We had a tasting of the new season’s honey at the East Cork Slow Food Convivium recently – it was a fascinating evening where we all learned a prodigious amount about the production of honey. 
Two passionate beekeepers – Claire Chavasse from Cappagh and Michael Woulfe from Midleton shared their experience with us. They are both avid fans of what Claire describes as the weightlifter supreme – the honey bee.
Did you know that the bee weighs about 90 mgs but can carry nectar up to 88.88 % of its body weight. Bees forage up to 2½ miles from the hive and carry the pollen and nectar all the way home. 
The female’s job is to make honey. The drone’s raison d’etre is to mate with the queen and the queen’s job is to lay millions of eggs. The drones are the chaps with the big eyes, the rest are the worker bees. The whole colony works as a team for the benefit of the colony as a whole. 
A bee’s life starts as an egg at the bottom of a cell in the honeycomb. Three days later the egg hatches and a tiny larva appears. After five days the cell is sealed by young house bees with a mixture of pollen and wax. The larva then becomes a pupa. During this time amazing changes take place, it grows legs and wings. After 13 days it gnaws its way through the wax capping. Once her wings are dry its off to work. In a 24 hour cycle, she works for 8 hours, rests for 8 hours and patrols the hive for 8 hours
She’s curious and checks whether the workers are making queen cells. Initially she just cleans cells and lines the inside with a layer of propolis, the busy bee chucks out debris from the hive.
During this period she gobbles up copious quantities of pollen which help her glands to make brood food. She feeds a little honey and pollen to the older larva and as she gets older she progresses to feeding the queen bee and removes her excreta, because unlike the bees the queen does not leave the hive once she has mated. In fact one of the primary tasks of the beekeeper is to ensure that the queen doesn’t leave and take a swarm of bees with her which can happen if the beekeeper doesn’t notice that the bees are making Queen cells.
When the bee is 9 days old wax glands develop. She can then cap over cells as more and more young bees are emerging, she gets pushed out of the centre of the brood nest area and she starts receiving nectar and adds enzyme to it to start the ripening process
When the pollen forager returns with the pollen she adds honey and saliva to the pollen and stores it away in a cell. Pollen is very important, it provides the protein, a small amount of fat, minerals and vitamins, nectar provides carbohydrates She also fans with her wings to keep the hive cool and at 19 days her sting develops, so now she can become a guard bee. At first she guards the entrance to keep wasps, and other robbing bees out, but soon becomes tempted by the great outdoors and sneaks out to make her orientation flight. Beekeepers love watching young bees in Summer imprinting that hive on their mind. 
She collect propolis from Horse chestnuts, cherries, alders and some conifers (the bee glue, also used as a draught proofer). She needs water to dilute the honey. .
In winter the bees cluster together to create heat in the centre of the hive. The bees do a dance which indicates to the other bees where the flowers are – dandelions, apple blossom, heather … The higher the sugar content the livelier the dance. At the ripe old age of six weeks after emergence from the cell in summer time after a singularly productive life, she dies.
Michael Woulfe from Midleton who has been a beekeeper since he came to Midleton in 1960, explained how the season commences in April, continues through May, June and July. By the end of the month the beekeeper hopes to have a reward for all of the labour. Honey production is greatly affected by weather. Honey varies enormously in flavour and texture. Bell heather is very dark, almost ‘port wine’ in colour, sycamore honey, whitethorn flower, apple blossom, white clover, blackberry – they are all unique. Ling heather honey is so thick and unctuous and so dense that it has to be pressed out of the comb.
Michael records the yield of his hives on a daily basis – the record so far was 24lbs of honey in one day in July. Michael is passionate about beekeeping and like so many beekeepers is anxious to pass on his wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to younger beekeepers.
In Ireland we have 1,500 beekeepers, Slovenia, according to Michael, has 10 million. Beekeepers don’t need to be based in the country – London beekeepers record some of the highest yields. 
The new season’s honey is extracted in August.Honey with the best flavour and aroma comes from the combs. 
Beekeepers often keep some unfiltered honey for their own use but honey for sale is filtered through organza so that it is totally clear. 
Beekeepers, and indeed many doctors believe that honey has many medicinal qualities, they believe it helps to cure burns, ulcers, varicose veins…. Many athletes are also very partial to honey – instant energy, already digested . Sinus sufferers benefit from chewing beeswax. 
We are fortunate in this country to be able to produce fantastic honey, there are very few big fields of oil seed rape which taints the honey. We do however have the dreaded bee disease caused by the Varroa Destructor mite. This was originally introduced to Ireland by a UK beekeeper who moved to the West of Ireland complete with his colony of bees.
This doesn’t affect the honey but wipes out the colony which would consist of 60 – 70,000 bees. 
Michael Woulfe highlighted the fact that in Ireland we have no standards for importation of honey and stressed that the best honey goes to the countries with the highest standards.
So when you are buying honey look out for Irish honey with the Irish beekeepers Association seal.
We rounded off the evening with a tasting of local honey- ling heather, bell heather, sycamore, Michael’s blackberry and white clover, our own apple and flower blossom honey. We have just 4 hives at the end of the orchard. Granulated honey is more popular in the UK while in Ireland we prefer the more liquid variety. 
Febvre who sponsor Slow Food Ireland sent us some Muscat Sec and Sauternes to taste with the honey, a sublime experience.
From the cook’s point of view honey can be used in many delicious and creative ways. Add it to dressings, drizzle it over salads, use it mixed with mustard to coat chicken breasts, spare ribs, chicken wings or even the humble sausage. It can be added to cake, biscuits or icings, and pairs deliciously with blue cheese.

Honey Parfait

Serves 6 -10
¼ pint (5 fl.ozs) syrup – see recipe
½ teasp. vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
1½ pints (900ml) whipped cream
3 fl.ozs (75ml) Irish honey or maple syrup
1 x loaf tin 9” (23cm) x 4” (10cm), lined with a double thickness of cling film.

Boil the syrup to the thread stage (240F) on a saccharometer. Pour the boiling syrup over the whisked up egg yolks with vanilla essence added.
Fold in the honey and whipped cream. Pour into the lined tin, cover and freeze.
Serve in slices with some summer or autumn berries and a drizzle of honey.

Makes 28 fl ozs (825 ml)

1 lb (450 g) sugar
1 pint (600 ml) water
To make the stock syrup: Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to cool. Store in the fridge until needed.

Caramelised Honey and Almond Tart

Serves 8-10
6 ozs (175 g) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 oz (25 g) castor sugar
4 ozs (125 g) butter
1 egg yolk, preferably free-range
Drop of pure vanilla essence

1 tablespoon pure Irish honey
6 ozs (170 g) flaked almonds
3 ozs (75 g) butter
1½ ozs (45 g) light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cream

Round tin with a pop up bottom, 10 inch (25.5 cm) diameter or
12½ x 8 inch swiss roll tin.

Put the flour and castor sugar into a bowl, rub in the butter and bind with the egg yolk and the vanilla essence. This is a tricky pastry to handle so if you like just press it into the greased tin. Prick the pastry, line it with kitchen paper and dried beans and bake in a preheated oven at 180C/350F/ regulo 4, 15-18 minutes or until pale golden.
To make the filling, put the butter, sugar, honey, and almonds into a saucepan and cook over a low heat until they are pale straw colour; add the cream and cook for a few more seconds. Spread the mixture over the base and bake until the topping is a deep golden brown colour. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with softly whipped cream.
This can take anything from 8-20 minutes depending on the length of time the original ingredients were cooked.

Foolproof Food

Yoghurt with Apple Blossom, Honey and Toasted Hazelnuts

Serves 1
About a tablespoon of toasted sweet tasting hazelnuts 
Best quality natural yoghurt 
Apple blossom honey or strongly flavoured local Irish honey - 2 tablespoons approx.

To toast hazelnuts: Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/regulo 6. Put the hazelnuts onto a baking tray and pop into the oven for 8-10 minutes until the skins loosen. Remove from the oven and as soon as they are cool enough to handle, rub off the thin papery skins (I usually put them into a tea towel, gather up the edges like a pouch, rub the towel against the nuts for a minute or so and ‘hey presto’ virtually all the skins come off in one go. If the nuts are still very pale, put them back into the oven for a few more minutes until pale golden and crisp. Slice thickly.
Just before serving spoon a generous portion of chilled natural yoghurt onto a cold plate, drizzle generously with really good honey and sprinkle with freshly sliced toasted hazelnuts. Eat immediately.

Sadie’s Wholemeal Griddle Scones

Rosemary Kennan at Roundwood House serves these scones for breakfast straight from the hot plate on the Aga, she uses an old cast-iron griddle, although a heavy frying pan will do instead.
5oz (150g) wholemeal flour
1 oz (25g) oatflakes
1 level teasp. bread soda
pinch of salt
about 7fl.oz (200ml) buttermilk

Have a heavy frying pan or griddle heating on the hob. Mix the dry ingredients well in a bowl, then stir in enough buttermilk to make a very wet consistency. Lightly grease the griddle or pan, or sprinkle it with flour. Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to the hot griddle and cook for 5-6 minutes on each side, until well risen and golden brown. Wrap in a clean tea towel and serve hot or cold, with butter and homemade jam.

Hot Tips
Urru Culinary Store, The Mill, McSwiney Quay, Bandon, Co Cork. Tel. 023-54731, www.urru.ie  info@urru.ie Recently opened store offering an extensive range of fine foods, wines and culinary accessories – browse, sample and experience Ireland’s wonderful artisan foodstuffs and other speciality food products.

Honey, particularly comb honey, should be stored in airtight containers otherwise it will absorb water from the air.
If you would like to learn about beekeeping or find out about beekeepers in your local area contact The Federation of Irish Beekeepers, c/o of their Secretary, Michael Gleeson, Ballinakill, Enfield, Co Meath. Tel. 046-9541433. He has a list of all local secretaries of the Federation. www.irishbeekeeping.ie 

For further details of Slow Food have a look at the Slow Food Ireland website. www.slowfoodireland.com  

If you are ever lucky enough to stay at Roundwood House, Mountrath, Co Laois – charming country house hotel in the heart of Ireland, nestling at foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, don’t miss Sadie’s Griddle Bread Scones served for breakfast with homemade jam and thick unctuous homemade yoghurt.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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