Life is sweet

T&T produces some of the world’s best honey, but many people consider it a luxury product. Franka Philip finds out how honey advocates are working to change that

Photo by Stacey WilliamsPhoto by Stacey Williams

For most Caribbean people, honey is something you buy in the market or along a country road from a vendor who pitched up a little table in front of his home. Good honey is somewhat pricey, but people who buy honey don’t mind paying a bit more for the gorgeous amber liquid with a heady fragrance and remarkable flavour.

We love our honey, but clearly not as much as the Brits, who now use it more than jams and marmalades. Just before I left the UK in 2012, Manuka honey from New Zealand was all the rage. It was touted as a superfood, and of course it was super expensive, retailing at £10 for 250 ml.

Trinidad and Tobago’s honey is among the best in the world, and that’s not an idle boast. For years, our honey has been entered into the London Honey Show, and in 1999 and 2000 T&T’s product was awarded the Hender Cup for the best honey in the world.

“The quality of our honey is so far superior to any other imported honey,” says Dee, the driving force behind Inspire Branding 1620, an apicultural and personal branding company. She explains that most beekeepers understand that, just like a fine wine, honey must go through a curing process in the hive.

“When honey doesn’t cure properly, there’s a lot of water in it,” she says. I asked if that was what causes some honey to crystallise, something that makes people think the honey is of poor quality. “In some cases it is,” she replies, “but usually crystallisation is caused by the type of nectar the bees ingest.”

Dee, who sees the honey market as a growing one, believes there are many uses for the product, and her company is working with a number of people, including chefs and specialty producers, to promote its use. “Honey is a great substitute for corn syrup,” she says, “and chefs can use it in sauces that have a corn syrup component, like barbecue sauce and garlic sauce.” But with honey currently retailing in T&T at TT$200 (US$30) for 750 ml, some chefs are put off by the price from using it in significant amounts.

Inspire Branding 1620 is working with dynamic young chef Brigette Joseph of Home Café in Port of Spain to come up with new dishes, like a honey-based ice cream that uses coconut milk instead of dairy. The company is also working on the production of mead, an ancient alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey with water, fruits, spices, and grain. The nine-thousand-year-old beverage referred to in books like The Hobbit is enjoying a huge resurgence in the US. According to the American Mead Maker Association, the producer community has grown by 130 per cent since 2011.

 

But all has not been rosy for honey producers around the world. In Europe and North America, bees have been on the decline in recent years. Bees are the most important pollinators of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. More than one third of our crops depend on bee pollination. The decline is caused by a number of factors, like the use of pesticides and the decrease in the number of flowering plants that can attract bees for foraging.

In the Caribbean, we’re in a relatively better position, as our bees still have a range of organic food sources. And because our bees feed on a range of plants, the honey they produce is multi-floral. In a three-mile radius, for example, bees can fed on nectar from hog plums, hibiscus, lavender, and many others.

In T&T, there is a real threat to our honey — and the danger comes from foreign honey. It’s illegal to import honey into Trinidad and Tobago, because of the possibility of contamination, which could cause widespread damage to the industry.

Chunilal Roopnarine, president of the T&T Association of Professional Beekeepers, explains the danger. “At the moment, we can’t protect ourselves. The regulations say we must take measures for food protection. And what do we have in place to certify the goodness of the product?” he asks. “At the national level, we don’t have a lab equipped to fully test honey. All we can test for is ash and brick content. If there is even a drop of weedicide in the honey, we can’t tell.”

Roopnarine, who has been keeping bees for the last thirty-five years, says he’s also concerned there should be enough local honey to satisfy demand before allowing imports.

Although honey is still bought and sold primarily as a sweetener in T&T, advocates like Inspire Design 1620 are investing more in added-value products made with honey. “We’re using honey in products like soaps and body scrubs,” says Dee. “We believe in looking beyond the business of honey. Bees produce beeswax, which we use in candles and balms.”

Roopnarine says the government also needs to support the industry by making land available for people to keep beehives, paying subsidies on time, and making the cost of equipment less prohibitive. Some legislative change can encourage beekeeping: for example, in other countries there’s been a rise in urban beekeeping, but in T&T the law prohibits hives within a prescribed distance from homes.

Both Roopnarine and Dee think the education of a new generation of beekeepers is paramount. At the moment, there are relatively few training opportunities available for the large number of people who want to learn the craft.

Inspire Branding 1620 does a lot of work with young people, and Dee says there are a lot of children who have never tasted honey, because their parents can’t afford it. “I couldn’t believe that,” she says. “Honey is too expensive, and one of my goals is to bring down the price we sell it at.

“It should be in every home. It’s a natural healer.”

 

Honey cake 

British chef James Martin’s super-easy recipe for a rich, moist honey cake shows off the subtle flavours of the sweet substance.

Ingredients:

170g/6oz clear honey
140g/5oz butter
85g/3oz light brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
200g/7oz self-raising flour, sieved
water

For the icing:
55g/2oz icing sugar
1 tablespoon clear honey
hot water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 180ºC/350ºF, and butter and line the bottom of a seven-inch cake tin.
Measure the honey, butter, and sugar into a large pan. Add a tablespoon of water and heat gently until melted. Remove from the heat and mix in the eggs and flour.
Spoon into the cake tin and bake for forty to forty-five minutes, until the cake is springy to the touch and shrinking slightly from the sides of the tin. Cool slightly in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack.
While the cake is still warm, make the icing by mixing the sugar and honey together with two to three teaspoons of hot water. Trickle over the cake in whatever design takes your fancy.

Excerpted from BBC Food