Monday, 11 June 2012

And is there honey still for tea?

Yes, there is!

Albeit the honey I am about to talk about, is located nearer to the university city of Oxford than that of Cambridge as referred to in Rupert Brooke's poem.

The first batch of honey from the hive we host in our garden was ready for collection over the weekend and boy, is it delicious! I feel a bit of a fraud hosting a hive rather than actually doing the bee-keeping myself but it seems to work well in practice. The bee-keeper doubles up as the owner of the village shop and was looking for people willing to give a home to a hive or two around the village and I thought, well, why not? Martin gets another hive in a garden with plenty of bee-friendly blossom and flowers and most of the honey either for himself or to sell in the shop. We get a cut of the honey and the enjoyment of watching the bees and production close-up without having the responsibility of having to do the trickier and more hazardous stuff. And it's green to support bees who are the very lynch pin of our whole agricultural and eco-system.

Our bees are, apparently, quite a docile variety and happily do their own thing while we do ours and in just two months, despite the cold and the rain, have produced a wonderful first batch of honey. Martin arrived early yesterday with a "clearing board" which allows the bees to exit from the combs but not return to them and then at lunchtime he returned to remove nine heavy frames loaded with honey.
Martin clad in bee-proof suit and rubber gloves in the process of removing the frames from the hive.
All-over protection is a must as, understandably,
 the bees do not like having their honey removed and get quite belligerent.
Our nine filled frames. Thank you, bees!
Just the smell of the filled frames was extraordinary - deep, flowery, and all-pervasive.

He and I then departed for his kitchen to uncap the combs still on the frames with what looked like a nit comb. (Sorry, but as you can see it did resemble one!)

Uncapping the honeycomb on the frames with the "nit comb".
Then we carefully inserted them, one by one, into a simple but effective centrifuge, shaped something like the hot water tank in my airing cupboard. A few minutes spinning and a viscous golden curtain struck the sides of the tank and began to gather in a deepening tawny pool at the bottom. The tap at the base of the tank was released and an amber stream ran thickly, swiftly and silently into a double sieve handily waiting for the purpose and into a large plastic tub. I have some pics but not quite as many as I intended as it all got rather sticky and manoeuvring the centrifuge over the sieves and waiting tub to make sure that nothing was wasted was definitely a two-person job.

I know it sounds a bit naive but I just can't believe that those busy bees I have seen every day from my kitchen window have been making all this honey in only just over eight weeks.

According to Martin this first batch is only the first and smallest we should get this year. Another bigger one should be forthcoming in late July / early August. I can't wait!

Literally unable to wait until the strained honey had settled and the air bubbles come to the surface, which I understand is what one should do before decanting the honey into jars, I came home with seven jars of beautiful, pale golden, flowery honey. It's difficult to be sure precisely what flowers have gone into it, but our estimate is a combination of horse chestnut blossom, lilac, apple, pear and plum blossom, honeysuckle, wisteria and probably some oil seed rape from the fields on the edge of the village. Whatever the combination, it is enchantingly flowery, fragrantly aromatic and intense but not at all heavy.

The only question now is what to have it on? Homemade oat cakes or homemade white bread I think in the first instance. But neat off the spoon takes a lot of beating!

If you love honey and you've ever thought about wanting to keep bees but have felt uncertain about taking on the whole business of looking after them you might want to consider hosting a hive yourself. Many bee-keepers are keen to expand their collection of hives and wherever you live there's likely to be a bee-keeper within striking distance. Even in inner cities, hives are popping up on roof tops and balconies so you don't have to be in the middle of the countryside for it to be a possibility. Of course you may be a braver soul than me and feel you want to turn into a full scale bee-keeper yourself. If you have the time and inclination, why not?

In the meantime, to revert to the last part of Rupert Brooke's long and lovely poem, "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", in which he writes of the England he remembers and loves:

"Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade in reverend dream,
the yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret, shy and cold
anadyomene, silver-gold?
and sunset still a golden sea
from Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
gentle and brown above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? And Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
the lies and truths, and pain? ... oh! yet
stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?"

Sadly the elms so familiar to Rupert Brooke near Grantchester are probably long gone after the depredations of Dutch Elm Disease in the latter part of the 20th C but the English countryside is still peopled by dreaming, fragrant chestnuts; dawn still comes to it, "shy and cold"; hares still sun themselves on evening slopes; the streams and brooks are again running "sweet and cool, gentle and brown", especially after all this summer rain; Beauty is assuredly there to find and "Quiet kind"and above the "deep meadows", in which we may lie to forget the world awhile, and while the church clock's hands turn inexorably on from ten to three, English bees are busy. So that we may call across the years to the poet, as he sat writing his evocative poem in the Cafe des Westens in Berlin, a hundred years ago last month, "Yes! There is honey still for tea!"
Apologies for the blurry pic - it's not easy to pour honey off a spoon and take a photo at the same time!

These oat cakes look very plain but they are the perfect accompaniment for good honey. I devised my own recipe after finding most commercial oatcakes very disappointing and cardboardy. Here it is in case anyone wants to try it with their own favourite honey:

1 cup of oatmeal (not porridge oats). I use a mixture of coarse and medium oatmeal - about half and half
1tbsp soft brown muscovado sugar
half a tsp salt
a knob of butter or vegetable margarine - about 1 oz / 25 g ( I use an organic, very pure vegetable margarine which makes the oatcakes vegan by coincidence)
4 tbsps boiling water

Preheat the oven to at least 205 C, it needs to be really hot so if your oven is less fierce than mine you might need to crank it up to 220 C.

Mix the dry ingredients together, squashing any lumps of brown sugar as you go.

Melt the margarine or butter in the boiling water and stir into the dry ingredients to form a stiffish dough.

Turn on to a work surface and using plenty of extra oatmeal to prevent the dough sticking, roll it out thinly.

Cut into rounds and place on a lined baking sheet.

Bake for about 15 mins until the oatcakes are golden and the edges tinged a slightly darker brown. Watch them though, as they can burn if you're not careful.

Cool on a wire rack and then load them with your best honey.

Fantastic not just for afternoon tea but also for breakfast!

This recipe easily doubles or trebles - I don't think I've ever actually made it with just one cup of oatmeal. Today I made treble quantities because H is due home shortly after a day of hunger-inducing school exams and a single batch would be reduced to nothing but crumbs in minutes!


  1. The honey and oat biscuits look so delicious and I love the idea of hosting the bees rather than having the full responsibility of a hive. Let's hope we have some sunshine for the flowers to flourish for them.

  2. Such delicious looking honey - I think I'd have to eat honey on everything for a week. Thinking of honey with everything, thank you for the tip about boiling milk for yoghurt. I just used to heat it to blood heat but it definitely improves the yoghurt by boiling and cooling.

  3. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post! It took me right back to being a little girl watching my bee-keeping grandfather collecting and spinning his honey. He was always sure to give a piece of honeycomb to chew on and I've loved honey ever since.
    I do indeed even now have a small teaspoon of honey in my tea, which my husband finds very strange!
    Enjoy your beautiful honey!

  4. I'm so pleased there is still honey for tea, or breakfast, or lunch, for that matter. My mum used to keep bees, as it was always an ambition of hers on retirement, but she has handed it over to a younger person without the problems of rhematoid arthritis to deal with. You can't beat honey straight from the centrifuge or even the comb, if you can't wait that long. Delicious!
    Best wishes

  5. What a fascinating post! Thank you for sharing your photos and the process with us. I know it sounds rather obvious, but bees making honey is just, well, such a miracle. I adore honey and would love to host a hive but think that sadly out garden is too small (and too full of small people!) but I have planted a lot of lavender and see many more bees about than I did when we first moved here six years ago. (honey on toast with tons of butter for me everytime, although your oatcakes look delicious!) x

  6. Fantastic Elizabeth and what a great idea - to host a hive. My aunt and uncle keep bees and a large jar of honey is always the present we hope for and look forward to! They cook with honey when they have a good year(cakes, pies etc)which always sound so indulgent. x

  7. I've not heard of the idea of hosting a hive before, but I suppose its a good option for both the bee keeper and the person hosting. I'm keen to get into bee keeping, so this might be a good route to start. Lovely looking honey and cakes. Yum!

  8. So fascinating, and my favorite picture is the one of the honey on the frames -- wow! My husband has a good friend who has become a beekeeper in the last few years. Unfortunately he doesn't live nearby, but he did give me some honey last year. Enjoy your honey -- it is beautiful!

  9. my GOODNESS! Last year I bought books on beekeeping, I was very keen to get some for our garden - that honey just looks soooooo beeuuutiful. Lucky you. x

  10. This is the lovliest post Ive read :) It's magical the way you describe bee keeping, and I love the poew. Thank you Mrs TM for lighting up my morning xxxxx lov xxxxx

  11. The poem is beautiful; it sounds rather homesick and longing for England.

    I really enjoyed this blog, it made me want something sweet for breakfast! No honey here at the moment, so maple syrup pancakes did nicely.

  12. That's fantastic, sounds like a pretty good deal to me to exchange a little space for so much honey. We are all big honey eaters in this house, can't be beaten on toast, I hardly allow myself as it's all so moreish!

    The poem is lovely, very evocative.

    Have a good weekend!

  13. How did I miss this post!! Glorious. While reading I was transported to a summer tea on the lawn and forgot all about the rain pelting the windows!

  14. Another appealing post. I'm an Anglophile, and my husband said to me the other day that I longed for an England that doesn't exist anymore (an idealized one such as the place described in the poem you included). Your blog reassures me that the England I read about in books (with its charming country villages and tea time) still exists. I plan to try your recipe.


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.