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.


  1. Wonderful post, very informative and factual - even though I was there, I feel like I missed half of that stuff!
    Your bread was outstanding. I think I told you but I finished off the hunk you gave me on the way back home that day!
    Meanwhile Annette and Jemi have graciously given us use of their office space for a pot luck blogger lunch that I am supposed to put together. I will try to get my act together and actually send out an email!

  2. Daniel,

    I am so glad that you posted, I was wondering what you are up to.

    My father was a beekeeper. Bees are a bit of an annoyance when you have to share the backyard with them!

    Wonderful post.

    Anne Marie

  3. Oooh, what a wonderful post!

    I think I've got to get my hands on some specialty honey and pair it with cheese - what a fantastic combination that would be!!!

  4. My friend Alison bought me a jar of buckwheat honey when she was visiting and I kept stealing back into the kitchen for another spoonful. Such stories in that flavor!

    I'm such a fan of Berlin's lindens and I can't imagine a better present from the city than a jar of concentrated Berlin summer. (I know, cue jokes about said summer here)