When the Chelsea Physic Garden held an afternoon of honey tasting, Emily and me went to represent the honey-eating skills of Ealing’s beekeepers.
The afternoon began with a talk about honey from Peter James, or Peter the Beekeeper, who traced the trail of honey from the earliest rock paintings to the modern-day industry largely in Europe, South America and Africa. Honey has been valued for food and medicine throughout history, and more recent research suggests that manuka honey is useful against the superbug, MRSA.
Peter explored the alchemy of honey production from the insect’s manipulation of a flower to the transformation of nectar into honey inside the hive. As it turns out, there is as much to say about honey as there is about bees. When honey crystallises each sugar crystal is as unique as a snowflake. ‘A fantastic array of shapes,’ commented Peter. ‘It’s a different world in every jar.’
We paused to stop at a slide of a honeybee foraging on a flower. ‘Look closer and you’ll see that her wings are frayed and falling apart,’ said Peter. Honeybees have limited flying miles and spend them carrying nectar and pollen back to the hive. ‘She will work, work, work until she drops down dead,’ said Peter dramatically.
Bees also use their wings to fan the nectar inside cells to evaporate its water content. When the water level is low enough the newly made honey is capped off by the bees and ready for beekeepers to harvest. The water viscosity of honey must be 20% or less because honey is hydroscopic, meaning that it attracts water. If you leave the lid off a jar of honey it will draw water from the air, and honey with high water viscosity could ferment. ‘That’s how mead was discovered, someone left the lid off the jar,’ mused Peter. Did bees introduce us to alcohol too? It’s a nice thought. Peter passed around a refractor with a drop of honey so that we could all look at the viscosity.
Then it was time to taste the honey.
The first honey pot was a delicate acacia the colour of white gold and elegantly floral. Peter asked us to describe our taste experience and it was interesting how much this varied from ‘like flowers’ to ‘woody’, and even ‘Inoffensive, it didn’t taste of honey’.
Next we tried a honey harvested from the lavender fields of France. It smelt and tasted like lavender, but it was also buttery and mellow with citrusy notes.
Two honeys from the Chelsea Physic Garden crop showed what a difference a season makes: the spring honey was full of mint and the summer honey was bursting with ripe fruit. Chelsea’s bees have a rich diet thanks to the botanical garden’s trees and flowers.
My favourite was ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ honey from the Pitcairn Islands, which was dark in colour and complex in flavour. Its taste created a vivid image of tropical rainforests followed by layers of sweet sensations from woody, minty, caramel and toffee.
Last but not least, Peter let us sample a tiny jar of South American honey foraged from Yucatan trees. It was almost black and treacly with a strong exotic flavour a bit like rum. Someone said ‘aggressive’.
The day was getting on and usually by three o’clock on a Saturday Ealing beekeepers are full of tea and cake. Emily and me were starting to feel a bit fidgety, but luckily Peter must have known we were coming because he had arranged a great spread of tea and honey cake with crème fraîche.
It was an afternoon well spent and though the first event of its kind, Peter said the Chelsea Physic Garden was planning to hold more honey tastings. All that honey and cake had warmed-up our appetites, so Emily and me rushed off to the garden’s Tangerine Dream Café to enjoy a spinach and cheese tart with lentil, olive and pomegranate salad.
The Chelsea Physic Garden is a great place to visit and even in winter there are interesting things to see, like these four trees in a row…
A tree full of grapefruit. It smelt lovely.
A tree made of cork. It felt spongy and warm.
And late afternoon sunshine melting snow from branches.