Did you know that honey is the third sweetest harvest in Ontario? First is icewine, second is maple syrup and now we’re entering honey season. That’s right, there is a season to Ontario’s golden nectar.
Here are a few sweet facts. Did you know that to produce one pound of honey, a bee needs to extract nectar from 3 to 4 million blossoms, traveling the equivalent of one and a half times around the world? It boggles my mind to think about it. More amazing is the fact that it takes 12 bees a lifetime to produce one teaspoon of honey. Honey bees are responsible for every third mouthful of food we eat because they pollinate all of our flowering fruit trees and vegetable plants and the plants that our farm animals eat. So I think it’s safe to say, no bees – no food!
There is actually a cycle to honey production just like there is a cycle to growing peaches. We know with peaches, the trees are dormant in the winter months and it’s easy for us to watch them wake up in the spring as they dress themselves with such beautiful blossoms. Then we wait as tiny fruit begins to form and ripen. Then comes the harvest and we indulge until we can’t eat any more but were satisfied that our psyche has been pampered with the best this world has to offer.
So now take the peach cycle and lets talk honey. The colony of bees sleep all winter long feeding off the honey that the beekeeper leaves in their hives. Then in the spring the bees start collecting nectar from primarily dandelions. Dandelion honey is rare because the bees feed on this themselves. The beekeeper won’t extract any honey until the bee colony is strong enough to produce enough for both themselves and us.
The first harvested honey of the year is usually clover and that may be May or June, depending on the season. The first honey is typically light in colour and as the season progresses, the bees feed on fruit blossoms, wildflowers, and goldenrod and the honey becomes a little darker. The last honey harvest of the year is buckwheat, the darkest honey of them all and that traditionally takes place in October, depending on the weather.
So this means we’re just entering honey season! Honey is sweet, delicious, and needs no processing. It’s one of the most natural products you can buy. With a hot knife, beekeepers scrape off the top layer of a honeycomb. Then the combs are transferred to a centrifuge where the liquid honey is gently separated from the comb. The honey trickles into a vat and left there until it’s bottled.
Many beekeepers will bottle varietal honey’s by keeping the various honey’s separate and bottling them separately. Others will process honey only once a year therefore blending all of the distinctive honey’s into one perhaps more balanced blend. Either way, it’s a matter of personal choice. I’m waiting for beekeepers to put a harvest year on the bottles of honey and we can begin to talk about the season and how its affected the flavour of the honey as we now talk about wine.
I like a dark, stronger honey in my tea, but in cooking I prefer a lighter honey. I replace sugar in an apple pie recipe with honey and will boil the apple peels in honey and water to make a delicious syrup to serve with my apple pie. Basting pork tenderloin with honey, searing it and finishing it off in the oven creates a crunchy sweetish crust to the meat. Half and pit juicy peaches and baste them with honey before you grill them on the barbecue. Served with whipped cream it’s an easy and delicious dessert.
It’s interesting that beekeepers have relatively small farms. This is because most beekeepers only have one beeyard on their property and they look for other agricultural sites around them to locate the rest. The arrangement is the farmer who allows a beeyard on their property will receive a pail of honey at the end of the year as payment. The farmer is happy to have his crops pollinated and the beekeeper is happy to have the honey to sell. I know one farmer who has a beeyard on a blueberry farm and his blueberry honey is among his most popular sellers.
It’s honey season and this year get out there and meet your neighbourhood beekeeper and ask for small amounts of honey throughout the summer so you can taste the differences of the season.
For more information on honey, see www.ontariobee.com
Click here for delicious recipes using fresh harvested honey and if you’re looking for more ways to use honey, get yourself The Ontario Table cookbook!