The Nectar of the Gods Yup, it’s barfed-up flower nectar. And it’s delicious.
By Jaime Lewis
There is a pepper tree on Buchon Street in San Luis Obispo that I used to pass on my way to work every morning. One quiet fall day, I walked by and noticed a droning sound coming from the direction of the tree’s trunk. Taking the time to investigate, I discovered a large hole hosting a gorgeous honeycomb and hundreds of bees, right there on the street. (In fact, if I hadn’t had the self-awareness to step out of the bees’ flight pattern, I may have found myself nursing a sting or two.)
I think that’s when my mini-obsession with honey started. The fact that nature’s sweetener was being produced right there in downtown SLO without any prompting or tending was too big for me to comprehend. Finding a luxurious, decadent food like honey out in “the wild” shook the foundations of commerce as I understood it. You mean it’s here for just anyone to take?
A Brief Lesson on How Honey Is Made
Bees produce honey for food that can easily be stored over the cold winter months. Female worker bees leave the hive to gather flower nectar in their second stomach or “honey sac,” whose enzymes convert the nectar’s complex sugars into simple sugars. The bees then regurgitate and re-ingest the sweet liquid numerous times before their final regurgitation into the honeycomb. (Bear with me...)
At this point, the honey is still very liquid-y. It only becomes syrupy as its water content evaporates under the constant beating of worker bees’ wings in the hive. As a big addendum to the beautiful complexity of this natural process is the symbiotic relationship between plants and bees. Just as the plant supplies the bee with the raw materials for honey-making, the bee supplies the plant with the means for sweet love-making: pollination. Seriously, pollination is one of the keys to agriculture as we know it, enabling fertilization and the continuation of the species that supply roughly one third of our human food supply.
Beekeepers encourage over-production among their “semi domesticated” colonies (I imagine bees playing fetch or rolling over) to harvest the hives’ excess honey. For a single varietal, the says that most of his bees are in or around Fresno, where he drives from Atascadero nearly every other day. “I have two helpers who run my booth at eight farmers’ markets throughout the week so I can be out in the field,” he explains. It’s obvious he’s a busy man; I call three times with follow-up questions only to hear his answering machine singing back at me, “Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees...”
I take a jar of Stoltey’s alfalfa honey home and hunt for recipes that will let it shine. Of course, it’s delicious without manipulation, whether atop fresh yogurt or as a teasweetener. But I try my hand at a recipe for honey whole wheat bread that also makes use of some fresh local khorosan wheat I’ve just acquired (see “Follow-Up: Bringing Wheat Back To Our Backyard, Part II”). Holy cannoli: I’ve never had a better slice of whole wheat than this, even from a professional bakery. The sweet, distinctive flavor of Stoltey’s alfalfa honey sings out above a panoply of John DeRosier’s rustic grains, a toothsome crumb, and a toasty golden crust. I consider sharing my second loaf with someone who will appreciate it and decide, rather selfishly, to squirrel it away in the freezer.
The fact that our local honeybees have year-round blossoms to gather from on the central coast further reinforces my belief that we are the most blessed eaters on earth. The moment the first spring leaves emerge on the trees, I will be at Mr. Stoltey’s booth itching for a taste of his seasonal almond, avocado, wildflower, lavender and eucalyptus honeys. There are so many things I’ve yet to try, like drizzling honey over vanilla ice cream or serving it with a traditional balsamic vinegar with strawberries in the summer. At the very least, I’ll definitely be baking that whole wheat bread again. And who knows? Maybe next time I’ll share.
www.honey.com: The National Honey Board offers plenty of information on honey and its benefits, as well as hundreds of recipes. Stoltey’s Bee Farm, Paul and Jean Stoltey: 10080 Atascadero Ave, Atascadero, CA 93422. Phone: 466-0473.