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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sweet Dreams

About a week ago, I read that honey is a common sleep remedy (or at least a component of sleep remedies) in a number of cultures. Some people, like retired pharmacist Mike McInness, author of The Hibernation Diet and The Honey Diet1, claim that honey causes the liver to create/store (I don't know, I keep using the wrong word and my husband very annoyingly corrects me every time) glycogen, which fuels the brain at night. I have no clue if this is true because I haven't read enough (or any) of the science behind these claims, but I figure if grandmas around the world have been using it for thousands of years, there might be something to it.

Being a rotten sleeper, I gave it a try. I took a tablespoon of raw honey2 before bed. Ugh. That much honey straight up and all at once bothered my stomach a little, but it completely knocked me out for the night. The next morning, I hit the snooze button and woke up an hour and a half later. I couldn't even get out of bed because I had that drowsy, groggy feeling I get after taking Benadryl. (BTW, I had a fleeting suspicion all that sugar might have induced some sort of diabetic coma, but I was wrong. Eventually, I fell out of bed.)

The next night, I tried a tablespoon of honey in some herbal tea about 45 minutes before bedtime. Again, I zonked out, but had to wake up in the middle of the night for the toilet. On the other hand, I fell straight to sleep again until morning. (Sorry if that was TMI.) Again, lots of issues waking up in the morning, too.

Since then, I've been experimenting with different amounts of honey and different delivery vehicles, like whole-wheat toast, cheese, fruit... but no liquids! A few times, I forgot to take any honey at all, and I was super restless those nights. Also, it seems if I had too little honey, I would sleep really well for a few hours, but then I'd be up again in the middle of the night.

My sweet spot (har, har) seems to be about 2 teaspoons -- enough to put me down for the count, but not enough that I can't yank myself out of bed in the morning.

My husband, the skeptical doctor, thinks I'm simply experiencing a placebo effect, but I've taken things like melatonin in the past, and they've had zero effect. So I wonder if any of you would be willing to try taking some honey before bedtime and share your results (if any). Just think of it as a contribution to science! :-)
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1I haven't actually read either of these books, so I can't recommend them. If you've read them, though, please, let me know what you think!

2 I want to be clear that I used 100% raw honey. I don't know if it matters that it was raw. However, the stuff one finds in plastic bears the supermarkets isn't real honey, so if you use that, I doubt it will work.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mike's Beehives

Mike, one of the guys in my local beekeeping club, builds hives, and I wanted to share his work. You may say, "These are Langs! Why are you posting these on a top bar site?" However, they are really well-crafted, and I admire quality work of any kind. These hives caught my attention in particular since I personally build the world's most slip-shod hives. (BTW, I should note that Mike will build anything you want, so if you want a TBH or Warre, he can do that, too.)


This hive (which is currently pending patent) features:
  • Glass observation windows on the front and side. Glass is flush with the wall on the inside of the hive. He told me how they were fixed in place, but I forgot -- some sort of pin and glue, I think.
  • Slide out panels made of some sort of very thick plastic material. (I kind of like this because they slide very easily and look like they won't ever warp or scratch the windows.)
  • The slide out panels are right up against the windows, which is nice, too. A lot of hives with windows that I've seen have some space between the window and cover that has to be insulated in winter.
  • Vented quilt cover. The bottom of the cover is made of a fine-mesh screen.
  • Vented roof
  • Dovetail joints for stability and sturdiness
  • He can provide them painted or unpainted (Good news for nuts like me who graffiti their hives. ;-)
The quilt and vented roof remind me quite a lot of a Warre design, which is another reason why I liked this hive so much. If my shop skills ever improve, I'd love to make these slide-out windows on a Warre... Or maybe, I'll just order some boxes from Mike.

Anyway, if you are interested in contacting him, you can do so at mikesbeehives@gmail.com. Alternatively, you can find Mike's Beehives at: http://www.mikesbeehives.com/


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Honey Tasting with Marina Marchese

Updated: Made some corrections.

This past Saturday, my local bee club had a wonderful opportunity to learn honey tasting from Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey. Marina is certified by the National Registry of Experts of Sensory Analysis of Honey in Italy and is an expert in single-origin honey. She is also the founder of the American Honey Tasting Society.

Marina at the tasting tables
Marina is a terrific spokesperson for honey. She is articulate, smart, beautiful, effortlessly chic, and elegant. Most importantly, I've never met a person so passionate about honey. Her mission is to educate people about honey so that they will understand what a precious and rare treasure it really is. She does this by helping people discover the diversity of floral sources in honey from various locales.

Marina's books
Here are some notes I jotted down from the morning session:

On the Value of Honey

  • The Egyptians understood how valuable honey was. When Carter discovered King Tut's tomb, it was filled with things he would need during the afterlife. This include jars of fine wine, olive oil, and... honey.
  • One honeybee works her whole life to make a mere 1/12th tsp of honey. Good quality honey is rare. It's hard to make. It's hard to find. It really should cost as much as caviar.
  • In order to get the public to appreciate honey the way it should be appreciated, they really have to be educated on the real value of it.
The Difference between Honey Judging and Honey Tasting
  • The UK has a National Honey Show every October that lasts three days. It highlights a wide range of honeys from different floral sources. It's a spectacular event that beekeepers should attend at least once if they can. During the show, participants can submit samples of 4-6 jars (all jars are part of just 1 entry, not separate entries) which are judged. Judges put them in categories by color. They also judge features such as cleanliness (no fingerprints, debris, foam, bee parts), water content (17-18%), and clarity. However, they pay very little attention to flavor unless it is spoiled. Also, no crystallization is allowed, which means that many of the entries have undergone a bit of pasteurization -- a process that diminishes the flavor of honey. Unfortunately, this judging process means that very fine honeys can be overlooked for something as trivial as a fingerprint on a jar or an incorrect label. 
  • By contrast, honey tastings are a common event in Italy where she trained. Honeys are lined up by floral source in wine glasses, and they are sampled just like fine wines. Specially trained honey sommeliers conduct the tastings, and they're looking for sensory qualities in the honey like flavor, aroma, and color. Crystallization is fine as long as the crystals are not jarring to the senses. The emphasis in tasting is on quality and character rather than quantity and consistency.
  • If one is interested in attending an Italian honey festival (sagra del miele), which is one way to experience once of these tastings, it's best to travel in spring.  They occur all over the country.
You know you're in for a good time when you walk
into a room to this set-up.
Terroir
  • Marina discussed the term "terroir" at length. In French, it means "soil, earth," and it invokes a sense of place. 
  • There are many foods that have terroir, foods that identified with one particular location and which don't taste the same if produced anywhere else. Some examples are Champagne, Vermont maple syrup, Chianti, Kentucky bourbon, Idaho potatoes, and Georgia vidalia onions.
  • There are also many honeys with terroir: Tupleo honey from Georgia and Florida, Maine blueberry honey, New Zealand manuka honey, California sage, North Carolina sourwood, lavender honey from Provence.
  • Often the foods or honey may not be grand. Sometimes the story behind the item is the attraction.
  • Terroir is shaped by a host of environmental factors like climate, rain, soil, weather, sun, mountain slopes, etc.
  • Environmental factors affect floral sources, which in turn affects bee behavior. It also determines whether there can even be any honey during a particular season.
  • During a tasting, we are tasting the terroir of the honey.
The Importance of Tasting
  • Allows us to identify defects in the honey like high water content and adulteration.
  • Ensures the quality and safety of honey.
  • It opens conversations with the consumer, thereby educating them. Educated consumers are repeat customers.
  • Allows beekeepers to connect with chefs and people in the food industry. These are people who get excited learning about food and who can pair them in creative and delicious ways.
  • Allows us to tell stories about honey and to demonstrate how all honeys are not the same. They differ by season and region. 
  • It provides culinary enjoyment.
Why Education is so Important
  • So many people who say they don't like honey have never had real honey. Even people who buy honey have often never encountered the real thing. They've only been exposed to "funny honey," which is little more than flavorless sweet syrup. 
  • The US produces only about 1/3 of our honey. The rest is imported, often in less than truthful circumstances. For example, a lot of honey is cut, blended, ultrafiltered, etc. A lot of honey is transshipped, i.e., honey from China is shipped to places like Australia where it is labeled as something packaged there and then imported into the US.
  • Other big companies that produce canola honey (which is a GMO product that has no flavor) blend it with a more flavorful honey and sell the diluted honey as "clover" or "alfalfa" or whatever.

Sensory Analysis
 During a sensory analysis, we are looking for things like:
  • Color. There are 7 colors rating from clear to dark amber. Some colors are even greenish or bluish. Kudzu produces a purplish honey that tastes a bit like a grape jolly rancher. Color is determined by floral sources and even mineral content.
  • Aroma, taste and flavor profiles. The nose can smell thousands of odors (aromas), but the tongue can only perceive five tastes (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami). Flavor is a combination of aroma and taste.
  • Texture and viscosity. These depend on temperature, humidity, water content, and crystallization.
  • Nectar sources
  • Visual appearance -- the presence/absence of pollen, bubbles, dust, propolis, wax
Miscellaneous
  • Taking notes on honey tastings is a good way to remind oneself of how a honey tasted.
  • Properly stored honey never spoils. However, honey contains essential oils from their floral sources. As honey ages, the essential oils evaporate, so honey loses some of its flavor.
  • As honey gets older (or if it's improperly stored), it produces a chemical called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). This also diminishes the honey's flavor.
  • The ideal spoon to use during a tasting is a plastic tasting spoon that doesn't impart any flavor to the honey. These can often be found on foodie websites.
  • A lot of how we experience flavors is based on memory and experiences. 
Tasting wheel
Those are my notes on the morning. In the afternoon, we did an actual tasting. Since my background is in instructional design, I was quite excited. I love practical exercises! Anyway, she wanted to demonstrate how flavor really is a combination of taste and aroma, and how so much of what we taste comes from our noses. We started out with Marina giving us all a spoon to dip into a brown powdery mixture. Then we pinched our noses and tasted. With no sense of smell, it just tasted a bit sweet. Then we got to breathe and taste. Wow! Cinnamon! 

Next, she provided us all with a honey tasting wheel, which we reviewed. We also got to sniff various glasses that she'd filled with things like coffee, lavender, soil, beeswax, etc. to get our noses in gear. 

Stuff to get our sniffers up to snuff
Finally, we sampled 5 different honeys that she had brought in as well as several other honeys brought in by some club members. My absolute favorite was a goldenrod/Japanese knotweed honey. There was also a buckwheat honey that I thought was positively foul. So glad I found that out today since I was considering planting a large patch of it next year.

Of course, by the end of the tasting, we were all sticky and buzzed from the sugar rush, but also feeling like a rather lot of happy Pooh Bears.