Boulder Farmers' Market, week five: Bees and rhubarb

Tim Brod of Highland Honey Bees sells creamed honey and herb-infused honey intended to promote health, as well as queen bees and bee packages to would-be apiarists and pollination services for local organic farms. And -- as I learn on my Saturday morning visit to the Boulder Farmers' Market -- he is evangelical about bees and honey.

On the table in front of him, along with jars of honey, there's a plexiglass-fronted box filled with the fuzzy, crawling insects. He and his partner, Dean Chapla, hand out samples as curious people mill around the stand: new bee keepers asking for advice, people wanting to taste samples, children gazing in fascination at the living bee exhibit. And Brod holds forth, energetic, enthusiastic and unstinting. All the honey Highland sells comes from its apiaries, he says, and is subtly flavored by weather patterns, soil conditions and nectar sources -- in other words, by what foodies like to call "terroir" when they're speaking of wine or cheese. The hives are moved frequently to "take advantage of timely and diverse nectar flows," he says. "This is not monoculture honey." See also: - Boulder Farmers' Market, week four: Strawberries, and seven things not to do - Boulder Farmers' Market, week three: spinach is in -- but no apricots, ever? - Boulder Farmers' Market, week two: Duck eggs to salmon

If you've been following the news, you know the world's honey bees are in trouble and you've probably read about bee colony collapse -- bees not returning to the hive, mass die-offs. There's a lot of discussion about causes: GMOs, pesticides, a mite called varroa that weakens bees' immune systems, the widespread use of bees to pollinate commercial crops or a combination of all of these. Like most bee keepers, Brod loses about 30 percent of his hives annually. "At the center of that are weakened immune systems due to pesticides," he says, referencing in particular neonicotinoids, which have just been banned in Europe but continue in use here. He fights the problem with "hygienic practices." In particular, he keeps his bees away from soy, corn and sunflowers because the seeds of all these crops are soaked in neonicotinoids. This means the entire plant, including the pollen and the dew that settles on it, is somewhat toxic. In addition, Highland Honey's queen bees have been bred for a naturally occurring trait that they pass along to worker bees, which detect and remove varroa-mite infested brood.

As Brod speaks, a couple of new bee keepers stop by to describe what they're observing in their hive. It sounds as if things are going as they should, Brod tells them, and "in time you guys will have honey." Don't, he adds, wear perfume when you work with bees because it "seriously pisses them off."

He gives another customer a taste of the creamed honey. "When you cream it, you can control the shape of the crystal," he says. "And then there's something about the taste and texture, the way it wraps in your mouth. It goes from nice to indescribably good."

The honey you buy in the supermarket has been heated so as not to crystallize and the pollen removed. Brod doesn't filter out the pollen, just uses a large sieve to remove dead bees. And his honey is never heated. "Creaming honey is a natural crystallization process," he says. "All honey will crystallize. Creaming refers to you controlling the shape of the crystal by making sure the honey has a very low moisture content and then basically keeping it cool. Our honey is never hotter than the natural temperature found in the hive."

When I ask when he first became interested in honey, he tells me: "I was stung as a kid. There were bees in the wall above my bed, so my grandfather said, 'Let's put a piece of plexiglass over the wall.' I was fascinated watching those bees. And the power you have as a kid when you have bees. Other kids had dogs, cows, pigs and chickens, but imagine being six and saying, Well, your dog is nice, but I have tens of thousands of bees in my bedroom wall. You get a lot of social points for that."

Bees have moods and temperaments, Brod says. "With a dog you can tell if it's aggressive from its body language," he explains. "Bees will give you the same kinds of cues. With a couple years of experience you can decipher those clues. Honey bees are gentle and not at all aggressive, with very few exceptions. I'm very fond of my bees, I respect and am amazed by them--and I do represent that they have huge intelligence and capacity. But they're way different from you and I, and I don't anthropomorphize them.

"The romance of it may bring you to bee keeping, but it's not going to keep you there. It's hard work. If you want to help bees don't become a bee keeper -- though that's a great hobby -- plant forage. There's so much a loss of habitat and a ten foot-by-ten foot patch in a yard can make a difference. (For instructions on creating bee-friendly environments, check out the Colorado State Beekeepers Association guide.)

I leave Highland Honey carrying my jar of creamed wildflower honey -- very expensive at $10 for nine ounces, but as I can vouch, having now tasted it -- indeed indescribably good.

In a sign of hope that spring's unseasonable cold spells are finally over, there are healthy, bushy plants on several stands waiting to be set out: herbs, greens and tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Most of the farmers are still selling primarily spinach and other leafy goods, along with radishes and -- at Miller Farms -- asparagus. The orchardists of Ela Farms have brought fruit purees and jams, in particular the subtly wonderful butter they make with unsweetened braeburn apples. New this week: Farmer John Ellis has rhubarb, which finally got tall enough to pick, he says. And Jay and Cindy Wisdom have added whole ducks to their regular offerings of chicken. I'll let you know how these ducks taste when I've had a chance to cook the one I bought. Keep reading for more on rhubarb, including a recipe. Rhubarb is so hardy a regular in so many grandmothers' back gardens that I think we underestimate its deliciousness. It's also the first fruit of spring, easy to prepare and easy to freeze. I usually just wash the stalks, chop them into roughly one-inch pieces and put them in a baking dish with a large dollop of honey -- larger then you'd expect because rhubarb is so very sour (and no, I wouldn't use Highland's delicate creamed honey for this). I cover the dish with aluminum foil, place it on a cookie sheet (you can't imagine how sticky and unpleasant burned-on honey-rhubarb is to clean out of an oven), and bake at 350 degrees for around twenty minutes (the exact time depends on how much rhubarb you're cooking and how crowded the dish is(. You want the rhubarb softened and toothsome but not turned into mush. Though the mush actually tastes fine too.

I'm always skeptical when I'm told about wonderfoods that can cure everything from heart disease to cancer, but since I love rhubarb anyway I choose to believe the health claims people make for it -- and it's been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. (This article about a recent study says baked rhubarb -- at least baked English rhubarb -- has cancer-fighting potential.)

Here's a great rhubarb chutney, good as a side with chicken, pork, duck and lamb or to top a grilled cheese sandwich. I got the recipe years ago from what was then the Culinary School of the Rockies and is now the August Escoffier School of Culinary Arts: Rhubarb Chutney ¾ cup sugar 1/3 cup cider vinegar 1 Tb. peeled, minced fresh ginger 1 Tb. minced garlic 1 tsp. ground cumin ½ tsp. ground cinnamon ½ tsp. ground cloves ¼ tsp. dried crushed red pepper 4 cups fresh rhubarb (about 1 ½ lbs) cut into ½ inch cubes ½ cup chopped red onion 1/3 cup dried tart cherries or raisins

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a large heavy pot with a lid. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add rhubarb, onion and dried cherries or raisins. Increase heat to medium high and cook until rhubarb is tender and mixture slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Let mixture cool completely.

This can be refrigerated for several days, and I usually freeze batches for winter.

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