Harvesting honey with Philippa Davis

TRAVELLING chef Philippa Davis was home in Shaftesbury for a week recently and had a chance to discover the sweet allure of bee-keeping and honey harvesting.

But before she could start dreaming of the delicious dishes she would make with the golden honey, Philippa, a private chef whose work takes her to exotic and beautiful places all over the world, had to get togged up in the beekeeper’s protective garb. “The jumper part looks like a collaboration between a NASA and Lady Ga Ga design, and then there is the necessary clumpy boots, thick trousers and protective gloves — sexy and chic this activity is not,” she says.

“You can waft smoke into the hive to make them a little more docile but even with this there is a certain adrenaline rush as the top chamber is opened and they come flying out.  The intensity of the buzzing around my head, seeing them whizz past the thin netting covering my face certainly got my heart pumping.

“Obtaining the honey involves cracking off the wooden frames from the super (the compartment where the honey is stored) then slicing off the capped waxed ends of the comb and spinning it.  The honey is left overnight to settle then can be drained out and jarred. “

Philippa, whose interest in food dates back to a cake-baking competition at the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show when she was a child, says that what most fascinated her was the life of the bees in the colony.

“In the height of the summer this healthy bee colony contained around 40,000 lady worker bees, a few thousand drones (personal male gigolos to the queen) and of course only one Queen Bee.

“The bees would naturally swarm each year to build a new hive, so its the beekeeper’s job is to prevent this or there will be no honey for them to collect.

“In natural conditions a typical cycle would go like this. When the hive is ready to swarm the queen bee would lay lots of eggs that are then fed royal jelly by the worker bees. Having done that most of the hive ups and leaves with the old queen.  The new potential queens begin to emerge from their cells and in Highlander fashion one queen bee will kill off the rest of the rival heirs.  After a few days she mates with a good few of the  drones, the male bees whose only purpose is to fertilise her. Sadly this act kills the drone but I guess there are worse ways to go.   Only needing to do this once for her whole life (she can live up to seven years) any other drones are often killed and swept out of the hive before the leaner winter months come.

“As the queen can dictate the sex of the eggs she lays, more drones are created when required.  The hive spends the summer collecting pollen and nectar to make the honey. Usually they produce more than they need to feed themselves over the cold months so we get to eat the extra.”

As she helped to pot tenn pounds of honey, Philippa planned a lengthy list of ways to use it – drizzling it on crumpets, white bread, pancakes or porridge, using it in parsnip, date and mint salad, or on slow roast spiced honey lamb.

Another exciting and unusual way to use honey is in Kunefe, a Turkish sweet pastry swamped in honey, nuts, cheese and orange blossom – for the recipe visit Philippa’s blog at www.philippadavis.com

• Philippa is pictured lifting one of the honey-soaked frames from the hive.