The beekeepers and artisan honey producers of Dorset
PUBLISHED: 15:45 11 October 2017
Sue Quinn explores Dorset's wonderful range of artisan honeys and argues that to truly appreciate this sweet product, you have to buy local
Our unspoiled flora-rich countryside is paradise for bees – and a rich source of the sweet sticky miracle that is honey. Winnie-the-Pooh would have had a fine old time of it in Dorset. There’s dark treacly heather honey, rich and distinctive in flavour from the ling that blooms across the county’s heathland from July to October. There’s delicate pale honey from oilseed rape fields, ablaze with yellow blooms in springtime, or slightly minty honey from lime trees that burst into flower in July. Then there’s fragrant floral honey that in late spring speaks of apple blossom and in summer of wild meadows and garden flowers.
“It’s like tasting the landscape,” declares Ivor Kemp, chairman of East Dorset Beekeepers Association. “You’re getting the taste, flavour and character of Dorset’s flora. It’s a treasured thing.”
Around 800 amateur beekeepers now practice their hobby in Dorset, a number that’s grown in recent years amid concerns that bee populations are dwindling due to disease and the widespread use of pesticides. Most are enthusiasts who work for no profit, the honey a by-product of their passion. Kemp would love to see more people buying honey from local and small-scale producers rather than supermarkets. And the truth is, honey produced this way is infinitely more delicious.
Like wine, honey is a product that has terroir – in other words, it carries the taste of the particular landscape in which the bees forage for their pollen and nectar. General honeys, those with no flower name on the jar or simply labelled ‘wild flower’ – commonly found in supermarkets – are blends of different honeys that can come from a vast area. But ‘raw’ or ‘natural’ honey produced from limited areas or particular plants (known as monoflora honeys) and minimally treated, deliver rich, deep flavour. I’m addicted to Helga and David Aldersey’s fragrant floral honey from their Parkwood House Apiary in a Bournemouth back garden. It’s like eating the scent of flowers.
There are other benefits to buying local honey, too. Industrially produced honey is generally heated to some degree and filtered, to preserve liquidity, destroy pathogens and remove pollen. But many smaller-scale beekeepers don’t process their honey this way. Instead, they strain their honey or leave it to settle in small containers so the wax rises to the top and clean honey can be drawn from the bottom. This means more of the micronutrients and enzymes are preserved, as well as more pollen grains, which are good for keeping hayfever at bay. “Certainly if you’re a hayfever sufferer living in Dorset then you are going to benefit because you are getting the very pollen that you’re going to be exposed to in bigger amounts in the summer,” Kemp says.
Dorset honey really delivers on flavour and diversity. Mark Rogers, beekeeper at Filberts of Dorset (filbertsofdorset.co.uk), specialists in beeswax products and high-quality commercial honey, says the unspoiled landscape has much to do with it. “Dorset produces a wide variety of honey due to the various micro-climates we have here and the mixture of habitats and agriculture that makes it so beautiful,” he says. “There are areas of the county where big agriculture can’t reach and these provide a time capsule of flora which the bees can weave into glorious honey, reminiscent of honey that people remember from their childhood.”
Filberts take the provenance and traceability of its honey very seriously: uniquely, each pot is labelled to show when it was extracted and which apiary it came from. Dorset’s hedges – “of which thankfully there are still many” – yield a lovely earthy mellow honey from the spring blossoms of thorns and willow, says Rogers. “In the high summer, the hedges are festooned with blackberry blossom, which combined with clover from second crop grassland, creates a rich smooth fudge-like honey.”
Many honey lovers seek out the amber nectar created from Dorset’s heather. Master Beekeeper, Robert Field, a second-generation commercial beekeeper and owner of Field Honey Farms based in the Purbecks (fieldhoney.co.uk), runs 450 hives across Dorset and Wiltshire. “The Dorset heathlands are very special,” he explains. Of the four types of heather found there, two deliver lovely honey: bell heather (Erica), which flowers in July, and ling heather (Calluna), which flowers in August. “Because I value the bell heather so highly, I blend it with my oilseed rape honey to create a beautifully smooth but lovely flavoured set honey. I see this as my special Dorset Honey.”
Purbeck-based artisan chocolatiers Chococo source all their honey from Robert Field and have done so since they started their business back in 2002, as Chococo’s co-founder Claire Burnet reveals. “We use Robert’s bell heather honey in our Bob’s Bees chocolates and also in our honeycomb, which is in our Heavenly Honeycomb Clusters and Heavenly Honeycomb Chocolates, all are award-winners!”
Field also produces the distinctively dark and strongly flavoured ling heather honey, which is thixotropic. This means its normal state is gel-like and firm, but temporarily liquefies when stirred or agitated. The presence of tiny air bubbles is an indication of quality – but the taste might not be for everyone. “It is unusually bitter in flavour,” adds Field, “but once the taste is acquired, it is often sought after.”
Perhaps the most important reason to buy honey from small local producers is that it encourages beekeepers and therefore more bees; it’s said that one third of all the food we consume could not exist without bees. Ivor Kemp suggested we seek out good local honey from delicatessens, farmers’ markets and farm shops, rather than reach for the supermarket stuff. And if you’re not convinced, consider this: one bee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey over the course of its 5-6 week life, during which it will travel about 5,000 miles. “The bees literally work themselves to death in those weeks,” Kemp says. “We should all treasure honey more.”
Become a beekeper
If you are interested in keeping bees then the East Dorset Beekeepers Association is a good place to start, they can also put you in touch with beekeeping groups in your area of Dorset. As an Association Member, and for only £10 a year, people who might be interested in beekeeping are given an introduction to the hobby followed by a comprehensive winter and spring training course, which is free. Help is given in the purchase of equipment and after which new members are a given a collected swarm of bees from May onwards (we have a dedicated swarm-collection team that, from May-August, remove swarms that are an issue for the public). They then receive a ‘Bee Buddy’ who will guide them through their first year as a beekeeper. For an informal chat contact their Chairman, Ivor Kemp on 079325 38491 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively visit their website edbka.org.uk or message them via Facebook.
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