Consider me converted.
Upon arriving to the area, my family was struck by the many varieties of local honey available at farm stands and farmers' markets. Part of eating local was enjoying these naturally sweet products.
Except there was a problem: granulation.
Really, it's not a problem. It's more of a nuisance. Because all honey eventually granulates, and it can be easily fixed by placing the jar in a pot of warm water until the crystals dissolve. But who wants to do that?
So we fell off the wagon and found some reasonably tasty supermarket honey. But recently all has not been well in bee-land. There have been all kinds of problems going on from colony collapse disorder to reports of fraudulent and contaminated honey being brought into the United States.
That, in addition to the rising price of supermarket honey and the very vocal fan base of local beekeeper Lloyd Spear led me to his stall at the Schenectady Greenmarket earlier this year. We've been buying Lloyd's honey ever since.
Recently when picking up a donation of honey he was making to the Jewish Food Festival, I had a chance to chat with him and find out what makes his stuff so good.
Lloyd's is a small operation. He has about 300 hives, which he says are mostly in Columbia and southern Rensselaer counties. To put that in context, he explains, "The rule of thumb is you can't support a family on fewer than 1,000 hives. And we have beekeepers in the area who have several thousand hives."
This is a sideline activity to be sure. But it sounds like he takes great care of his bees.
On the subject of colony collapse disorder, Lloyd says, "We haven't really had the problems that the big beekeepers have. Yes, we've had problems. But not to the extent that the big commercial bee keepers have who move their hives. That's one of the characteristics of how we beekeep. We don't move our hives." He does this to reduce stress on the bees, which is one of the suspected contributors to CCD. He also lets them feed on their own honey over the winter, whereas some greedier beekeepers take all the honey and leave the bees with a cheap sugar water substitute in its place. This is a pretty big deal since to make sure the bees make it through our long cold winters, Lloyd needs to leave them 70 to 100 pounds of honey.
Because his operation is smaller, Lloyd can also produce specialty honey that might not make sense for larger beekeepers. One of these is his raw and unfiltered alfalfa honey. It's incredibly light in color and flavor. It's delicately floral and a bit redolent of jasmine blossoms. This would be something to drizzle on a fresh goat cheese or sweeten a lemon pressé.
Lloyd explains: "Alfalfa is a plant that is grown for its protein value and the very high protein that cows need to produce lots of milk." While he says there is no organic honey produced in the United States, his honey was collected from "dairy farms, so they don't spray. They can't spray because it would be in the milk."
One reason why this honey is so special is that because of its high fructose-to-glucose ratio (honey is mostly sugar) it takes two years to granulate. That's a long time for a raw and unfiltered honey. Some will granulate in two weeks.
There are people who like granulated honey. But it's the fight against granulation that leads most producers to filter and heat their honey, sacrificing flavor for shelf life. Lloyd doesn't filter anything. Some of the honeys get strained. But the unfiltered ones like his alfalfa honey are just allowed to settle. Things you don't want -- like wings, legs and stingers -- are suspended in the honey along with things you do -- like pollen, propolis, enzymes and vitamins.
For the most part the bits you don't want rise to the top. But Lloyd assures me that a disembodied stinger is no cause for alarm. This is easy to say for someone who has been stung so much that he is immune to honeybee stings. However, Lloyd swears that a stinger is just a tube, and the painful reaction to being stung comes from the chemicals injected from a living bee.
If you don't care for this kind of natural product and want something a little bit more refined, Lloyd strains some honey through a filter and then heats it up to 140 degrees. But the enzymes that some people prize start to get destroyed between 110 to 115 degrees.
When it comes to Lloyd's honey you have two choices: unfiltered & raw OR strained & heat-treated.
For our daily home use we have been buying the raw and unfiltered wildflower honey for months. It's a bit darker -- in color, smell and flavor. It's a golden brown, and has an earthy aroma with just a hint of barnyard funk. Many of the tasters at the Jewish Food Festival found this nicely balanced honey to match most closely to what they thought honey should taste like. My kids enjoy it mixed in their peanut butter, and I enjoy a drizzle of it over some Greek style yogurt for a healthful dessert.
Not all of Lloyd's honey comes from his own bees. The orange blossom honey comes from a small beekeeper in Florida, and the buckwheat honey comes from a similarly small producer in Washington State.
During the tasting at Congregation Gates of Heaven, the buckwheat honey was the only one that made some people crinkle up their noses. However, others loved it. This is a very dark and strongly flavored honey, that's really complex with an earthy aroma and some hint of damp forest floor. You could use this buckwheat honey as you might use molasses.
My hope had been that one of these three bottlings -- the alfalfa, the wildflower or the buckwheat -- would have been a clear crowd favorite at the honey tasting conducted at the Jewish Food Festival this past weekend. But all of them had their admirers, and all of them have their own special uses. I can't pick just one, although I am a wee bit partial to the alfalfa.
Lloyd's honeys can be found at local area farmers markets and farm stands. He also has a honey house in Schenectady, which handles production (and has no bees on site).
That's important for me. Because while I may have rekindled my love for local honey, I still hate bees.
Daniel B. is the proprietor of the FUSSYlittleBLOG. He's also sitting on an apparently traumatic story involving the beach, his sister, and a mouthful of bees.
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