Bees have long been a source of fascination for artists and designers, inspiring figures such as Joseph Beuys and Joan Jonas – as well as Gucci’s signature motif. For this spring/summer collection, they were the inspiration at Kenzo, where hats with netting and beekeeping silhouettes offered one take on protective clothing for our present moment. Meanwhile at the Talbot Rice gallery in Edinburgh, a forthcoming installation will tackle the subject from a different but no less timely angle.
The work, part of a group show called The Normal, consists of a single, custom-built beehive. The hive contains no bees but it does contain plenty of honey. On each frame (which usually holds the honeycomb) is attached a petri dish of honey sourced from a different beekeeper around the Edinburgh and Midlothian area. The collection ranges in colour from pale green to molasses black and tastes just as diverse. It is the creation of Tonya McMullan, an artist and beekeeper who co-founded Infinity Farm in Belfast in 2016 to raise awareness of pollinators and make concrete spaces more appealing.
McMullan has been wanting to create a honey archive for a while. When the pandemic hit, she found not only that she had the time, but that 2020 might be the ideal year. The pandemic raised intriguing questions. Pollinating insects find flowers through scent, and pollution can mask that scent. So how would the “anthropause” – last year’s global reduction in human activity and pollution – affect bees and their honey?
Honey comes in a multitude of shades and varieties, from golden acacia to foxy-red heather to tawny-brown manuka, depending on the flowers the bees visit. What McMullan’s piece demonstrates is how rich that diversity can be even in one geographic area. Each of her samples is shown with an analysis of its pollen content and tasting notes. They paint a vivid picture of the bees’ foraging. One honey from Eskbank contains pollen from meadowsweet, thistle, privet, rosebay, mallow, willowherb, bramble and Himalayan balsam, and tastes like “apples with mango zest”.
Prompted by McMullan, I set out to savour as many different honeys as possible. Not just for their taste, but their smell too. In her book Spoonfuls of Honey (Pavilion, £12.99), Hattie Ellis recalls being handed a jar of honey by a friend who keeps hives in Kew Gardens. “On a warm day,” Ellis writes, “I would put the pot on my kitchen table with the lid off to fill the air with the scent of flowers.”
When it comes to eating, honey works well with so much, particularly cheese. It makes sense to pair light honeys such as orange blossom with subtle dishes like mild cheese and berries; keep medium honeys for more robust foods such as stronger cheeses and meat; and use darker, malty honeys such as chestnut and buckwheat to balance spiced cakes or in spicy marinades or glazes. Ellis offers a wealth of recipes, including sweet ’n’ hot jerk chicken wings and Drambuie fruit cake. But take note: don’t waste exceptional honeys in dishes that require heating, where the subtleties of flavour will be lost.
Many chefs take pride in using their own. Lucy Carr-Ellison and Jemima Jones of Wild by Tart, in London’s Belgravia, incorporate honey from their Northumberland hives in everything from dressings to a drizzle for their courgette and goat’s cheese flatbread pizzas. Tommy Banks of The Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire, uses fermented honey from his kitchen garden’s hives in a cod cheek dish: “We poach the cheeks, brush them with the honey and fry them. The result is a crème brûlée-type texture, with a layer of crunch from the soured honey.”
For all its versatility, though, you can’t beat the right honey smothered over toast or a crumpet. For that, why not try Banks’s favourite ling heather honey from Bayview Farm in Yorkshire (bayviewbees.co.uk)? “It really does encompass the heather the bees feast on,” he reports. “Dark, floral and slightly bitter: it’s intoxicating.”