Savour food – Honey – or how Valentine’s just got a whole lot sweeter

Where are the honey bees

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and I love my honey and I love honey. This year I decided to bake my honey a honey-baked treat. And that got me thinking more and more about honey and where it comes from and what I really know about it anyway? I decided to do some research on it for my Alberta at Noon Food Column for CBC Radio One and so now I know considerably more and have lots of bee facts and figures buzzing around my head. But back to my love of honey.

I love honey on toast and in salad dressings. I mix a few tablespoons with a teaspoon each of chili paste and sesame oil and spread it over my salmon before barbecuing. It’s fantastic. I love it in my favourite banana bread recipe. I love it in ice cream with blueberries or Saskatoon berries or black currants even. I especially love wine made with honey or mead as its known. My friends Art and Cherie Andrews make fantastic mead at Chinook Arch Meadery I think it’s the best I’ve tasted but I’m always willing to do more research. We now have four meaderies in Alberta (Birds and Bees, Fallen Timber and Spirit Hills) so I am prepared to be less partial as invites to visit and samplings pour forth.

Art and Cherie Andrews with PBS's "off the beaten palate" star Michael Ann Rowe
Art and Cherie Andrews with PBS’s “off the beaten palate” star Michael Ann Rowe

Last fall when I was visiting Art and Cherie I bought A Honey of a Cookbook by the Alberta Beekeepers Association at their gift shop and have enjoyed browsing through the recipes and gleaning the tips that are spread throughout. Here are a few of them as follows:

• It’s important to realize that honey is about 10 times sweeter on the human palate than sugar and that means it can really intensify the sweet flavour of a dish so, you need to use less honey than other sweeteners.

• Obviously honey’s a liquid so you need to use fewer liquids in your recipe to help achieve the right consistency. The easiest way to handle this is to substitute ¾ cup of honey for 1 cup of sugar and make no other liquid adjustment.

• Another tip is to lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees when cooking with honey in order to prevent over-browning as honey can scorch at high heat.

• The good news is that honey will help your baking last longer because it adds such nice moisture.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Alberta is the largest honey producing province in Canada. In 2011 we produced 40.7% of Canada’s honey. The average hive in Alberta produces between 124 to 141 pounds of honey annually, depending on the year, and that is twice the world average. In 2011 that added up to 34.1 million pounds of honey. You might ask how is this possible? Do we feed our bees steroids and make them work overtime?

No to the steroids but yes, our bees do work a lot more in Alberta because we have really long hours of sunlight during our spring and summer, especially in the Northern parts of our province. The bees love that. They also love all the alfalfa, clover and canola flowers they have to gather nectar from. Though not all of these plants are organic, Alberta can claim the country’s largest organic apiary owned by the Wolfe family in a town called Guy in Peace River Country. Yes, that’s quite far North.

The Wolfe family apiary has been around for 25 years and they are a huge success story. Canadians will likely recognize their brand called Honey Bunny in eco-friendly stand up pouches and their condiments under the Amazing Dad’s BBQ Sauce and Bodalicious Ketchup product lines. The Wolfe’s only started those value added products in 2006 but they are on almost all grocery store shelves across the country and they have won many awards for their ingenuity and great tasting honey. I’d like to go up to Peace River Country one day and see that big operation and all the land the bees have dedicated to their health and vitality.

I don’t want to go right now. It’s February and rather cold and snowy up that way and while bees don’t exactly hibernate like bears, they are clustered together and staying warm for the winter in their hives. There is no food for them to forage right now but they have small amounts of honey within their hives to eat over the winter. It’s not a busy time for the bees but it sure is a busy time for Alberta beekeepers.

Apiculture Alberta, a division of Alberta Agriculture, just held an Integrated Pest Management Workshop this week. I have no idea what that really means but it sounds terribly important. Honey bees do not need pests bothering them. They’ve got important work to do.

I would fall in the extremely curious and awe-filled camp of bee admirers. I’m toying with the idea of maybe someday probably most likely becoming a beekeeper. But everytime I think of myself as an apiarist an arm’s length of excuses keeps me at arm’s length from the bee scene instead of being fully alive with a thriving hive. Are you like me? Are you a big chicken bee instead of a queen bee?

If you are one step ahead of me, if you are ready to become caretaker of queen and court, and if you live in Alberta you might be ready to take one of the bee-ginners beekeeping workshops available here. My friend Art started this way. He was a pilot with lots of days off and he got a few hives to compliment all the gardening he’d always done and then when he retired he got a few more and now he runs a huge meadery and apiary operation as well as a store and educational centre. I love Art and his wife Cherie. They’ve been around their bees so long they’ve become just like them; busy and thriving in their hive. They’ve retired to their renaissance and I see a long life ahead for them because of their physically and mentally fulfilling life.

Art Andrews
Art Andrews

Like I said for those of you who are fearless and ready here are some upcoming courses for backyard beekeeper wanna-bees.

The Calgary Beekeepers Association has information on workshops given by themselves and by Alberta Agriculture in Calgary and Edmonton in March and May and also information about a summer 5 day intensive course at Sweetacre Apiary in the Shushwap, B.C. area in August.

There’s a company in Calgary called Apiaries and Bees for Communities or ABC and they are offering 3 workshops this winter and spring on how to keep bees in your own backyard. A.B.C only started up in 2010 but they have already taught over 200 students about beekeeping and by the end of 2013 they will have delivered 312 colonies of bees into the province.

Here’s how I might enter the beekeeping world. ABC also offer a private hive management service for small businesses that would like to own their own hive, harvest honey for their own uses and support an ecological bit of community development without having to do the upkeep themselves. They will bring in 20 hives this year for this program. I would pay them to bring me 2 hives, they would put on inservices for me and my staff and I would get to keep all the honey and (uh oh, this is where I start to panic…) be responsible for my hives from here on as long as we both shall live. Oh dear me. Hmm, well, baby bee steps! I’ve set up the meeting with Eliese Watson, and I will see if it’s really right for me right now.

There sure seems to be a resurgence of interest in our honey bees. Have you seen the movie Vanishing of the Bees? Here’s the trailer.

Watching that movie is what awakened me to the importance of bees and the fact that there’s something we can do to help. I think people have heard that honey bees have been on the decline and that bee pollination of crops is responsible for two-thirds of our food production (indirect and direct) and they want to do something to help bees and reverse the alarming trend of bee collapse. It’s a fascinating fact that while there’s been a significant increase in Colony Collapse Disorder in large scale agriculture it’s also been discovered that bees are still thriving in more urban settings where there is greater diversity in flower specimens and urban pesticide bans in place. I think backyard beekeeping is also part of the growing trend of wanting to grow your own food and on a practical note, there is much greater dissemination of beekeeping knowledge as we see by the courses on offer right here in Alberta.

To end this blog on the sweet note it started on: a honey-baked treat for my honey. Here’s the recipe of what I made – Honey Beet Cake. I hope you enjoy this rich honey laden golden treat with ruby jewel-like beets and sweetheart pink icing. May your Valentine be as appreciative as mine.

Honey Beet Cake with Sweetheart pink icing
Recipe from A Honey of a Cookbook Vol. III from The Alberta Beekeeper’s Association

¾ c honey
1 c canola oil
3 eggs
1 1/3c flour
1t baking powder
1t baking soda
1t cinnamon
½ t salt
1c raisins
1c walnuts
½ c coconut
2 c beets, grated (I used canned – not pickled- beets which I strained, diced and saved the juice for the icing below)

1. Mix honey, oil and eggs in a large mixing bowl.
2. Sift dry ingredients and add to wet, mixing well.
3. Blend in raisins, nuts, coconut and beets.
4. Pour into a greased and floured Bundt pan.
5. Bake at 300°F for one hour and 15 minutes.

Karen’s sweetheart pink icing
Mix 8 oz. cream cheese with 2/3 cup of creamed honey, add reserved beet juice a few drops at a time and stir until pink throughout. You also may need to add some icing sugar to stiffen it up a bit or keep it as it is and use it as a glaze. Frost the cooled Bundt cake. Decorate with little cinnamon candy hearts to your heart’s desire.

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