Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are You Honey or Are You Sweetie?

The other night at my writers' group, I served our usual tea: Creativity Tea is a rooibus tea, with lemon peel, orange peel, red pepper, lemongrass, basil, fennel, ginger, rosemary, cardamom and apple added in. The tea became a staple after one particularly productive (and laughter-filled) night when we decided that the tea had indeed contributed to our creativity.

I take my tea straight. Nothing added. So do a few of the other writers. But some take honey. It's become one of my goofy standing jokes to ask every one of them as I pour, "Are you honey... (pause)... or are you sweetie?"

I didn't intend to write about honey today, but after reading this article, honey it is. To summarize: 1/3 of all honey sold in US grocery stores (and presumably Canada isn't much better) is imported from China. Fully 75% of all honey sold in the US is modified before sale so that the health-giving pollen is removed.

Not my honey.

We fell into honey almost a decade ago when we first visited my sister's cottage on the Gaspe peninsula. Let me say that you go to the Gaspe for the scenery and not the tourist attractions. Let me also say that the weather there separates opinion as surely as pollen is separated from honey: there are glorious days of sunshine and there are dismal epochs of cold, hard fog and biting drizzle. A person with three preschoolers looks for distraction wherever she can find it. In our first rainy year, we visited the glass-walled salmon ladder to watch the fish struggle upstream, and Capitaine Homard to see the lobster-themed kitsch and golf course. We walked to the little corner store. And that was pretty much the extent of it until we found the honey place.

The honey place is called Le Vieux Moulin and it is indeed an old mill, red-painted on a long narrow strip of land that runs perpendicular to the nearby St. Lawrence. You climb rickety wooden stairs to the porch, and open the screen door to the front room which is decorated purely in honey. There is a tasting station with popsicle sticks and honey jars covered with pumps. There are varieties of honey -- early spring, midsummer, buckwheat, and more. There is creamed honey and liquid. You stand with your family and discuss your tastes. You look at the tables with honey soap, honey cough drops, small bee-topped honey jars, honey vinaigrette. You look at the cooler and its mead. (Once you buy the too-sweet wine, made from a recipe as old as the mill, and you know never to do that again, lest you fall into a diabetic coma and your teeth fall out in an instant.) You spend time at the glass-sided beehive at the side of the room, looking intently for the queen, feeling the buzz of the bees under the glass. One time, you pay the fee to go upstairs to see the seventeenth century Quebecois museum of well-preserved local artifacts and furniture. You sign the guest book every single time -- and look for people from your home area (Burlington! Guelph!) as well as your last signature.

But mostly you buy honey. A case of honey at least. Some liquid for the kids and creamed for the older eaters. A couple more for gifts. (One year, you can't go east and your sister buys the honey for you -- and tells the person delivering it that it must be all gifts. No, you think, that will last us until April.)

And why do you do it. You do it to take a literal piece of this place home with you -- its flowers transformed into honey, since you can't take home their scent. You do it to do whatever you can to keep this place going for another three or four hundred years. You do it because it tastes so good.


This year, we had a puppy and my sister had a baby with challenges and so we did not go east by mutual decision. Instead we went south to the Finger Lakes. As I think I've written here, we were not disappointed by the change, as much as I feared we would be. We had a lovely time -- and there was not one speck of fog.

But there had to be honey. I decreed it so. I read ahead of time that there was a beekeeper who brought local honey to the market in Ithaca. But we went on the quieter midweek market and the farmer wasn't there. We were not deterred. We had an address, and it became an adventure.

We had the most basic of tourist maps, and it found us the hamlet where the beekeeper lived. We followed slow-moving farm vehicles along a winding road set among rolling green hills and -- surprising to us -- Mennonite farms. We found the road -- but was it left or right. No word of a lie -- ask my embarrassed children and husband -- we turned around four times on the fairly short road before we called the phone number I had jotted down. We were so close we drove down the road farther -- and watched a barn being raised by committee -- to make it seem that we had come from a reasonable distance before we pulled up.

This honey place was a small shed, almost like the kind rural children use to hide from the wind as they wait for schoolbuses. It was an honour system -- we did not have to hope for the best against rapidfire patois French as we did at Le Vieux Moulin. We never saw anyone as we chose between kinds of honey and kinds of containers. There was linden honey and other tree-versions of honey, as well as buckwheat and clover. We made our picks, changed our minds, and picked again.

The honey tastes different, just as New York tasted different from Quebec.

What is the same is that we have summer in a jar, the best of our holidays preserved, a dash of authentic sweetness to add to my life.

So, here's to the beekeepers and the bees, the neighbours who make our lives sweeter and who preserve a good way of life and good health with their labours. I'd raise a glass of mead to them, if only they would drink it for me. I'll stick to my tea and the sweetness of creativity on a cold fall night.


  1. Herrle's had Nith Valley honey. Pretty good honey for tea. Unfortunately Herrle's is clossed for the season; do you know where I can get my local honey while Herrle's is closed?

  2. Eating Well sometimes sells local honey. I buy mine through Bailey's Local Foods. I buy 3kgs at a time and we breeze through it. You might find it at the farmer's market too.

    Apparently eating local honey can help with seasonal allergies.

  3. I've heard that too, Carrie, about allergies. Oh, and I'll be by soon...

  4. Kitchener farmers market has a few honey vendors. One that just does honey and beeswax candles, basically under the stairwell, a few others inside near butcher/bakery area, and then at least 1 apple vendor sells honey too.

  5. "What is the same is that we have summer in a jar, the best of our holidays preserved" - this line makes me think that you would like the novel "Night Circus" if you haven't yet read it! (Bonnie)

  6. Dutchman's Gold Apiary is off Hwy 6 in Carlisle between 401 and Hamilton. We go 2-3x per year, and buy in bulk. They supply some stores, I've noticed. We served this once to my friend Betty, age 80+, and she hadn't had the pleasure of raw honey in years... she smelled it and was overcome by memories for a good length of time. Eventually, she spread some on her bread, and now she has a jar at her spot in the dining room where she lives. I love your phrase "summer in a jar". -Carolyn

  7. Carolyn, I read a description of butter yesterday: coagulated sunshine. I like that too.