Tuesday, October 26, 2004

A Nut and His Honey

M. Lucien Godeau had just sat down to lunch with his cleaning lady when I called him, lost, from the outskirts of his village. “I can’t find your house,” I said. “Is there a sign in front of it that I’m missing?”
He laughed. “No, there’s no sign,” he said, “but my mailbox is a beehive. I’ll come out and meet you.”
A big belly of a man, all corduroy and suspenders, M. Godeau came out wiping his lips with a napkin. “Come in, come in, or the food will get cold,” he said. “Have you eaten? Can I offer you sausages? Wine?” I refused, since I’d unfortunately just lunched on a gas-station croissant, but he insisted on pouring me some hydromel—honey wine—since after all, I’d come to learn, an argument I couldn’t contest. He sat me down on a brocaded velvet La-Z-Boy underneath a chandelier made of light bulbs and antlers, and I got tipsy while they ate. An old wood stove heated the room, but the hydromel, fermented cherry juice mixed with honey and stored in glass for a year, kept me even warmer. Shit is strong.

Godeau, an engineering teacher specializing in metals, started keeping bees in 1960 with a fifteen-hive ensemble. Now that he’s retired, his abeilles keep him busy full time, as does his post as president of his province’s apicultural society. He collects honey twice a year: after Christ’s Ascension (May), when the bees have fed on spring’s flowers, and in the summer around mid-July, once they’ve moved on to trees (this honey is called miella and has about 12-14000 grains of pollen in it, compared with the 42-45000 grains in miel du printemps).
We go out for a look at the bees. Godeau packs a pipe with tobacco, lights it, and picks up the hive lid. I am so nervous about getting stung that I forget to take pictures of anything. Since it’s winter, they’re pretty calm and stay close to the hive. Godeau scoots the renegades down their hole with his pocketknife and blows smoke into it to keep them from flying out. South of the Loire, bees produce enough honey to survive the winter, but in the north, beekeepers pour sugar syrup into the hive to keep them alive. Godeau removes this syrup around March and waits until the apple trees have blossomed and Christ has descended upon the apostles (Pentecost, fifty days after Easter) to collect the honey now saturating the hive.

One bee gets loose and stings him on the forearm. He picks it up gingerly with his fingers and crushes it with his knife, then peers at the stinger stuck to his skin. He flicks it off with a practiced gesture. “They’ve stung me hundreds of times, but it still hurts,” he says. “Bastard.”
Only nineteen of the four thousand beekeepers in Wallonia (6000 in Flanders) carry the label de qualité, and Godeau is proud to be one of them. To release honey from the combs, he only brings the temperature up to 45˚ (a hive’s ambient warmth is 36˚), while industrials heat it to 63˚, disintegrating the vitamins and much of the taste.
To process the honey, Godeau mixes one kilogram of last season’s crystallized honey with nine of new liquid honey and waits till the mixture cools. Then he adds forty more kilograms of liquid honey, and dilutes this new blend into 450 more. The honey is sieved through ten filters and then mixed, very slowly, to keep large grains from forming as it crystallizes. To me the whole process sounds arduous and sticky, but when Godeau explains his whole demeanor changes; I see the once-professor, lecturing passionately before a room.

Each one of Godeau’s hives produces between ten and eighteen kilos of honey per year. To cover costs, he has to sell seven hundred, but since harvests are so inconsistent he has learned to diversify. Along with honey, Godeau sells wax, honey soap, homemade honey wine, gingerbread, pollen (to be taken as vitamins), propolis, teinture mère, and gelée royale, which is pollen mixed with the glands of bee foreheads. Godeau scratches clumps of propolis (a bee secretion he claims is at once fungicide, insecticide, herpes cure, disinfectant, growth hormone, tissue regenerator) off the hive, freezes them, and then passes the brittle through a coffee grinder before adding alcohol. He fed me some with an eyedropper: tastes sour, acerbic, absolutely disgusting, but apparently it's guaranteed to add ten years to my life. (Note added later: I'd never heard of propolis, but all of a sudden it's everywhere; I see it in pharmacies, my grandmother offered me some, it was on a commercial. Guess Godeau isn't the only believer.à Or he adds Vaseline to it and makes a healing pomade, teinture mère, which he credits with so miraculously healing the dog-bite and champagne-bottle-shard scars on his hand. Godeau’s machines—the pollen fan purifier, the incubator he uses to dry it—look at least fifty years old, but he keeps them oiled carefully.
He also rents out his bees to farmers wishing to fertilize their fields. For his own pollen and honey production, he keeps a little orchard filled with flowers and fruit trees in the garden. Interestingly; even though Godeau and other Belgian beekeepers avoid antibiotics and chemicals, no one in Belgium can officially turn out organic honey. This is because doing so requires a three-km radius of “clean space,” land free of any chemicals above, on or below ground, and Belgium is too small and crowded a country for this to be possible.

Back inside, Godeau pulls out two pots and two spoons and has me taste. My only two notions of honey B.G. (Before Godeau) had been the fat pots of hard, granular Bienenhonig my dad smuggles home after every trip to Switzerland, and the insipid liquid candy we squeeze out of plastic bears in the States. What a revelation! These honeys were wonderfully thick, soft creamy pastes with independent tastes, sweet and smooth. I would gladly have spread them on bread like Nutella, like Godeau does, and eaten them for breakfast.

There exist, in fact, a multiplicity of honeys. Etienne Bruneau, who works at a honey-analysis lab at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve (where my mom went to college) explained that artisanal honeys are produits de terroir identifiable by criteria such as region (Swiss, Belgian), topography (mountain, prairie), season (spring, summer), and type of nectar (acadia tree, apple, pine, orange, tilleul).

Depressingly, the American honey industry (a commercial force to be reckoned with) classes honey by its color, a system that makes product consistency easier to achieve but renders worthless all of the terroir-driven, individualistic criteria of the European manufacturers described above. Moreover, since all American bees are necessarily medicated with antibiotics, the pollen must be strained out, which obliterates the honey’s traceability, annihilates the vitamins that make it worth eating, and, of course, enfeebles its flavor.
Check the Euro system. The five employees of Louvain-la-Neuve’s honey lab been taste-trained to detect categories of aromas like “warm” (caramel, fig, date), “woodsy” (resin, hay, vegetal), “floral” and “fruity” (acacia, lavender), or the red flags, “advanced” (animal, rotting, sulfuric) and “chemical” (medicine, plastic). Besides the taste-test, the honey is chemically analyzed to determine exactly what sorts of plants and flowers the bees drank from, the amount of pollen, and so on. The lab also serves as the voice of the Belgian honey industry, disseminating information and press clippings and representing it at trade fairs and conferences.

Even though the lab technically serves the interests of the small beekeepers, there still exists the same rapport I’ve observed between artisans and bureaucrats in each of my meetings. Godeau had given me two pots of honey—the spring’s and the summer’s—to bring to the lab for analysis, but nothing else. “Where are the papers?” asked Bruneau. “This is all I have,” I said.
Bruneau sighed. “He’s impossible. He knows very well there are a bunch of forms to fill out.”
It was true. Godeau had been happy to pass the honey delivery on to me so he didn’t have to deal directly with the office. (“They’re going to ask you for my forms,” he’d told me, “but I don’t care. They analyze my honey every year. If they want my information, they can look it up in their files.”)

Tension, tension. On one hand sits the business side of beekeeping—I saw at least twenty different kinds of trade magazines in the lab, and posters for apiculture trips to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and even Central America, many of which Godeau has been on (the only traveling he’s ever done, in fact). On the other stand the artisans, who are tired of being babied through work they’ve done cleanly for years. Thank God for the bees. They turn out honey no matter who it’s for.

M. Godeau’s Roast Pork Loin with Shallots and Honey.
Pork loin
Chop up the shallots and lay them in the roasting pan around the pork loin. Dab the loin generously with honey and put it in the oven. Add more honey as it cooks and melts. You can also do this with chicken.


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