Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting hives from all this buzz

Years ago, a foodie friend complained that chefs were hounding him for liquid nitrogen, the prep aid any kitchen wanting to be hip at the time just had to try. They figured a guy as haute as him would have plenty at his disposal, my bud explained, letting me know how plugged-in he was.

I wonder if he’s being pressed these days for clover blossoms or live honeysuckle vines. To be on the current culinary edge, you have to be thinking about high-craft fresh honey, preferably from bees working just for you.

Having your own hive is a new phenomenon, embraced at present by only a few truly avant-garde restaurants, hotels and other feeding establishments. Right now it's still riding the coattails of other trends. Some of the converts have incorporated hives into their rooftop garden, a more noticeable manifestation of urban farming. The Fairmont lodging chain, for instance, has buzzing boxes atop at least three properties.

Beekeeping is also catching on as a component of student gardening, a veritable trend unto itself on college campuses. The University of Connecticut, for instance, uses some of its campus-produced honey as a sweetener in foodservice operations, with the balance sold in the college bookstore to visiting parents.

But the movement is clearly picking up some velocity. In what’s shaping up as its ongoing coverage of the bee boom, reported two weeks ago that a British company is now selling an urban hive kit that produces up to 50 jars of honey a year. It sells for about $760. The supplier, called Omlet, is already known to urban farmers as the seller of a self-contained chicken-coop kit.

Meanwhile, if you don’t want to get your hands all sticky (or stung), you can pay to have a hive managed for you in New Zealand, with the output going exclusively to you. If private reserve honey is still too much of a commitment, you can buy into a syndicate arrangement, where the hive is owned for a year by up to 10 parties.

As interest in “estate” honey moves in from the fringes, beekeeping is certain to generate considerable buzz (ugh) in the restaurant community. And that’s going to be a good thing, given how fascinated patrons will likely become with propriety hives.

The process is indeed intriguing. I grew up on a estate, owned by a millionaire and superintended by my father. That meant he took care of all the gardens, which were far more extensive than a single family could use, even with their extravagant dinners and parties.

Toward the end of my father’s tenure, back in the early 1980s, the family decided that it wanted to put some bee hives on the 200-acre property. My father had to learn about it, and passed on a little of what he absorbed to me.

Not that I ever touched the hives. A worker was designated to be the beekeeper, largely because he had to foster a relationship with the bees. They had to come to trust him, if you can believe it. He wore gloves and a pith helmet with netting, but expected to be able to go bare-skinned once some familiarity had been established.

When this whole beekeeping thing started to get some attention from chefs who were interested in sustainability, I started looking into buying myself a hive kit. I never got around to it, largely because of the cost, but it did give rise to a memorable laugh.

I told my wife that I wanted to get a beehive. She looked at me a long time, her eyes darting upward for a second, then back down to meet mine. “I don’t think you have enough hair to make that work,” she said.

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