Honey Stories

I might have used this Roz Chast cartoon before. Here it is again to illustrate a point.

Roz Chast Kitchen Museum

Does some part of your pantry look like this? Mine does, especially when it comes to honey or is it honeys? We all enjoy this natural sweetener that has so many uses. Some even believe that eating local honey will help to stop allergies when you move to a new area. The thought is that eating the local pollens used by local bees gets your system used to the new irritants and alleviates allergies. Could be true. Could be folklore. It’s still yummy honey.

My honey shelf!

Honey is one of the world’s oldest foods; the Greek word for it, meli, hasn’t changed since it was inscribed on Mycenaean Linear B tablets 4,000 years ago. It needs little processing and does not spoil.

Many years ago, while living in Northwestern Greece, my camera was not working correctly. I went to the local camera shop where my photos were regularly processed. It was springtime, so the shop owner, who knew I was interested in traditional culture, took me into the local mountains to photograph an itinerant honey collector (I don’t know what else to call him). With the resultant film, he was able to see and repair whatever was ailing the camera and I was able to get amazing photos of local heritage.

Just a few of the hives scattered in the mountainside field

According to Culinary Backstreets,* Greece is Europe’s fourth most important honey producer after Spain, Germany and Hungary. Somewhere between 12,000 and 17,000 tons of honey, or liquid gold, are produced thanks to the busy bees of Greece. Greek honey comes from conifers, fir and pine, as well as flower nectars – chestnut, arbutus, heather, orange blossom, wildflowers – thyme, the most famous and highly prized.

*Note: I tried to insert the specific link to Greek honey, but it will not connect. Try searching their website if interested: culinarybackstreets.com.

Inside the beekeeper’s tent

Note the metal tool in the back of the image above. This is a steel smoker. In the fall, I returned to school in Indiana. Imagine my surprise when I saw an identical smoker at the bee keeper’s booth at the local farmer’s market.

Indiana beekeeper

Greeks, being Greeks, praise their honey as the best. Greece’s botanical wealth – some 6,900 species of wildflowers and herbs – and topographical diversity, as well as the absence of monocultures, heavy industry and (on paper at least) GMO crops still give Greek bees a head start in creating honey with greater flavor and purity than in other lands where agriculture and manufacturing are more intensive.

Tupelo honey* is an American honey that stands above the rest. It is treasured in the southeast. It’s said to be one of the rarest honeys in the world. Tupelo honey comes from the Ogeechee tupelo tree that grows in the Apalachicola River basin in the panhandle of Florida and the Okeefenokee Wildlife Refuge along the Georgia-Florida border. Tupelo honey is sometimes called swamp honey because these areas are part of the Southern Cypress Swamp.

*Note: The derivation of the name is not Tupelo, Mississippi as many think.

Why is it expensive and rare? The tupelo tree only blooms about ten days out of the year. In addition, the hives are placed on platforms in the swamps, which makes it difficult to reach to retrieve the honey. It’s been cultivated for centuries, but did not get much recognition until Van Morrison* recorded a hit song called Tupelo Honey in 1971.

* Van Morrison, Tupelo Honey – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DbTIKHYwog

Tupelo honey has the distinct flavor of sweet butter, light cinnamon, and floral notes. It has a high fructose-to-glucose ratio, which differs from other honeys.

Last year I was able to go to the Apalachicola River area when in north Florida for a meeting in Tallahassee. I did not get Tupelo Honey then. But I did get to attend the annual worm grunting festival in Sopchoppy.

If you want to learn more about beekeeping in the Balkans, watch the amazing film Honeyland.* This evocative and emotional documentary follows the hard life of a single woman and her bees in Macedonia.

Honeyland, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8991268/ and https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-51401315.

Now, when I’m out in the countryside, bee boxes are one of the items that frequently catch my eye. I remember that I saw them dotting the Albanian countryside last fall, but don’t think I caught any of the images on film.


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