A Taste of Honey
£6, 11am, Sat, St Paul’s Church
Honey has long been deeply woven into human culture and language. Cave paintings in Valencia show we’ve been consuming it for at least 10,000 years. Ancient cultures used it as medicine, embalming fluid and gifts for the gods, as well as in food and drink. Many cultures and ages have thought of honey as a little bit of heaven fallen to earth. Pliny, rather unappetisingly, pondered whether it was “perspiration of the sky” or “saliva of the stars”.
Although honey lost out to cane sugar as sweetener of choice over the last few centuries, now interest this golden nectar, and the bees that make it, is experiencing a massive revival, inspired by an interest in eating natural and local, and the knowledge that this ancient food treasure is under serious threat.
Headlines have been heralding the death of the honey bee for several years. And the stats do show huge losses in a few decades. This has led to apocalyptic warnings of world starvation due to the loss of these vital pollinators. The fightback has come most vigorously in cities like London, where it’s said new hobby beekeepers are raising hive numbers to dangerous density levels – the worry is there isn’t enough food for all these new capital bees. Urban beekeeper Paul Webb, of London hive rental company Barnes & Webb, is careful to only place new hives in areas of lower density.
But this new wave of beekeepers also means it’s now possible to get truly local honey – even down to your postcode. In fact there are even multiple ‘brands’ of Stokey/N16 honey, such is the love for beekeeping in the LitFest’s home. Some snap it up to ‘cure’ their hayfever – the idea being that the honey acts as a kind of inoculation against local pollen. Others just love to explore the endless variety of flavour, aroma and texture in honeys made from London’s incredibly varied flora. As Paul Webb says, ‘London has such a diversity of plants and trees so you can get really crazy flavour combinations,’ – from lavender in window boxes to acacia flowers on park trees and honeysuckle growing wild next to rail tracks.
If anyone knows about the mad variety that honey offers it’s Hattie Ellis, author of honey-based recipe book Spoonfuls of Honey, who’s also written a social history of the honeybee, Sweetness & Light. “A spoonful of honey offers the vivid and endlessly varied flavour of a particular place and time: it’s far more than just another pot on the shelf,” she says. And she should know. On her shelf she has a constantly shifting collection of around 100 pots of honey, from Caribbean mango honey to butterscotchy New Zealand tawari. She once had a pot of Kew Garden honey so aromatic she used it as a room fragrance, and her current London haul includes “a pot from Hackney, from the rooftop hive of food writer Jojo Tulloh, and Bermondsey Street honey, which has that minty twang you get from lime trees.”
When the 17th century English courtier Sir Kenelm Digby collected his favourite booze recipes, over half were for honey-based brews. While we’re not quite at that level yet, the boom in craft brewing and carefully curated cocktails is overlapping with the honey mood, to produce a small but growing number of drinks produced with this sweet ingredient.
Hannah Rhodes, founder of Hiver Beer, uses light and citrus London honey, a perfect match for Kentish hops, in her blonde beer. As well as making a new, intriguing and refreshing brew, Hiver Beer helps independent beekeepers, working with the London Beekeepers Association, as well as Bermondsey Bees and Bee Urban London, who look after the Hiver hive in Kennington park. Plus 10% of profits goes to projects that support pollinators, as well as urban regeneration projects. Sweet!
To hear more from this trio of fascinating bee-lievers, get your tickets to A Taste of Honey here: http://www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com/snlf_events/a-taste-of-honey/
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