With a focus on local, artisanal varieties, honey takes center stage.
By Rachel Quartarone
Since biblical times, honey has been a treasured commodity. The land of milk and honey was a coveted reward that was promised from above; ancient Egyptians and Romans gave honey as a gift to their gods; and the Greeks began the tradition of using honey medicinally. Today, honey is still treasured for its nutritional benefits, healing properties and uniquely sweet taste. With a dwindling number of bees and a heightened appreciation for the farm-to-table movement, people have recently begun exploring more opportunities to help recover and maintain bee populations through beekeeping, an activity where the rewards can be sweet. This has led to higher quality and more interesting honey becoming commonplace in kitchens, on shelves and, perhaps most importantly, on our plates.
From Hive to Table
Across the country, the practice of beekeeping has taken off. Even in urban hubs like New York City, resourceful restaurants and individuals alike keep bees on rooftops and tiny plots. Although they are not particularly selective about their environment, bees operate within a rigidly structured and organized hierarchy similar to the honeycomb that they produce.
Everyday life in the hive is centered around the queen, whose main purpose is to lay eggs. The male bees in the colony, called drones, live for roughly 90 days with the sole duty of mating with the queen. Worker bees are females that do not reproduce but instead collect and provide food for the other bees, create the honeycomb and maintain the hive. “The hive is like a thriving metropolis with a very clear hierarchy and structure,” according to Marie Simmons, author of “Taste of Honey.” She is also a recipe developer and hobbyist beekeeper.
When worker bees produce more honey than the colony needs for a heat source and food supply, a beekeeper can harvest the surplus. While wearing protective clothing, the beekeeper uses a smoker to interrupt the pheromones that allow bees to communicate, causing a calming effect. Without harming the bees, the beekeeper can then open the hive and extract wax and honey. Once collected, the honey is strained, bottled and ready for use in more ways than one might expect.
Sea Island’s Own
Last March, Jordan Poteat, general manager of The Market at Sea Island, decided to try beekeeping at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge.
He and Lee Barber, Broadfield’s manager, researched beekeeping before buying 12 hives; a few of them were disbanded, which is normal when establishing new hives. “We now have seven really strong hives,” Poteat says. The result has been a lightly colored but flavorful wildflower honey that reflects the Broadfield landscape, which includes a unique mix of flora like gallberry, tupelo and clover. “Even honey harvested just 30 miles down the road will taste a little different.”
Because flora varies greatly between Georgia’s regions, honey from those regions differs greatly as well. At Broadfield and along the coast, the prominent honey varietals are gallberry, tupelo and palmetto, while in northern Georgia you’ll find sourwood and tulip poplar varietals.
Honey varietals are produced when bees make honey from the nectar of a single type of flower. Beekeepers are able to control the varietals they produce by controlling bees’ exposure to certain flora and monitoring when it is in bloom. The honey from Broadfield is typified as wildflower because Poteat placed the hives in close proximity to a wide variety of nectar sources. In the future, however, he hopes to offer six or seven different varietals. Broadfield’s honey can be found bottled and available for purchase at The Market at Sea Island and at the General Store at Broadfield, or served in the resort’s restaurants.
Sea Island chefs have also found many ways to incorporate Broadfield’s honey into menus, whether on decadent desserts or savory dishes. It’s been used as a cheese accompaniment or as a topping for fresh baked cornbread and biscuits. “We use a little bit in our barbecue—our pulled pork—in desserts, as well as sweeteners and in sauces,” says David Carrier, executive chef for The Cloister and the Beach Club. The ingredient is also mixed into a honey citrus vinaigrette for a grouper dish at Southern Tide, the resort’s seafood restaurant, and infused with cloves and served warm over angel food cake.
“The good thing about [Broadfield’s honey] is that it’s strong enough to be the focal point of a dish, but subtle enough to add some beautiful nuances to a sauce or a dessert,” Carrier says.
On the Plate
From the research behind her cookbook, Simmons knows the many roles the product can play in dishes. “Honey is an amazing, versatile product,” she says. She has studied 40 popular honey varietals and developed 60 recipes with the sweet syrup. “There’s a lot more to do with honey than just stirring it in tea. The colors and flavors of honey have a lot to do with the terroir—just like wine.”
In the U.S. alone, there are 300 different varietals of honey, and each pairs differently with various foods. Although the most common are clover, orange blossom and alfalfa, cooking with the uncommon varieties can be rewarding. Star thistle, for example, has an herby, citrus flavor. “I love to use it as a finishing element drizzled over cheese or roasted eggplant with feta,” Simmons explains.
Buckwheat honey, which hails from the Midwest, is another interesting honey varietal that she recommends trying: “It’s very dark in color and is great for gingerbread and chocolate.” She also enjoys cooking with avocado honey, which is gathered from California avocado blossoms. “It has a wonderful flavor in spicy dishes.” If you are new to discovering the different tastes of honey and its many varietals, Simmons’ biggest tip is to read the label. Look for 100 percent pure, raw honey. It’s also a great idea to visit your local farmers market and sample honeys fresh from the beekeeper.
While the desire to use local and sustainably grown products is one cause for beekeeping’s boom in popularity, other equally tempting reasons are the nutritional benefits of honey over other sweeteners and the diverse uses for the ingredient.
Honey stands out from many other sweeteners because it is completely nature made and highly localized. The only factory that should be involved in honey production is a beehive, and the only ingredient is nectar from flowers and trees.
In addition, when comparing honey to table sugar, the nutritional advantages are obvious. Sugar’s manufacturing process often filters out many proteins, vitamins, minerals and organic acids. Since honey isn’t exposed to inorganic processing, all healthy nutrients remain intact.
Honey also has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, meaning it can be used as a medicinal agent in first aid products. Another product of beekeeping, beeswax, is used for making candles, soap, cosmetics, art supplies and even furniture polish.
With honey’s versatility, nutritional value and natural origin, beekeeping has been a perfect fit for Poteat and the Sea Island staff. Although it requires patience and diligence, his favorite part has been getting to know the bees and the amazing work they do. He says the hard work of beekeeping is worth the reward, especially if the reward is a taste of honey from the hives.