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Issue 13 - A taste of honey

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


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A taste of honey

You might have to suffer a bit ot find the best honey - as Sue Lawrence found out. But was it worth it.

It was a gloriously warm summer morning in the Borders of Scotland. All I could see around me was purple heather – two shades (bell and ling) – along the sides of the valley. The tranquil picture was interrupted only by the glimpse of a stoat as it darted from one clump of sedge to another.

Then, rather like a scene from The Charge of the Flight Brigade, a swarm of bees broke loose as bee-keeper John Mellis lifted off the top of their hive.

Soon, climbing all over my bee-proof suit and buzzing menacingly near my face, the bees seemed more than a little angry.

As John put it later, how would you feel if you were going about your business when suddenly the roof of your house was lifted off; wouldn’t you want to attack the perpetrator?

After John had been stung several times through his custom-made bee gloves, he cheerily remarked that “stings are just a hazard of the job.”

It was then I made the decision that from that moment, all I intend to do is eat the product of those angry bees’ toil; the potentially dangerous part I would leave to dedicated craft honey producers such as John.

And while I recovered at a safe distance with a comforting cup of tea, doorstep of bread and some of John’s luscious honey, he explained how the hive works and how honey is made.

There is usually one queen bee and some 40-50,000 worker bees to one hive in summertime. The queen, having been fed on royal jelly for the first few days of her life, lives for up to five years; the workers for a mere six weeks. Within the complex hierarchy of each colony, the female bees are given specific roles – nurses, scouts, guards and even undertakers.

The drones (the only males) account for only some 100 per hive, but I feel sure even these non-working males had joined the rest of the hive to buzz threateningly around my head that day up the glen.

The forager bees are the ones that fly off to collect nectar – flying for up to three miles from the hive.

The nectar has around 40-60 per cent moisture and to reduce this to honey, the forager bees pass it onto the hive bees who carry it on the end of their tongues until the air flow reduces the moisture level to around 18-20 per cent which means it is now thicker and more concentrated: it is now honey.

The wooden frames of honeycomb removed by John are taken to his home in Dumfriesshire in south-west Scotland, where the honey is extracted centrifugally – or in the case of heather honey by a complex structure of needles because of its gel consistency.

Unlike the runny texture of most honeys, the gel-like consistency of heather honey means, to form a set honey, it needs the addition of some other honey such as rape (most honeys in this country are from rape) which granulates more quickly. But I do recommend trying pure heather honey: its consistency is a revelation. As is a tasting of the various honeys with their nuances of flavour.

And I was fortunate enough to go to the newly opened Honey Shop in Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, to spoon and drizzle. This tiny shop, jam-packed with jars, is a veritable hive of activity, with customers tasting and buying.

As I compared a delicate springtime sycamore and hawthorn honey with a summer bell heather and lime, it was explained to me that in New Zealand, their famous manuka honey is considered a panacea for all ills with children having it rubbed over burns or cuts to help natural healing.

It is known to help treat wounds, sore gums and throats: so, healthy as well as delicious!

Having done the hive adventure, I now truly appreciate the effort that goes into honey as I lather it onto toast or drizzle over porridge.

That effort is not only by the bees, but also by dedicated bee-keepers such as John Mellis who told me on the drive home that on reflection, it was probably not a good idea for my first visit to go to hives on heather, as bees become increasingly aggressive on heather moors. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Still, I survived; now I’ll just keep taking the honey.

150g / 5oz whole rolled (jumbo) oats
100g / 3oz chopped dried apricots
50g / 1oz chopped walnuts
50g / 1oz whole unblanched almonds
50g / 1oz desiccated coconut
70 g / 2oz sunflower seeds
100g / 3oz sesame seeds
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tbsp honey

1. Place the first seven ingredients in a bowl.
2. Place the oil and honey in a small saucepan and melt together then.
3. Drizzle into the bowl, stirring well.
4. Spread thinly onto a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven (150C /300F/ Gas2) for 25-30 minutes, stirring carefully a couple of times,
until evenly browned. Do not allow to go beyond golden brown.
5. Remove and cool then break into chunks. Store in an airtight container.

1 x 400g / 14 oz tin of red kidney beans, drained
1 x 400g / 14 oz tin of borlotti beans, drained
3-4 spring onions trimmed, sliced
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 tbsp runny honey
4 tbsp freshly chopped coriander
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Gently stir together the beans and onions.
2. In a small bowl, beat together the remaining ingredients and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Pour over the beans and stir gently to combine.
4. Serve as part of a buffet table or as a starter with some warm country bread.

1. Serve some traditional Scottish oatcakes with a piece of blue cheese (My favourites are Dunsyre Blue or Lanark Blue).
2. Top with a generous spoonful of honeycomb. Simple!