London, a formal honey tasting and judging, that first introduced her to the idea of evaluating honey much as wine is – based on color, aroma and flavor. Marina then studied wine tasting in order to transfer those skills to honey tasting. Soon after, she traveled to La Città del miele (the City of Honey) in Montelcino, Italy and was delighted to find honey right alongside olive oil and wine on the store shelves. “Cactus, rosemary, eucalyptus honey – I tasted them all in Italy and discovered there’s life beyond wildflower” explained Marina.
As we smelled, tasted and marveled at the varied aromas and flavors of each honey, our hostess described the role of the bee and beekeeper in making honey. “When honeybees gather nectar from the flower of alfalfa, buckwheat or blueberry, beekeepers harvest honey that has the distinct flavor profile of that nectar source.” We discovered that wildflower honey is as different from Tulip Poplar honey as Sauvignon Blanc is from Cabernet Sauvignon, and that terms commonly used when tasting and evaluating wine – color, aroma, texture and flavor – are also applicable to honey.
“While Mother Nature plays an important role in honey making” explained Marina, “the timing of the beekeeper is crucial since beekeepers must be in tune with nectar flows and remove the honey just before the petals fall from the flower the bees are visiting and just before they move on to the next flower about to bloom. Bees gather nectar and place it inside the beeswax cells, and once it is ripened to 17-18% water content and mixed with their own enzyme, a sugar called “invertase”, it becomes honey. The bees then cap the honey-filled cells with more beeswax.”
“Once most of the honey on a frame is capped over, beekeepers extract it (in the spinner or extractor) as liquid honey or cut it out as honey in the comb! I call ours Farmhouse Honeycomb.” Raw honey is honey direct from the honeycomb, all natural and unstrained. “In Saudi Arabia” Marina pointed out, “the honeycomb is traditionally served with the honey as a symbol of its authenticity”.
Curious about the medicinal use of products made by honeybees, Marina earned a certificate in apitherapy. “Honey is an immune system booster and its hygroscopic properties make it popular in wound care in other countries. The FDA recently approved a band aid with honey.” She recommend that those suffering from seasonal allergies try taking a spoonful of honey each day to alleviate their symptoms.
Local, artisan honeys like Red Bee’s are made in small quantities, and in this case, using organic hive management practices. Marina pointed out that “commercial honey has to be pasteurized when it enters the US and is blended for uniformity” whereas Marina’s “single source” honeys are true artisan foods with unique flavor profiles.
Colony Collapse Disorder does not affect small hives we learned, and has not yet entered our state. But pesticides are one of the suspected contributors to this syndrome that can wipe out entire commercial hives and negatively impact agricultural production that depend on these bees to pollinate their crops. “It’s hard to manage 1,000 hives lovingly” explains Marina.
Honeybees are excellent pollinators, responsible for pollinating a wide range of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts that constitute one out of every three bites we eat and provide $15 to $20 billion in added crop value annually.
Marina recommends tasting the honeys alone, as you would wine, and then finding ways to pair them with your favorite foods. Drizzle some on baked goods, pancakes and waffles or add to strawberries and balsamic vinegar.
To learn more about Marina Marchese, beekeeping, and honey, pick up a copy of her book, “Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper” or attend one of her upcoming tasting events. Carol Herman, the Books Editor at The Washington Times, named Marchese’s HONEYBEE as one of the “Books We Loved” in 2009. Red Bee Honey is listed in the most recent edition of Patricia Brook’s “Food Lovers’ Guide to Connecticut”, a best of the best foodie guide to Connecticut.
Red Bee Honeys can be purchased at: the New Canaan farmers’ market (Sat. 10-2), Fairfield’s Brick Walk farmers’ market (Sat. 9-12), Fairfield Cheese Company (Fairfield), Catch a Healthy Habit Café (Fairfield), Aux Delices (Greenwich/Darien), Plum Pure Foods (Old Greenwich), Mirabelle Cheese Shop (Westport), Practically Green (Ridgefield), Jones Family Winery (Shelton), Artisan Foods (Southbury), and McLaughlin Vineyard (Sandy Hook).
Restaurants using Red Bee Honey include LeFarm (Westport), Scoozi (New Haven), Winvian Luxury Resort (Litchfield), Billy Grants (East Haven), and The Unquowa School (Fairfield).
JUNE 5, 2010
Sculpture Barn + Art Center
3 Milltown Rd at Rt 39, New Fairfield, CT 06812
Red BeeÂ® Honey, Cheese and Wine Tasting
JULY 9, 2010
Jones Family Farms
Shelton, CT 203.929.8425
Honey Sommelier: Tasting and Pairing Artisanal Honeys
by C. Marina Marchese
AUGUST 22, 2010
Grange Agricultural Fair
25 Cannon Road Wilton, Connecticut 06897
Artisanal Honey Tasting Table