Weston beekeeper helps develop America’s taste for honey
Updated 12:00 am, Thursday, September 28, 2017
Winnie-the-Pooh never much cared about where he got his honey, sticking his paw into any honeypot or tree that showed promise.
Such indiscriminate taste is not what Marina Marchese cultivates in her light, airy and homey barn-like building in Weston, which houses her Red Bee Honey company.
The sun streams in through windows and sliding screen doors, which, when opened on a recent morning, let in an occasional bee or hornet searching for the sweet stuff. Eight goblets of different honeys are set for tasting on a large farmhouse table. An artist might better describe the shades of brown in the tall glasses, but that is just one part of the picture.
Marchese wants to foster honey experts who can speak to the color, but also the taste, smell, floral notes and origin of the types of honey.
“This is really just a small sampling of honey,” says Marchese, removing plastic wrap from the goblets. On the stem, white lettering indicates predominant flavor notes, among them blueberry, alfalfa, buckwheat, goldenrod, bamboo and linden. “If you travel around the world, around the United States, there are hundreds of different kinds of honey. There are 300 flowers, more or less, but really only 30 or 50 single-origin honeys, which is mostly that of one flower. It’s really quite amazing.”
About three years ago, Marchese, a longtime beekeeper, began in earnest to win over an American public that had yet to develop a honey palate. A tradition in places such as Italy, where Marchese learned the ropes, or other European countries, honey consumption in the United States largely has consisted of clover honey — the one most likely to be found on grocery store shelves.
In 2013, she co-authored a book, “The Honey Connoisseur,” with Kim Flottum, a bee expert and editor of Bee Culture magazine. It encourages readers to better understand how to select, taste and pair honey. “The book was really a guide to floral sources and matching the flowers bees visit to make honey to the actual taste, flavor, color and smell of the honey. It is very similar to wine, in that different grapes growing in different areas give wine a taste and smell that is completely different.”
She has given tastings, conducted classes and written articles about developing one’s honey palate. She helps a novice taster identify the fruitiness of honey harvested from cranberry blooms, or the maltiness of buckwheat. For the former, it can be pressed into service as the main ingredient in a Thanksgiving ham glaze. The latter goes well with a nutty cheddar or as a substitute for maple syrup.
The trend has been growing for the past 10 years or so, with the rise of farmers markets and farm-to-table cooking. Consumers were looking for organic and non-GMO foods, and were excited to hunt for unique and unusual foods, with the intent of slowing down and savoring the taste. Then came word of colony collapse disorder that was creating an existential crisis for the country’s honeybees.
“This all sort of came together at the right time for people to start thinking about honey and to start talking about the different flavors,” Marchese says.
In Westport, the arrival this summer of Savannah Bee Company is another sign that honey has moved beyond the plastic bear. A limited-release, 20-ounce bottle of sourwood honey at the store, for instance, made from sourwood trees from the mountains of north Georgia and western North Carolina, sells for $99. The harvest is similar to a great vintage, says Kate Carlier, a senior store manager, as she allows a taste. A smooth concoction, it has notes of caramel and maple. Another rarity is black sage honey, cultivated from blooms in the Sierra Nevada desert, which is making its first appearance after a seven-year drought. As the name suggests, it’s a bit savory and earthy. Customers are encouraged to taste the offerings back-to-back, from the wildflower to the tupelo tree. They are, at points, earthy, spicy, fruity, citrusy, woody and herbal.
Georgia beekeeper Ted Dennard started the company in 2002. A year later, he and his team attended the New York Fancy Food Show, where they brought single-flower honeys and honeycomb platters with cheese and apples. The booth, he says, “was slammed.” He has since spoken at conferences about the importance of honeybees and elevating honey’s status.
“Honey was the sweetener for so long, as well as in ancient beauty rituals,” Dennard writes in an email. “Revered in ancient Egypt, honey was as valuable as gold. Large-scale honey producers began heating and blending for color consistency for mass consumerism. By nature, honeys have different flavors, colors and textures that should be celebrated. The art of single-flower honey, health and environmental concerns have brought these deserving, noble little pollinators back into the spotlight.”
Marchese hopes to educate the consumer, as well as create a new crop of expert tasters. She completed her training in Italy, becoming the first American to do so. She is a member of the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society. She will conduct a two-day class this month.
Sophisticated palates will help the growing number of bakers and brewers, particularly mead producers, searching for the right honey for their recipes.
“There is a deep diversity (to honey) that we should embrace and celebrate,” Marchese says.
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