Posts Tagged 'Honey'

going rogue

Remember last fall when I was oozing uncertainty about another season of bee keeping? Well. The tables have turned. I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but I’ve done a one-eighty. Spring can’t come fast enough (and, just for the record, it isn’t).

spring honeybee hive

I’ve got big changes up my sleeve. I’m switching from deep hive boxes to mediums. Which basically translates to “easier” lifting. Wait. Did you hear that? It was my back, already sighing with relief. I’m also converting to foundationless frames. This means my bees will draw out 100 percent of their honey comb instead of getting a pre-made starter sheet of wax foundation to guide them.

There are so many reasons why foundationless feels like the right way to go. The most obvious is that bees have drawn out their own comb for hundreds of centuries. Why we felt the need to introduce starter comb to show them the ropes, isn’t entirely clear. Also at the top of the list is a naturally healthier hive. Left to their own devices, bees tend to make smaller cell spaces. This decreases the amount of time larvae spend in the capped cells before hatching out. The shorter development time interrupts the lifecycle of the deadly varroa mite. And, foundation (which is made mostly out of wax from commercial hives) is laced with trace chemicals. Yuck. The bees have it hard enough. Why bring more garbage into their hives?

foundationless frames

I also want to raise more cut comb honey. Which means I’m going to do some radical moves this summer, like “double shook swarming” (a technique that’s just plain fun to say, if nothing else). I’ll spare you the details, but it involves strategically separating hives, placing the components back to back during the prime nectar flow and reorienting/reuniting the boxes again in the fall.

I love cut comb honey. There is, in my book, nothing finer. But for whatever reason, there’s less of a demand for it. People are shy about how to eat it. Which always steers me towards producing more extracted honey. This year though, markets be dammed. I’m ready to spread the gospel.    

These changes are invigorating. Interestingly, my decisions happened through no real process. And that’s what feels so great about it. I’m type A. I plan. I figure. I troubleshoot before the trouble. And there is always a process. This time though, answers just sort of landed in my lap without my brain inserting itself. I’m not only bucking some conventional beekeeping methods, I’m shaking up my general life strategy to boot. I’m going rogue. And I didn’t even plan it!

I’ve mentioned before how my bees bring out the best in me. They slow me down. They make me take notice. And they repeatedly remind me that there is never a concrete answer. Ever. But now they’ve taken it up a notch. They’ve outdone themselves. I let go, threw it all out there, and this is their answer. You know that Zen proverb, about the teacher appearing when the student is ready? Evidently I’m ready. Thanks girls.

cut comb revival

This isn’t a recipe, so much as a mini-manifesto. Paring knife required.

What’s all the fuss about cut comb honey? Plenty. 

At the very least, you can start your day by dropping a spoonful of honeycomb in the bottom of your cereal bowl. Smother it with hot oatmeal, add a pat of butter, a splash of milk, and swirl it all together for a breakfast that will give any cold, grey morning a run for its money. Wash it down with a shot of espresso and you’ll wonder why every morning can’t be cold and grey.

But summer will come, eventually. And when it does, you can drag your chair out to the patio, set out a slab of comb honey, some good French feta, a baguette, and if you’re lucky, a nice chunky beefsteak tomato. Pour a glass of strong sun tea and stay awhile. Hell, knock out a crossword. You’ve got all morning.

Sooner or later, though, you should get motivated. It is, after all, summer–ice cream season. Pairings are endless, but if you need a starting point, try your hand at a batch of fresh fig ice cream and top your cone with a thin sliver of honey comb. It’ll make you rethink the merits of those cold, grey mornings.

Still, when the weather turns and cool nights start rolling in, it means you can throw together big plates of crisp pears, spiced nuts, blue cheese, comb honey, and a nice pumpernickel. Set out some cold salted butter and call it dinner. But do save room for desert. There’s cupcakes glazed with bittersweet chocolate and honeycomb.

honey cupcakes with honeycomb

no path to power

My eyesight is notoriously bad. I was that bashful 2-year-old with the dorky glasses. Can I just say that kid’s eyewear has come a long way since the 1970’s? Fashion aside, I’ve never opened my eyes in the morning to anything but a very big blur. And it troubles me to report that the lush green blur that’s been gracing my bedroom window is tuning suspiciously yellow.

I do love fall, really. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to summer. In my world, summer is never hot enough nor long enough. But this one felt especially pinched. I knew things weren’t right when even my hobbies started to feel like chores.

Garlic, vegetables, honeybees. Too many living things were vying for my attention this summer. When all my attention really wanted to do with its meager free time was sit in the sun and get lost in a book. But attention knows better and it opted instead to tend to its commitments. Which sometimes left attention feeling resentful and cranky. It’s ridiculous, really—that selfishness should rear it’s head in the face of such great abundance. Still, I’m pretty sure I threatened to take up needlepoint and crop art at least twice.

bee journal notes

This summer’s bee journal is littered with harried notes, question marks, and “should haves.” Which, to be honest, isn’t all that different from other years, but something was lacking this year. My heart.

I found myself dashing out to the bee yard with just enough time to perform the minimal duties to make sure everybody got by. And everybody did. The bees provided a fine honey crop, despite my lack of participation. But even that left me feeling a little defeated. Now I had to find time to extract, bottle, label, and clean up. As with most things I undertake, my economy of scale is exactly wrong. Which sometimes seems like all I’ve managed to do is create extra work for myself. Clearly it’s time to reflect.

I wrapped up my tenth summer of beekeeping not sure if I’m ready to commit to an eleventh. I typically wait until the thick of winter to pull my bee books off the shelf for inspiration, but this unfamiliar feeling I had couldn’t wait that long. I went straight to Richard Taylor, my hero of beekeepers. His writing is practical, witty, and full of wisdom. One of my favorites is his Comb Honey Book. This felt like an especially appropriate choice since my attempts at comb honey this summer were unsuccessful. Managing bees to raise comb honey is an art, for sure—which means that just going through the motions probably isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t.

frame of bees

Partially I revisited Taylor’s book for management strategies. But really I was looking for a bigger answer. Why do I keep bees? What keeps me returning to this hobby that can be expensive, time consuming, and heart breaking? Is it worth consistently making three trips to the apiary because I forgot something I didn’t know I needed at home? Only four pages into the book and Taylor offered this up:

…the way of life available to a serious beekeeper offers a special kind of fulfillment. It is no path to power or riches, but it does offer, or at least make possible, rewards that are vastly more precious. A beekeeper’s work can be not merely a means of production, but an art that has its place within the total scheme of life, which is itself an art. It challenges both body and mind, demanding not only endurance and strength but the cultivation of great skill, and at the same time calls forth from within one the inventor, the artist, the poet, and the worshipper. The beekeeper has constantly before him some of the most exquisite of nature’s creations, often the beauty of nature that no gallery or temple can rival, and through his own ingenuity and skill he is able to offer to others the loveliest product of nature.”

Damn. That’s a hell of an answer. And one that left me thoroughly humbled. Because he’s right. My bees do all of those things. How grateful I am to be a part of their ancient world. I can’t deny that some days I yearn for fewer obligations. But at what cost? I’ll take all the help I can get channeling my inner inventor, artist, poet, and worshipper. I doubt that hours spent hunched over the crop art table glueing amaranth seeds into place would provide such perspective. Maybe, but for now at least, I’m in for another season of bees—no matter how many extra trips it takes. 

wax curl

p.s. That said, I do have honey for sale I’d love to share with you. Drop me a note if you’re interested and we can work out the details.

undiluted joy

Holy winter did we get snow last week. The fifteen or so inches that fell isn’t a particularly unusual accumulation for the Lake Superior snow belt, but it was a wee bit early. I think we can all agree on that. The storm caught almost all of us off guard. Climate change is so unsettling, isn’t it?

cold-guy

Needless to say, it took almost twenty four hours for me to remember my bees. My bees! The electric fencer is still plugged in and is now shorting out! The bottom air vents on the hives are buried in snow! My bees need me! Clearly I was going to be late for work.

That’s the thing about winter that I always forget. Everything takes LONGER. Getting dressed takes longer – stripy tight season, long underwear, and multiple layers. Getting out the door takes longer – which coat, what scarf, and where’s my hat? Warming up (please start) and scrapping the car takes longer. And the commute. The commute is a lesson in patience that takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R. Eventually this all becomes second nature. But the first week is brutal.

I did make a detour to the bee yard on my way to work, but I was frazzled by the time I got there. I donned my snow pants (more layers, yea!), grabbed my green shovel, and tromped through the snow to unplug the electric fence. I scraped out around the hives and snuggled up close to have a listen inside. The moment I heard their low, sweet buzz, I sank down in the snow and sighed. It gets me every time.

Suddenly I wasn’t late for work. I wasn’t ticked offed by winter’s early onset. And I didn’t care that my entire left sock was half way down my heel. I was just with my bees. It was that simple. Eventually I pulled myself away and landed back in the reality of Wednesday. But for a good minute or two I was in a state of undiluted joy. Which may not sound like much, but I’ll take it. Those two minutes carried me through the rest of a very long week, thank you.

hive-cap

As luck would have it, I also have a stack of honey comb in the pantry to help carry me though the brunt of winter. There’s plenty of extracted liquid honey too, which is nice for cooking and baking, but for almost any other use, I reach for comb honey. It’s like regular honey, only supercharged with texture and flavor. And it’s laced with enzymes and pollen to boot.

Comb honey used to be the honey of choice among consumers because it was guaranteed 100 percent honey with no additives. But once bottled honey became a regulated commodity in the early 1900’s, comb honey gradually fell out of fashion. It’s slowly becoming trendy, but even so, a lot of people just aren’t sure what to do with it. And I don’t blame them. Because really, you’re asking them to eat wax. Nowhere in the food pyramid does wax appear.

comb honey

I initiate people by suggesting they dip a knife into the comb honey and spread a thin layer onto warm buttered toast. This comes with the caveat that doing so could lead to an excessive desire for toast and honey. Which really, in the scheme of things, isn’t so bad. Is it?

Comb honey is also melts deliciously into oatmeal and hot cereals. I like it in my tea too – most of the comb dissolves, but there are usually a few mini honey rafts floating about that I quite enjoy. It’s terrific sliced thin and served with cheese and fruit (blue cheese and crisp pears are a favorite). Very dark, bitter chocolate and a dab of comb honey is a duo to write home about. And it’s an unbeatable, natural sweet pick me up when eaten straight by the spoonful – chewy and soothing.

I use comb honey liberally in the kitchen. I like to experiment and see what it does to flavors. My only rules are to slice it thin and use it sparingly. I want it to complement, not overshadow.  When I needed a fast appetizer a few months ago, I stuck some feta cheese under the broiler for a few minutes, opened a box of rice crackers and assembled little baked feta honey bites. It was so easy and good that I’ve repeated it a half dozen times since. It’s got that sweet, salty, savory mix that I love.

Winter may have come earlier than expected, but its chilly winds bring a welcomed kick in the pants to get back in the kitchen and play. Eat well and keep cozy!

honey bites

P.S. The bees had a marvelous summer and I do have extra comb honey and bottled honey for sale. Comb honey is tricky to ship, but if you live in the Chequamegon Bay Area, I deliver! More info here.

Roasted Feta Honey Bites

These are dynamite served while the feta is still warm, but they are mighty fine at room temperature too.

feta cheese
olive oil
comb honey
crackers

Slice the feta into pieces about 3/8” thick. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Drizzle very lightly with olive oil.

Broil the cheese until it is just beginning to turn golden brown on top, about 5 minutes, depending on your broiler. Watch it closely! It will get a little bit melty, but once it cools it holds it’s shape nicely.

Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes. When it is firm enough to handle, use a spatula or knife to transfer cheese pieces to individual crackers.

Top each with a thin slice of comb honey.

baked fets

wild ride

Last week when my mother was here, graciously helping to transport our kitchen from the old house to the new house, she astutely pointed out that I have a lot of honey in my pantry. This is not particularly surprising. I am a beekeeper after all. What she meant though, is that I have a lot of other honey. One of the unforseen benefits of keeping bees is that people tend to bring me honey. Crazy, exotic honey from far away places.

I have had intoxicating lavender honey from Morocco, orange blossom honey via Florida and famed medicinal manuka honey from New Zealand. I’ve been sent cinnamon creamed honey from Maine and raw honey from a friend’s dad. It all looks and tastes dramatically differently.

honey
My most recent acquisition arrived from the Yucatan courtesy of my friend Gail. It is, without a doubt, the most rugged bottle of honey in my collection. The only label is a small, neon yellow price tag (which Gail assured me is in pesos, not dollars).  And it is bottled in a recycled water bottle (which Gail assured me is more than likely safe and that I should just be glad it came with a screw cap instead of a corn cob nub). It may look modest enough, but I think it might be my most complex specimen. One sniff told me I was in for a wild ride.
I got my newest honey on a Friday and immediately started daydreaming of Sunday when I knew we’d have a chance to really get to know each other. My recipe for a perfect Sunday morning is pretty simple. It includes a hot pot of strong coffee, the most recent New Yorker, a side of thick cut bacon, a pan of steaming popovers, and the honey pot. Oh, and maybe a little cultured butter to really ramp things up.
sunday-bliss
I’ve tested plenty of popover recipes with varying degrees of success. But last year, I finally found my go to recipe – “Roberta’s Popovers that Always Pop.” Maybe it is the overly confident title, but it has yet to fail me. The recipe clipping (which I can not recall the origins of) includes a picture of Roberta. I have no idea who she is, but she looks like the sort of woman whose popover always pop. I have no problem putting my faith in Roberta. Her popovers are crisp on the outside and moist on the inside.
popovers
While my popovers were busy popping, I got out the new bottle of honey and a spoon. I gave it another whiff – herbaceous and earthy, with a subtle floral undertone. A strong smell, but with a distinct and milder taste. And there’s a tang to it that I can’t name. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what those Mexican bees were feasting on. Whatever it was, I knew it was going to be a outrageous addition to my Sunday popovers.
Roberta’s Popovers that Always Pop
(slightly adapted)

1 cup flour (or substitute in 1/4 whole wheat)
1 cup milk
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons butter, melted
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 425º F and turn it down to 400º after it is preheated. Preheat the empty popover pan in the 400º oven for 10 minutes while you mix the batter.  Melt the butter and let it cool slightly. In a blender, mix the milk and eggs. Add in the butter. With the blender running, slowly add in the flour and salt and blend briefly until batter is thick and smooth. Remove the preheated pan and lightly spray it with cooking oil. Fill each cup about 3/4 full and return to oven. Bake at 400º for 20 minutes. Leaving the popovers in the oven, and without opening the door, turn the oven down to 350º and bake another 10-15 minutes. Use a paring knife to make a small slit in the side of each popover. Turn the oven off and let popovers rest for 5 minutes in the pan. (Make 5-6 large popovers, depending on the size of your pan)
popover

taste buds talk

One of the most thrilling aspects of bee keeping is having that first taste of each season’s honey. I’ve certainly been known to sneak some honey periodically throughout the summer, but generally I wait until the end of August to pull the honey supers off – which means I get a mix of everything the bees have foraged on all spring and summer. It always such a surprise to see what the girls have brought in each year.

I’ll never forget my very first honey crop and its delicate apple flavor. At the time, my bees were located in the heart of Bayfield’s “orchard district,” which meant no shortage of fruit blossoms to forage on. And then there was the harvest that had a decidedly minty undertone. That was the year when the basswood trees went crazy with blooms all summer long. I’ve pulled off late fall supers that are filled with the heady dark brown nectar from goldenrod and asters. And I’ve taken plenty of swipes of that gorgeous, light, early summer clover honey while working in the hives. But my main fall honey harvest is like a little mystery I get to try and crack each year. The color and taste of each super full of honey is my main clue to where the girls have been spending their summer afternoons.

So I couldn’t decide if I was more amused or distraught when I read an article in last Monday’s NY Times about several hives of New York bees who evidently spent their summer feeding on the sweet run off from a nearby maraschino cherry factory. The results were neon red frames of honey. The sort of gaudy red that only red dye number 40 can produce. Albeit shocking, it is a great example of how amazingly distinct honey can be, and how each honey is a direct link to what the bees are feeding on.

Foraging bees will travel up to 3 miles for food. And when they find something they like, word gets around quickly. Lets face it – taste buds talk, and bees are no exception. Bees not only have taste receptors on their tongues, but on their feet and legs as well (how cool is that?!). So who’s to fault them for choosing some manmade, red inflicted corn syrup over a fresh, dewy clover blossom? I’m no one to talk – I still have a soft spot for those cloyingly sweet cherries. They saw my brother and me through many a shirley-temple based cocktail hours as kids.

But unlike humans, bees shouldn’t have to know better. As a beekeeper, I feel a responsibility to keep my hives as healthy as I can. Yet I don’t think I could begrudge my girls their bliss should they happen to stumble upon some “junk” food. How lovely to go through life feasting on the best tasting things you can find in a 3-mile radius. I envy such simplicity.

hot pop

When it comes to popcorn, I’ve always been an Orville Redenbacher kind of girl. I think it was an early association I formed with my grandpa, whom I shared many a bowls of popcorn with, and who – coincidentally – also happened to be named Orville. I’ve tried my fair share of bulk co-op popcorn over the years too, but I often find myself reverting back to Orville’s famous gourmet popping corn. It still thrills me to open that vacuum-sealed jar. I can’t, however, say that I notice much of a taste difference between the two (sorry Orville). As long as there is a full jar of popcorn on the shelf, I’m satisfied.

Satisfied, that was, until one night last winter when my friend Danielle came to dinner. She brought her husband Jon along too, but almost as importantly, she brought us a jar of her uncle’s homegrown popcorn. It was a striking mix of ruby red and golden yellow kernels. I put it on the pantry shelf and it seemed to positively sparkle next to the neighboring jar of Orville Redenbacher’s.

It was so pretty that I actually put off popping it for quite some time. But when I did, I was forever changed. The popped kernels, albeit slightly more petite than Orville’s, were light and crisp with a freshness that I am sure I have never experienced. And the taste. It tasted like, well – corn. Sweet and creamy and crisp all at the same time.

I managed to stretch out the contents of the jar through the winter – supplementing with Orville’s and selfishly saving the good stuff for nights I knew my husband would be away. And in January when the garden seed catalogs started pouring in, I curled up on the couch and got serious. I settled on Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Popcorn. I am frequently swayed by the word “butter” in descriptions, and this was no exception.

And so this past summer, for the first time in my 17 years of gardening, I dedicated a corner of our plot to popcorn. I planted three four foot diameter circles two weeks after the sweet corn went in to avoid cross-pollination. I had a few setbacks over the summer, including a raccoon incident on a weekend we left town, and several discouraging remarks from friends saying they had tried popcorn in the past, but never found our growing season to be long enough. But I kept the faith and tended my circles. I shored up the breach in the fence, and was graced with a long, sweet fall. Shortly before out first frost on October 29, I harvested one full jar of corn. Still not entirely convinced of my success, I put a handful of kernels straight into the Whirley Pop. And sure enough, it popped! And the taste? Even better than I remembered. I’m already scheming how to fit more popcorn circles into next year’s garden.

I prefer to pop my popcorn in hot coconut oil and top it off with nothing but a sprinkling of Penzy’s Garlic Salt. But I also have a favorite honeyed-cayenne popcorn that I like to make for special occasions. It’s a great appetizer to serve at dinner parties – a little unexpected, but still sophisticated. In fact, I think it would make a lovely Thanksgiving Day hors d’oeuvre. Snoopy would be so proud.

A few notes on the recipe. I adapted this years ago form a recipe I clipped from Cooking Light. The original recipe calls for pure maple syrup, but since I have more bees in my possession than maple trees, I tweaked it to use honey. Both are quite good though. Omit the water if you go the maple route. I also increased the amount of corn for a better popcorn to syrup ratio. You can vary the amount and type of chili pepper. I have settled on 1/4 teaspoon cayenne as my favorite. It makes a fairly spicy snack, but the honey balances it perfectly. Use less pepper for a tamer treat. A rounded half cup of kernels yields about 12 cups of popped corn. I always toss a little extra in the popper just to be sure, and am generally left with some to snack on while I cook. Depending on your popper, you might have to pop in two batches. This recipe is easily halved, but the full recipe is a nice amount when there are a few guests mingling about. It also stores for a week or so in an airtight container.

Honeyed Hot Pop

10-12 cups popped corn (popped in just a hint of oil)
butter for the bowl
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or less)

Rub a bowl large enough to hold the popped corn lightly with butter and add popped corn.

Heat the honey, water, butter, salt, and cayenne over medium heat in a small heavy sauce pan. Stir until everything is just combined and then let it come to a boil. Let the mixture boil without stirring for 2 minutes. Pour the hot syrup over the popcorn and stir to coat.

Line 2 heavy rimmed baking sheets with parchment and spread the popcorn between the two pans. Bake in a 300º F oven for 15 minutes, flipping and rotating the two pans halfway through. Remove from oven and let cool completely. The popcorn will crisp up as it cools.

still space

I suppose it’s time for me to introduce my girls. I have three hives of bees that I tend – all brimming with thousands of female worker bees and one queen. I’ll let you meet them in the order I typically work them. Freeda-b is the rockstar queen. My oldest queen by far, but you’d never guess it. She can easily outlay my other two more spry queens – filling each frame flawlessly with gorgeous brood. And her girls consistently make more honey than any hive I’ve ever kept. I’ve not ventured into the tricky art of raising queens, but Freeda-b is just the type who would lead me there. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Next in line is Ruth Wilson (named after my great grandmother – not the English actress). Steadfast and sweet. I love her hive. Her bees remind me of the kid who really has to work at something to be good, you know the type – as opposed to the one equipped with all the natural talent and good looks to boot. Ruth Wilson also runs a “no attitude” ship. Her girls are a mild tempered and easy to work with – a treat really.

Which is pretty much the exact opposite of Valerie’s hive. I consider her my problem child. She is named in honor of Miracle Max’s wife. When I installed her into the hive as a young queen, I found my self asking “think it’ll work?” Which, to be fair, is a question I frequently ask myself in the bee yard, but this time the answer was clearly “it’d take a miracle.” Let’s just say the conditions were less than ideal, and there was a wee bit of mayhem going on. But she rallied and she seems committed to live up to her hard-knocks upbringing – her girls are SASSY. This was my first summer with her, but her crew has all the makings to be top-notch honey makers. I’m expecting great things from them next season, even if I have to put up with a little cheek.

But there is something else you should know about my hives. Bees make me nervous. They always have. Now, I’ve never been the flailing, squealing, swatting type around bees. I really want to like them. And I do. But they still make me jumpy. Every time I suit up to go out to the bee yard, my pulse increases and my body temp rises ever so slightly. Sometimes I even get the stomach flutters. That disconnect between instinct and rational thought is a fascinating one, isn’t it? But here’s the kicker. As soon as I am immersed with the girls – even the surly ones – my nerves settle and everything magically drops away. And I mean everything. For once, I don’t think about the work project sitting on my desk, or the potatoes that need to be dug before the ground freezes, or the phone call I should have made. I don’t replay any past conversations in my head, or dwell on what the future may or may not hold for me. Time stops and that’s all there is. Just bees. Not much else has this effect on me. I meditate daily, I practice yoga, I consciously relax. But for all my attempts at enlightenment, my mind still manages to have it’s fair share of private fracases.

I’m sure my motivation to set up a single hive five years ago had a lot to do with honey. But really I have come to see that luscious liquid gold as an added perk to a pursuit that finally gives me that sought after still space. My girls also manage to keep me endlessly curious  – if even slightly nervous. I love those sort of unexpected surprises that life dishes out.