In Praise of Honey

In Praise of Honey

Humans have been collecting and eating it for more than ten thousand years. It was written about in cuneiform, depicted as an elixir of life in 4,000 BCE, and over the centuries many cultures have considered it a sacred, numinous substance. It is made by the same industrious insects that pollinate our fruit trees and flowers, and, as they have done for 40 million years, in the process of converting it into a non-perishable commodity, the bees augment it with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. When we eat it raw, we receive those benefits, and we receive minimal doses of  the pollens local to where the honey was made. Eating local honey can boost our immune systems.
After living in close proximity to bee hives for the past year, my relationship with honey has bloomed, and the benefit isn’t only in my taste buds. Like birding, bees connect me to my environment. I’ve spent hours speculating about where our backyard bees go during the day. Our landlord, whose bees these are, speculates they go to the Berkeley Aquatic Park, a greenbelt about a mile away. I plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden, and almost daily Jason and I watch the bees, whose hives are on the roof of an outbuilding behind our house. We watch them guard their hive, fly away in beautiful streams, buzz around our porchlight at night, and crawl slowly across our deck to die.
Of course we’ve incorporated honey into our home cuisine, over yogurt, baked in banana bread, used in glazes for poultry, and in various marmalades and jams. We eat it by the spoonful when we feel like it, and stir it into our tea. It is delicious, nourishing and somehow we can feel its ancient essence. With dear friends we’ve started a batch of mead using our backyard honey and plums. In nine months I’ll tell you how it turned out.
Paul, our landlord, keeps hives at our house, at his house across the street, and on properties in the Sierras (that honey tastes of manzanita and blackberry), Pt. Reyes (tastes buttery, with less citrus sweetness than ours), and near Coos Bay, Oregon (we haven’t yet tried that one). Through his honey I learn a little about those other environments.
A while ago I found Juliette Elkon’s Honey Cookbook at the San Leandro Thrifttown, published by Knopf in 1955. It is a treasure. She collected recipes dating back to Medieval times that use honey as a primary ingredient. Here’s one I haven’t tried yet, but I plan to.

Russian Honey Beet Jam
1 pound beets
2 preserved ginger roots, minced
almonds, sliced
Wash, peel, and cut beets into 1/2-inch slices, cook, and drain. Add one cup honey for each cup of beets and cook until thick.Flavor with ginger root and almonds. (Serve with cold meats.)

There are a lot of exotic honey recipes in the Honey Cookbook, but I have to admit that a few simple classics are very tough to beat. A toast to the glories of honey!

Photos of bees taken by Jason Swecker.

Thanks again, Frans Meijer

Thanks again, Frans Meijer

In our age of declining biodiversity, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the US Department of Agriculture regularly hired explorers to hunt down new fruit and vegetable varieties across the globe. But this is exactly what Frans Nicholaas Meijer was hired to do in 1905. During his stint as a USDA agricultural explorer, he traveled all over the world and returned with many new species that went on to be widely cultivated in the States. He is best known for his Chinese imports, including Gingko biloba, soybeans, and Chinese cabbage, among others. Apparently afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, he spent his adult life traveling, sometimes on foot across vast distances. Sadly, in 1918 at the age of forty-three, he drowned in the Yangtze river.

I am particularly grateful to Meijer for bringing us the lemon that now bears the anglicized version of his name. Thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, the round, thin-skinned Meyer lemon has a delectable floral scent and taste, and is less bitter than a Eureka or a Lisbon. There are two abundant Meyer lemon trees in our yard, and this yellow jewel has provided us gallons of lemonade, (often infused with rosemary), quarts of marmalade (honeyed and vanilla bean), limoncello galore, and Moroccan style preserved lemons, not to mention untold squeezes over salads, poultry and fish. But there is one recipe that stands above all the other lemon-oriented delicacies I’ve made, a recipe so heavenly, so wickedly and perfectly decadent that the people who eat it swoon off their chairs. It is something I would have loved to make for Frans Meijer in gratitude. My landlord, the man who planted the trees in our yard, handed me the recipe very casually a few months ago. Let’s just say my response upon first tasting the result was anything but casual. I would describe it more as a joyful seizure. It is Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie. Yeah. It is insanely good. This recipe is from Sunset Magazine. There’s no date on the photocopy my landlord gave me, but the short article is by Elaine Johnson.

Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie

Prep and cook time: About 40 minutes, plus two hours for chilling.

Makes one pie.

10 (about 2/13 lb.) Meyer lemons

1/3 cup cornstarch

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup whipping cream

1 baked, cooled 9-inch pastry shell, or one homemade baked, cooled pie crust

1. Grate 2 teaspoons peel from lemons. With a zester or Asian shredder make a few long strands of peel to decorate the finished pie. Squeeze one and one-third cups juice from the lemons.

2. In the top of a double boiler (I use a makeshift boiler using two saucepans and it works fine), mix the cornstarch and sugar. Stir in the lemon juice and grated peel. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with 1 inch of water. Place pans over high heat and bring water to a simmer. Stir until the mixture isthick and shiny, 8-9 minutes. In a bowl, whisk eggs to blend. Whisk in about ½ cup of lemon mixture, then return all to pan. Stir until mixture is very thick and reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove top pan. Place it in a bowl of ice and stir often until the mixture is cool to touch, about 6 minutes.

4. In a bowl, beat the cream with a mixer (or with a whisk, if you’re me) until stiff. Fold in lemon mixture, then spread evenly in pastry shell. Scatter reserved strands of peel on top and chill for a couple of hours. I’ve used rosemary blossoms, raspberries, and blueberries on top of the pie.

Thanks again, Frans Meijer!

Bibliography: here and here.

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