Honey Do!

Barry Conrad knows bees. On the flip side of his business card there’s a photo of Barry, with his crinkly eyes and white hair, wearing a literal beard of bees. “I want to show people how gentle the bees are”, he says with a note of pride. He, along with his wife Carmen, stumbled into beekeeping 35 years ago—and never looked back. He’s now treasurer of the Central Ohio Beekeeping Association. And their company, Conrad Hive and Honey, the only full service beekeeping supplier in Central Ohio, produces some of the best honey in the country, consistently winning top prizes and Best in Show at national competitions.  But five minutes spent with Barry is enough to tell that he’s in this for one thing and one thing only. He’s in this for the bees.

Besides producing honey, bees hold the welfare of one third of food crops in their tiny, tiny forelegs. Their role in pollination supports our very ability to feed ourselves and ironically, we may be the root cause of their decline. Pesticides, designed to kill what threatens crops, may unfortunately be wiping out our beneficial bee friends as well. Factor in the dwindling availability of untamed, flowery fields– and the spread of honeybee diseases as hives are shipped all over the world– and we have ourselves a worldwide “colony collapse disorder”.

Luckily, there are people all over the world making it their mission to aid in rebuilding the bee population. Here in Columbus, we are fortunate to have a passionate community of apiarists (beekeepers, to the rest of us) who are doing their part and producing some delicious honey for us to enjoy along the way.

One such person is our friend Barry Conrad. Visiting Barry and Carmen at their Clintonville Farmer’s Market stall could be a mini-beekeeping lesson if you ask the right questions. He shares his vast knowledge almost in spite of himself– humble yet proud, Barry explained why it’s so important to buy locally produced honey:

“It’s good, real honey. Most grocery store honey is imported, overly processed and pasteurized at about 160 degrees, which kills every good thing in the honey. This keeps the honey from crystallizing so it looks pretty on the shelf, but it’s not honey.” Reaching over the baskets of Carmen’s lovingly crafted beeswax candles, past the buckwheat and black locust honey products, he grabs a bottle of wildflower honey (Barry’s Bees appears on the label) and observes the cloudy appearance– which indicates it hasn’t been filtered of all its natural goodness. His quiet energy emphasizes his passion; anyone mildly curious will leave Barry’s table knowing a heck of a lot more about bees and honey.

Americans really like their honey, to the tune of 400 million pounds a year. But American producers can supply less than half– putting us at the mercy of other countries to provide the balance. As Barry explained, many international exporters of commercial honey, especially China, aren’t playing by our rules. Banned from exporting to the U.S., China uses antibiotics that we’ve deemed unsafe and illegal; however, loopholes in the system means Chinese honey finds its way into our supply through other countries. To make matters worse, commercial honey is often simply flavored sugar or corn syrup masquerading as honey.

Real or not– why do we care? Raw, unfiltered honey is full of amino acids with antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. That hot toddy grandma prescribed you when sick wasn’t just her way of getting her grandkids slightly tipsy– pure honey has anti-inflammatory effects that soothe coughs. And the trace amounts of pollen within raw honey act as a natural vaccine against seasonal allergies, but it must be local pollen.

“That’s why it’s important to buy local honey from a local beekeeper” emphasized Barry, who has customers returning year after year, claiming to no longer need allergy prescriptions thanks to a regular spoonful of his honey.

If you still aren’t a believer, try swapping raw, local honey in your baked goods, marinades, dressings, you name it. Far less processed than white cane sugar, and more nuanced in flavor, you’ll find your recipes transformed. Experiment with the wide variety of types available– wildflower, orange blossom, black locust, and more. Barry shared that buckwheat honey, the most nutritionally dense variety of honey, has a dark, strong flavor more reminiscent of molasses, and serves a perfect substitute.

Honey is something we probably all take a little too much for granted. Consider this: a single honeybee will produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. It takes 1,152 bees to produce 16 ounces of honey, and collectively they will travel 112,000 miles and visit 4.5 million flowers. Meanwhile, KFC is handing out literal handfuls of honey packets at their drive-thru. Questionable origins aside, it’s humbling to consider how cavalier we’ve become about something so dear.

So, take Barry’s advice: one taste of local honey and you’ll never look back. You’ll be helping tip that balance back in favor of bees– our lives here in Columbus, around the world even, will be so much sweeter for it.

To learn more about the wonder that is honey, visit the Lithopolis Honey Festival September 9 and 10.

Honey isn’t just for drizzling on biscuits or sweetening tea, Travis Owens, owner of German Village’s cocktail bar Curio at Harvest, used it to add a modern twist to the classic “Bees Knees” libation. He suggests infusing honey with new, herbaceous, flavors. Here, he provides a deliciously exotic summer cocktail, featuring local honey:

Dirty Knees

Ingredients:

2 oz Watershed Gin
1/2oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
3/4oz Kaffir Lime leaf infused honey
3/4 fresh lime
2ds cardamom bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin with four-to-five ounces of crushed ice. Shake briefly and pour all ingredients including ice from shaker tin into a chilled highball glass. Top with additional crushed ice. Garnish with a fresh kaffir lime leaf.

To infuse honey:

Kaffir honey syrup:
45g local honey
15g Spring water
20-25 fresh kaffir lime leaves (found at a Thai grocery store)

Place all ingredients into a Ziplock or tightly sealed plastic bag with as much air removed as possible. Then place into a sous vide water bath at 57*C for 45min.  Let cool and fine strain.

For those of you who do not have a sous vide machine occupying real estate on your counter, here are two easy methods to infuse honey with any herb:

1. To quickly make an herb-fused honey, simply set up a double boiler and heat the honey along with your chosen herbs to 185 degrees and let heat for 10 minutes. Take off the heat, cool, and strain and you are good to go. This is a quick-and-dirty method that, while the flavor is there, decimates the healthy aspects of the honey.

2. For a slow infusion, or if you don’t want to worry about the whole 185-degree-precision, add your herbs to a jar with a tight-sealing lid, pour in the honey, and screw the lid on tight. Let sit for at least five days, or up to two weeks. If the herbs float to the top, invert the jar.

Cocktails and snack on the patio? You can’t go wrong. This is the perfect, simple little nosh to accompany the Dirty Knees.

Grill-roasted Feta with Honey
Ingredients:

8 oz. slab of feta, patted dry
3 springs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons local honey

Directions:

Put your grill on medium high and let it warm up. Take a square of aluminum foil large enough to create a package for the feta and place the feta in the middle. Toss the springs of thyme on the cheese, drizzle with the olive oil, and grind black pepper on top. Seal up the silver prize and place on the grill for 8 minutes. While still on the grill, open up the package (being carefully not to rip the foil) and add the honey. Let it sit for a minute or so, or until the honey thins out. You can serve this right in the foil, or invert it onto a plate. Serve with a ripped-up baguette or pita wedges.

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