Thursday, October 28, 2010

Berlin Honey

Once Is Happenstance

Earlier this year, I had read a German article about beekeeping on the roof of the Paris Opera. The honey was then sold at the Opera gift shop. I thought this was rather clever, but wondered what the honey would taste like. Other than a trip back to Paris, which is continually in the pre-planning stages, it was unlikely that I would be able to taste honey that came from there, and only from there.
Twice Is Coincidence
About two months later, the tweeters I follow were all abuzz with a video of Tim Hayward making bread with Richard Bertinet. While the video was pretty awesome, another one caught my eye. Urban beekeeping in London. The thing that really got me was that the bees were being kept on the roof of Fortnum and Mason, where we had afternoon tea, after stumbling about London in a mad rush to see everyone we knew. We were trying to find a tea place across the street from an Audi dealership, and, in the end, I remembered the name Fortnum and Mason. As we entered the fourth floor, we were ushered into an empty room to leave our luggage, and then to a table at the back of the restaurant, right next to the kitchen. I didn't mind. After I saw the video, I thought about the London honey that I could have bought.
Three Times... You Pay Attention
I had come across the Berlin Honey website once before, and had contemplated buying some, but in the end, I didn't. I'm not sure why. It wasn't until Peggy of wrote an article about them that I realized I had to get some. Now, I didn't order any right away, though I really wanted to. Honey from Berlin, I wouldn't have thought that possible if I hadn't read about Paris and London. And why not? With one quarter of Berlin being lakes and forest, it is a perfect environment for bees. In any case, I liked the way it sounded: Paris Honey, London Honey, Berlin Honey.
My History With Honey
I had never really consciously thought about honey. I knew that it came from bees, and also knew that it was stored in honeycombs. A few times, during our trips to Mexico, my parents would buy some honey with a piece of honeycomb floating in it. Sometimes they would only buy a honeycomb filled with honey. We would pop the cells and empty out the honey, chewing the wax like gum. Other than that, we had the occasional honeybear full of clover honey. I never gave a second thought about why it was called clover honey except in the rare case that I bought orange blossom honey. Which tasted slightly of oranges. That I could understand. But clover?

My first conscious experience with honey as a food, as something that wasn't just plain clover honey, or, in Germany, Akazienhonig (as common here as clover honey is over there) was when I bought a very small, and very expensive jar of Tannenhonig (pine honey) at a Bioladen. It was dark and woodsy, aromatic and full of rich forest flavor. I would drizzle it on wonderfully tart fresh goat cheese, taking up a habit, just so I could have the two flavors together.

When we visited Paris last year, Amy discovered a listing in the in-flight magazine for the Maison du Miel. It took a while to find it, we were re-checking the address in the pocket notebook where we had made our notes. When I saw the address, I realized that the address wasn't Rue Vignon 9, but rather Rue Vignon in the 9th arrondissement.

After much consideration, and fully aware that I already had two heavy blue steel baking sheets in my luggage, I chose a small jar of the Rosemary honey, and one of the Bruyère Blanche (tree heath). For our friend, who was housesitting for us, we chose a small jar of coffee honey, produced by bees that hang around coffee plants, getting their pollen fix. I also noticed two bars of honey soap (I have a thing for natural soaps), and snapped them up to complete our purchase.

Then, last spring, on our hiking vacation, we stopped in a small German Deli in Prerow. They had tons of sausages, and best of all, cheese. When I asked which cheese was local, the woman behind the counter quickly answered- "We're in the wrong Bundesland for cheese. That's Schleswig-Holstein. We're in MeckPomm." Fair enough. "I'll take that semi-hard cheese, then".
I don't remember what cheese we ended up having that night, but I do remember coming across a small jar of Buckwheat honey. When I picked it up and put it in the basket, the saleswoman asked me if I had tasted it before, as many people buy it without tasting it, and try to return it. She motioned to a small table with tasting crackers, honey, and a some olive tapenade. I tried the honey.


Buckwheat honey tastes the way a barn smells. Musky and dark, and extraordinarily earthy. You get notes of bitter grass and hay, and it's particularly flavorful when paired with some really tangy goat cheese. But then again, which honey doesn't?

Berliner Honig

After coming back from a whirlwind four days in London, Amy and I were invited to a Berlin food blogger picnic by the very lovely Anette and Jemi of Berliner Honig. Oh, wait, say what? Me? A food blogger. I was invited to a food blogger picnic? But I'm not a food blogger. I sent an RSVP, and kept waiting for the follow-up email where they'd realize they had made a mistake. It never came, instead, the next email had more details about the event. So I slowly realized that, yes, I do blog, as infrequently as it seems to be nowadays, and that I do write about food, bread in particular.

The event was held on August 28 at Berliner Honig Headquarters in Friedrichshain. It was originally intended to be held outside in Volkspark Friedrichshain, but bad weather, combined with rain the night before, had pushed it indoors. The office was really white and had huge beautiful windows with blinds. We began with introductions, and a glass of Sekt as a greeting drink.

The night before, I had mixed together a dough using a technique I've named "Overnight Sourdough". Basically, I mix together a dough as close to midnight as I can, do stretch and folds until I go to sleep, then put the dough on the balcony for the bulk rise. This works great in summer, when it's warm enough to sleep with the balcony doors open, but cool enough that a batch of sourdough won't overrise and lose its structure. I usually wake up at six, shape the bread, turn on the oven with the stone in, and sleep for an additional two hours while the bread does a final rise atop the warm stove. I put the bread in at eight, and it's ready by nine. Unfortunately, I'm usually not, so the day of the picnic, the bread was ready before we were.

In attendance were our hosts, Anette and Jemi, Karin from Geniesser Zeit, Peggy from, Anne from Kekstester, and Suzan from Foodie In Berlin. I was also looking forward to meeting other Berlin Food Bloggers, but they shall remain nameless until I do actually get to meet them. There were some last-minute cancellations, all for very good reasons, I later found out. However, I did wish more of them had been able to attend, because there are a lot of great Berlin Blogs out there. Of course, nearly all of them in German.

Although I was starving, I held on, and snuck a slice of bread while Anette and Jemi talked about honey, bees and beekeeping. In Germany, as in the rest of the world, about 30% of bees die out every year due to Colony Collapse disorder. The thing is, this happens mostly in the countryside, where more crops are farmed. I know, you would think more crops would equal more pollen, but because our agricultural system has evolved into a monoculture system, bees that live around agriculture (and especially industrial agriculture) don't get as much a variety of food as they would have in the past when farms grew a bit of everything. Also to blame are pesticides, which can wreak havoc both on the bees' immune systems as well as their natural navigation systems.

On the other hand, cities have a huge variety of flora. Home gardeners don't just plant one variety, they plant tons, and cities usually plant many different types of trees for aesthetic purposes. Plus, you have a relatively low incidence of pesticides. And you have a rich environment in which bees can thrive. Think about it, if New York can have its own beekeepers association, then surely Berlin, one of the greenest cities in Europe, can be a playground for bees.

And, so, Berliner Honig is produced. The company is a sort of collective/distributor for the various beekeepers in Berlin. Although the average age of beekeepers in Germany is about 80 years, all the beekeepers from Berliner Honig are quite young. Beekeeping itself is not a hobby you can do every other month, as the bees do require weekly maintenance. So, it's usually something that retired people usually take up as a hobby.

Anette (with Jemi chiming in) gave us an explanation on how honey is produced, how the hive works- the social structure and all, and let us touch some of the hive related material she and Jemi had brought. Here's she's holding two frames, though I'm pretty sure they were the ones that hadn't been built upon. Note the brown hive on the left. In a country that has a whole system of standards (DIN), there isn't any real hive standardization. So, there's a wide variety of hive structures. After all our questions, she asked if we were ready to meet the bees, and opened up the hive.

When she and Jemi opened the hive, I gasped. When I was younger, a couple of bees had set themselves up in a hollow part of one of our walls, so I knew well enough to ignore them, and they would mind their own beeswax. Still, I hadn't been around multiple bees in quite a while. Luckily, the hive itself was under glass. In the above picture, the dark areas correspond to the brood- the places where new bees are born and raised, and the honeycombs that are covered are the reserve food, the honey, if you will.

Seeing the bees up close was pretty awesome. They were buzzing and crawling about like crazy. Though she's out of the depth of focus in the above shot, the queen bee was painted with a blue dot, so you could spot her easily. Well, if you looked closely, you could also find her by her size- she was at least two times as big as any of the worker bees.

Holding all the various bee-related things was my favorite part of the day. This is part of a frame, after it has been emptied of its delicious honey.

After all that, we were ready eat and sample the honey. I'm actually kicking myself because I didn't take more pictures of the food- Anette and Jemi had spread out a large table with figs, goat cheese, Gruyere and bread. They also had coffee, and hot water for tea. The funny thing is, Germans usually don't get the concept of a potluck party, but I guess that whenever I have people over, I don't really expect them to bring anything either. Still, there was tons of great stuff on offer. I did manage to snap some of the Eierkuchen and Honey ice cream.

The bread gods had actually blessed me on that day- Usually, I shape the bread in the morning, after a bulk rise in the refrigerator, but this time, I had shaped the bread, then put it in the fridge. So when I did take it out, it was already pretty huge. So, when I baked it, the bread was perfectly risen, with not much oven spring (since it was perfectly risen, haha), but with an awesome crumb.

Suzan from FoodieInBerlin, brought a plum tart, which you can see in the upper right background. Forgive the bread shot, but I usually take photos of my own bread for reference. The plums were all picture perfect, sliced and with no signs of the pits.

When I asked what she did with the middle parts of the plums (where the pits were) she sort of looked at me all puzzled and said, "I ate them." I guess I asked because I would have baked with all the parts of the plums, and wouldn't have even thought of making it aesthetically pleasing, or saving the leftovers for breakfast.

I loved the thinness of the plum tart- I even had a second piece. The plums were laid on a layer of marzipan, which in turn rested on the pastry crust. I was quite shocked when Suzan mentioned that she had used rye flour in the crust, since I didn't know you could to that. Well, you actually can, but she only did because she had run out of other flour. I really should not have been surprised. Since then I've kept an eye out, and noticed that many of the better Berlin bakeries are making their crusts out of spelt.

Also in attendance was Anne from Kekstester, one of my favorite German blogs. The name literally means "cookie tester" and she focuses on cookies and other desserts. While we were all expecting her to bring cookies, she brought Arabic Almond-Honey squares instead. I had two, or, at least two. I think I might have had two and a half. They weren't as honey sweet as most honey and dough desserts that you sometimes find. The cake was a great base for the almonds and honey, and was understated with the real treat being the almond-honey topping. You can find the recipe, as well as her account of the picnic, here (in German).

Peggy from brought a beet-peanut spread that was simply delicious. It was sweet beets, combined with peanuts and lots of garlic. I don't remember when I began eating beets, but once they crept into my salads, I knew there was no going back. The beet texture with the fat and flavor of the peanuts and the overwhelming yumminess of the peanuts. Even if you're not a beet fan, this pink mix was simple and simply delicious. You can find the recipe here, though, it's only in German.

Tasting Notes

I know that by now you are all dying to know how the honey tasted.

My first impressions were that the spring honey, the Berliner Frühling (on the left) just tasted like honey. Very subtle honey, but without that overt "HONEY" flavor that you sometimes get from clover honey. It was good. It tasted fresh and the way you expect a light honey to taste. I think the problem with the tasting, though was that we went back and forth between the honeys instead of concentrating on one, then on the other. Because the Haupstadtlinde (on the right) was so awesome during the tasting, it overshadowed the Berliner Frühling. Later, I opened the jar of the Berliner Frühling, and it was a revelation. The lightest taste of beeswax with the full roundness of it, and a delicate honey flavor without being cloyingly sweet.

The Haupstadtlinde (Capitol Linden) comes from bees that frequent Linden trees in Berlin. The flavor of this one is just spectacular. Maybe it's not a desired flavor, but you can taste the beeswax. You can taste the beeswax! It has a light citrus-floral flavor that gives way to a full mouth of just lovely beeswax. It's almost like biting into a hive. On sourdough bread, however, the wax flavor is overtaken but the flavor is- well, it's the flavor of simply delicious raw honey.

Wherever you might be, I urge you to find local honey. Either through Local Harvest or the National Honey Board's Honey Locator in the States. In the UK, you can search BeeData's Local Honey Database.

If you are lucky enough to live in Germany, you can order Berlin Honey from Berliner Honig's online shop, or you can buy it in person from selected places in Berlin.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Belgian (Beer) Vacation - Part Two

In case you missed part one, here's the link. I did get asked in my last post how long this vacation lasted, especially since we were trying all sorts of things. The entire trip lasted ten days, of which only nine were spent tasting beers. Of those days, these are only the beers that we had while we were out. Our friend's parent's house had a huge selection and the beers we had there were unfortunately not photographed.

Many beers in Belgium are bottle conditioned and often still have the yeast in the bottom of the bottle, something you really don't find in other alcoholic drinks. In the case of this beer, Hopus, the glass set includes a shot glass, not for a shot of Tequila and the beer as chaser, but as a holder for the yeast. These beers are poured into the glass slowly, being careful not to disturb the yeast that has settled on the bottom. However, some people prefer to have the yeast as well, often adding it to their beer at the beginning. For me, I sipped on the beer- a plain, smooth, malty ale, and then took the yeast as a shot at the end.

One of the biggest treats of the night was Tripel Karmeliet (careful, the website has music!). Take the description of Westmalle Tripel above, and double it, then add a bunch of flours in. I'm not saying that this was double as good as Westmalle. That would be impossible. However, this beer reeked of flowers. It was also served ice cold, and I had to use my hands to warm it up. Even then, you could tell the floral aroma. Almost like roses, but not quite overpowering. Maybe something akin to citrus flowers. Apparently, the beer is brewed with barley, wheat, and oats, giving it a full body and a smooth mouthfeel.

Again with the Iced Tea. I forgot who ordered it. Probably whoever was driving that night. The beer in the background is a Rochefort 10, made by Trappist monks at the Abbey of St. Remy at Rochefort. It is, again, one of my favorite beers, though I actually didn't have one until we came back to Berlin. I made sure to get 10 bottles, in order to age them.

Like wine, many beers benefit from aging or cellaring. Usually, this applies to beers that are refermented or bottle-conditioned, or beers over a certain percentage of alcohol. I use a minimum of 8% abv as a rule of thumb, though any beer with yeast at the bottom of the bottle will change, though not necessarily improve over time. Though there are examples of crazy aging- a bar in Belgium serves a 25-year-old Chimay- I don't think anyone has the will power to resist a beer that has been aging for more than two or three years.

About a year ago, I had a two-year old Rochefort 10 that I had saved from the last trip. The beer was amazing. All plums and figs and raisins and oh-so-very-smoooooooth. I could not get over how good it was. Since the beer has I still have a few bottles that I'm planning to take up to 10 years, though the beer is so good that I seriously doubt I will be able to hold out for that long. At 11,3%, this is a seriously complex beer that can hold its own up to maybe 10-15 years after it has been brewed. If you want to be astounded, surprised and convinced that world class beer exists, this is the one. Be sure to sip slowly, savoring it over the course of an evening.

I don't know how many 33cL bottles of Duvel I have drank in my lifetime, but it has been more than I can ever think to count. Duvel is one of those very drinkable beers with carbonation as fine as Champagne, and a smoothly sweet taste with a very pleasing spicy aftertaste. It is the embodiment of the Belgian Strong Golden Ale. I was once at the Knitting Factory in New York, and they had it amongst the mass-produced beers. After I offered a sip to a friend of a friend, he ordered it, and it cascaded until there were seven of us all having Duvel.

On one of the last days, we were in Bruges. I was trying to cross-reference the Good Beer Guide to Belgium with the small tourist map we bought at the train station. Unfortunately for us, the Beer Guide only provides the most rudimentary maps, which look nothing like the city itself. So we kept cross referencing. As luck would have it, however, we ended up stumbling across De Kuppe, in part because of their big signs advertising their selection of 100 beers.

After a scan of the beer list, I had a choice of about 15 that I really wanted to try. The one that really stood out was this one, from the Van Eecke brewery in nearby Watou. I have had this beer before, but it remains one of my favorites (I know, I know, I do say this quite a bit) because of its high hop content. All slight citrus and grapefruit with a fine carbonation. I absolutely love the flavor of hops, and wish they were used more often in European beers.

Amy opted for a local beer, Steen Brugge Dubbel, which we later found out, is brewed a hundred kilometers away in Steenhuffel. Still, it was malty and dark and barely chocolately, which is how Amy likes most of her beers.

Once had oriented ourselves, we looked for a place to have lunch. I don't remember where we ate, but I noticed that they had a lot of Trappist Beers on the menu, including Westvleteren. It was the only one without a price, though the others were about 4€ a bottle. I asked the waiter, "Is true that you have Westvleteren?" He gave me a funny look. He hadn't understood. I asked again, and pointed to the beer on the menu. "Ah, yes Westvleteren. Yes, we have it." I asked how much a bottle was, and he went in to check. When he came out he said, "25 Euros".

Now, the thing about Westvleteren is that it is brewed by monks who make a limited amount of beer. They say they make the beer in order to sustain their life as monks. In recent years, the beer's popularity has made the demand grow while the supply has remained exactly the same. Unlike other monasteries like Chimay, who are relatively huge businesses, Westvleteren prefers to stick with their monastic quietude. After their beer was named the best in the world, the monks got uncomfortable. The lines of cars waiting to buy beer stretched as long as 3km from the monastery, the only place where the beer could (legally) be bought.

Instead of dealing with it, the monks asked themselves- How can we maintain our monastic values, and save the town from the hassle of cars coming in and out all the time? Instead of the lines of cars, they set up a reservation system. The telephone line is open two hours every week, and there is only one monk answering one telephone, taking down names and license plate numbers in order to fill reservation slots to purchase the beer. For the monks, it makes life easier. For everyone else, it makes the beer more impossible to get, and that much more rare and desirable.

I've had the beer on two occasions. Once with my brother-in-law- we shared a dusty bottle I had found at a beer store. The second time was in Belgium at the home of a friend's uncle, out of the proper glass. It's good. Really good. But in truth, I'd rather avoid the hassle and get a St. Bernardus or a Rochefort 10. They're on par with the Westvleteren 12 without all the hassle.

So, why didn't I pay the 25 Euros for the beer? Not because I'm cheap, because I'm very rarely cheap when it comes to beer. It's because when you buy the beer at the monastery, you promise not to resell it. And while I think paying maybe double of what the beer cost- 2€ a bottle with deposit included- I don't think paying a 1000% markup is helping anyone but the cafe owner.

So, instead, I opted for a local beer, the Brugse Zot, which means, as you can deduce from the label, the Fool from Bruges. It's made by De Halve Maan brewery, the same brewery that makes Strafe Hendrik from the previous post. It was light both in color and body, with a delicate slightly grassy flavor with just a touch of sweetness. A good summer quencher, and the perfect accompaniment to the omelet I had for lunch.

After much walking around and exploring the city, we ended up at 't Bruges Beertje, one of the ultimate destinations in all the world for beer. Well, to be fair, it mostly has Belgian beers, but it has almost all of the good ones there, in one place.

After studying the menu (over 300 different beers, broken down by region) for several minutes, I decided on a Kriek from Boon from the Mariage Parfait (Perfect Marriage) series. Remember when I wrote about spontaneously fermented beers in my last post? Well, this is similar, but instead of blending three year old beer with one year old beer to make a Gueuze, you add cherries (with the stones) to the beer after a year and a half, and allow their sugars to ferment out.

You get a beer with a tart cherry flavor, and all the lactic sourness you can handle. The best thing about this beer, is that the Mariage Parfait series is no longer made for the Kriek, so the beer is rather rare. The second best thing is that the base beer for the Kriek is selected from the best tasting barrels of fermenting lambic, so this beer is pretty much the best of the best from this brewery. The beer was well rounded, not too sour, and not too tart, with just the right amount of full in-your-face cherry flavor. As the afternoon light faded, I took sip after sip.

Amy, on the other hand, somewhat overwhelmed by the huge selection of beer, asked me to pick something for her. I decided she should have one of the local beers, and in this case, picked a dark Brugge Zot, the companion to the blonde ale above.

It's odd how one beer can somehow create a thread that runs through an entire trip. On the very last day, we took an excursion to Hoboken, just outside of Antwerp to look at the statue of Nello and Patrasche from A Dog of Flanders. Patrasche is the name of the dog from the story, and also the name of the beer Amy had on the first Sunday that we were in Belgium. Unfortunately, the tourist office was closed, and the statue of Nello and Patrasche was actually quite small. Since the book is taught in Japanese schools, we were expecting to find a group of Japanese tourists milling about the statue, but I guess they only visit the Antwerp Cathedral.

So, after taking the required tourist pictures next to the statue, we looked around for a place that sold the Patrasche and Nello beers. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any. So much for Hoboken being a mecca for Patrasche lovers. Instead, we sat down at a typical Belgian cafe, and ordered typical Belgian beers. Amy, being the rebel in the group, ordered a "Scotch" which is what you call a Scottish-style beer. I thought it was funny that she was ordering a beer that was made in Scotland and imported for the Belgian market. I later found out that this dark and sweet beer with notes of dark caramel is now brewed in Belgium itself! What Amy didn't know is that Gordon's Scotch ale is pretty high in alcohol- 8% abv!

Our friend and host Ariana had a Hoegaarden Speciale, in one of my favorite glasses of all time (I'll say that quite a bit as well). She was shocked that it was available, since it is pretty much an autumn/winter beer. I've had this one before. It's like a deep witbier with an orangey flavor. Unfortunately, I really dislike witbiers, so I don't have very much to say about this one.

Last, I ordered a bolleke. I felt it was the most fitting beer for the trip. It was smooth and delicious, and just right. I sipped it in the warm summer air, and when it was done, photographed the hand on the glass that graced the beginning of the first post.