Happy spring! The vernal equinox, daylight savings time, and the Jewish holiday of Purim may all be upon us, but brrrr! With umbrella-destroying winds, tornado watches along the coast, and socks-drenching rain, it’s feeling much more like winter than balmy spring. Oh well–remember all those sunbathing days we got back in January?
Like most of us, bees prefer to stay inside where it’s warm and dry on days like this, snuggling together in a big bee-ball to keep themselves, and especially their queen, nice and toasty. But for humans, the show must go on, and so CUESA‘s honey celebration at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on Saturday, March 19th went on even in the teeth of blowing rain. Once a month from February through November, CUESA will be hosting a celebration for a different fruit, vegetable, or product, featuring tastings, ask the farmer (or producer) sessions, and a variety of cooking demonstrations by local chefs and cookbook authors. Last month was citrus; this month, for the first time, was honey.
First up behind the counter was Margo True, food editor of Sunset magazine and the author (along with her staff) of Sunset’s latest book, The One-Block Feast. The book, which comes out next week, came out of a series of homesteading projects undertaken by Sunset over the last couple of years. “We wanted to get back to the Lane brothers’ original vision for Sunset, which was as a laboratory for Western living,” said True. With a spacious garden, room for bees and chickens, the ability to get a “milk share” from a cow living at a nearby farm, and lots of kitchen room for testing, True and her team set out to see if they could make or source everything–even flour and sea salt–from as close to the magazine’s Menlo Park campus as possible. The results were sometimes spectacular, sometimes frustrating, but all of it got incorporated into the book. True tried to be as honest as possible, promising that they “definitely wrote about what bombed,” too.
However, on this gray morning, True was here to show off two recipes that promise big payback for not too much effort. A custard-based honey ice cream, made with honey from the magazine’s own hives, had a suave, salted-caramel edge, thanks to a drizzle of honey on top and a sprinkle of sea salt. It’s more lusciously creamy than sweet, but the honey flavor still comes through. Even though it was hardly ice cream weather, the crowd snapped up every sample and scraped the cups clean.
Next came strawberry jam, made of nothing more than ripe early-season berries, honey, and a dash of lemon juice. Rather than cook it on the stovetop, where the direct heat could scorch the mixture, True spread out her chunky berry puree in a thin layer on a baking sheet, then revealed her secret: a long, gentle bake in a slow oven, which would gently condense it down while preserving the berries’ ripe flavor. Spread on slices of Acme bread, the finished jam did taste remarkably fresh, with a soft consistency somewhere between jam and compote, perfect for a yogurt parfait topped with granola and a handful of fresh berries.
When I was researching my own book about honey a decade ago, Helene Marshall and her husband, beekeeper Spencer Marshall of Marshall’s Farm Honey, took me around their bee house, let me scoop a fingerful of eucalyptus honey straight out of the comb, and even let their bees model for photographs. Now, ten years later, Helene is still talking up the beauty of bees and the importance of local honey (and local pollinators), and finally, people are ready to hear what she has to say. Speaking about the recent resurgence of interest in backyard beekeeping, she said, “The biggest, best, and most important thing to come out of this is that people have respect for bees and beekeepers now, and a real appreciation of honey. People realize that we need those bees!”
Helene Marshall of Marshall’s Farm Honey, offering samples of Fairmont Hotel
In front of the audience with J.W. Foster, executive chef of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, Helene talked about their latest project, putting hives on the Fairmont’s roof. “I’m San Francisco born and raised, went to my junior and senior proms at the Fairmont, so it feels like our bees are going home. They can hitch a ride on a cable car…it’s so San Francisco, I love it!” On warm days, the bees like to nip up to the penthouse level to sip from the fountains, getting a free look at that $15,000-a-night view.
So far, the Fairmont is hosting four hives, all very healthy. Last week’s harvest yielded 60 pounds of honey, with a light, floral-herbal taste and an early-spring hint of eucalyptus. “This honey was harvested last week, extracted a couple of days ago and bottled this morning,” said Helene.
Marshall’s Farm Fairmont Hotel honey
With a lot of fresh honey at his disposal, Foster and his kitchen staff are experimenting to see what they can use it for. Their latest creation is an unctuous duck-egg aioli with olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and a touch of honey, used to dress chopped raw beef tartare with stovetop-smoked onions and cress salad on walnut crostini.
Ice cream, beef tartare…finally, the last chef, Brandon Jew of Bar Agricole, promised something hot, a hot toddy made with brandy, chartreuse, honey from Alan Hawkins’ apiaries, bitters, and lemon peel. He made some mostarda, too, his spin on Bologna’s favorite tart-sweet relish, a late-winter version made from brandied, spiced raisins mixed with a honey-based Seville orange marmalade, and served over a slice of pork pate. A few sips, and hey, was that a ray of sunshine coming down?
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