A Taste of Honey

March 13th, 2016

To Bee or Not to Bee… That is the question.

Not people asked Father Christmas for a day’s introduction to beekeeping. Neither did I: it’s just that my wife buys the best presents, and knows me so well. Last year we stayed at a B & B in Wales, and I was very taken by the bee observatory that was in the breakfast room – so much so that I developed an interest in apiculture, from a distance anyway – more a curiosity in this new world I was entering into.

Hence the surprise gift. Somewhat naively, I presumed I’d be donning the suit and handling the queens straight away during the six hour taster day; not just I, but the nine others who had booked on to the same day long course.

How wrong we were – but for all the right reasons.

We set off early on a Sunday morning, heading for Claremont Farm on the Wirral. We’d been before, for the Wirral Food Festival a few years back, though hadn’t seen the new shop and café, which is clear very popular with those across the water and which I can heartily recommend for both a meal or a shopping spree, what with its delectable produce.

Back to the bees, and the first hour was spent learning the basics about bees and hives.

The first thing I learned was how those blokes with bee beards manage to do so successfully, and that blew me away. But there was so much more to discover.

The worker bee’s life cycle is fascinating in itself. So very specific: Bees grow for three weeks then, when hatched, spend their first couple of days cleaning the cells in which the queen will lay her eggs. For the next few days, it will help feed the queen, before building honeycombs , then storing nectar and pollen, before protecting the entrance. After that, it’s all about leaving the hive and collecting pollen and nectar from flowers; this can be for a week or a couple of months, depending on events.
They have, of course, been around for 30 million years. The only insect that produces food for us, it is said that they don’t like smoke because it reminds them of the meteor striking earth which killed off the dinosaurs. Their energy levels and metabolism mean that apparently, it would take one ounce of honey to fuel a bee’s flight around the world, and for those in fear of a sting, it would take 1100 stings to kill a man.

Talking of which, all these fascinating facts and more were explained to us by the course leader, a wonderful gentleman, Nigel Brierley, whose honey is the best I’ve ever tasted. He divulged the equipment he uses when visiting his thirty hives, gave lots of guidance and useful tips as well as stories from his years of beekeeping. What is remarkable about Nigel is that he promised his wife in 1972 when they married, and she announced her love of honey, that he would keep bees one day. It took him 37 years to do so, it might take me the same, but after a few hours in his company, I am committed to following in his footsteps when time and money allows.

We had a wonderful lunch together, further proof if it were needed that the Claremont Farm kitchen is one worth revisiting, and perused the guide books and catalogues alongside the costs involved, whilst discussing our epistemological standpoints where the idea of beekeeping was concerned.

Why were we so in love with the notion?

It was a bit like Ten Little Indians, strangers all explain their reasons for being in the same room that day. Various responses were issued, from a love of animals to lots of spare time, and being bored housewives to having a love of honey.

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Despite the freezing conditions, we ventured out to visit the hives, and although no bees were seen, it was still an incredible experience to see an expert in action, preparing as he did their feed – a bag of cake icing.

CAKE ICING! I know, how strange. You cut a little hole in the packet, place it over the feeding hole of the hive, and let the clever bees do their magic, they’re so intelligent it’s scary.
Anyway, on to the honey. The reason why many must take up the hobby, and Mr Brierley’s tasted like nothing I’d ever eaten before. Obviously, we don’t lavish loads of loot on the honey we consume, though from now on, won’t be buying cheap supermarket options given that I know now that only local honey is worth worrying about. Much of what we buy off the shelves, isn’t even from the EU, thus causing potential problems for British bees.

Similarly, don’t waste your money on Manuka – Nigel struggled to even say the name, given the antipathy many beekeepers show towards the apparently magical version of New Zealand produce, of which, I learned, most of which isn’t even ‘real’.

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The winner of the taste test, by the way, was the creamed honey: a pearly white revelation, like nothing I’d ever eaten before. I bought a jar, and a little squeezy honey bear for my own little bee. He also had candles, beeswax, soap, a plethora of honeyed beauty.

“The joy of keeping bees is that they never fail to surprise you” (Andrew Davies)

Whilst I didn’t really know what to expect, the experience just blew me away. I came home with a head literally buzzing with thoughts. I’d learnt so much, in the space of a few hours, and wanted to get started straight away yet realised it might take years, decades… It seems such a simple pastime, but can be very expensive, timekeeping and dangerous.

Since going on the course I also saw for the first time, the incredible episode of Tales of the Unexpected, in which Timothy West feeds his under-eating baby some royal jelly with some hideous consequences. I was actually on a course recently and got talking about short stories… the facilitator started raving over Roald Dahl’s finest and said she remembered the bees novella more than any other:

Also, it will take money. Since going on the course, one of my students has taught me that the Cockney rhyming slang for money is ‘bees and honey’ which seems somewhat serendipitous.
Still, the demands involved all appear minimal every time I taste that honey, and so my taste of a different life during an unforgettable day on the farm brought with it – that favourite saying of mine -a bundle of contradictions. I now want to keep bees more than ever, though realise the time needs to be right: whenever that may bee.

In the meantime, I’ll plan on getting another tattoo.

COMING UP: We think about what might be inside, as I start to prepare for containerisation.

Before then: If you are interested in beekeeping, you can find out more at www.bbka.org.uk and you can see the equipment needed, at www.thorne.co.uk

Half Time Oranges

August 10th, 2015

“I’ve been away, I’ve been working… But now I’m back, and I need to know that you’re still there.
I need to know that you still care…
Of course you do!”

We are at the mid point of the summer holidays, and school, plus those shopping lists, currently feel a long way away.

After three weeks of normal life, a little refresher is required, hence the titular pun, nit just because the football’s back but also because orange is the new black in terms of being my new favourite colour, and not just because it is the only colour named after a fruit, despite popular belief that the opposite was true.

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Anyway, back to the summer, and orange was a prominent colour during our trip to Italy. Betsy’s first foray abroad, she flew brilliantly, and was in good spirits when we touched down in Tuscany, so much so that her happy shouts of “MUMMY!” “NANNIE!” and “GRANDAD!” across the car hire office were met with smiles by all apart from the Hertz rental woman who scowled and moaned, complaining that she had to work in the noise, and that B should be quiet.

Welcome to Italy? Are you serious, I asked, to be met with a Tuscan profanity.

“Ma’ va te ne a fanculo,” I said.

Other than that, it was seven days of heaven, replete with Strega, sunshine, swimming, sightseeing in beautiful Siena, bistecca, Firenze, Peroni (the proper stuff) a few shopping lists too, and reading the really quite wonderful Pirlo autobiography as well as the Gazzetta everyday which whetted my appetite for what was to come at home.

Meanwhile, I adopted the look of a gondolier as we roamed the hot Florentine streets, marvelling at the signage and the lifestyle and wishing we could stay longer in the archipelago. I tasted lampredotto for the first time, drank grappa at 11am, caught a gecko to show B what nature abroad looked like, bought half decent bottles of wine for a Euro and most of all, indulged in quality family time that gets forgotten about when you live your life by a bell alongside unruly teens.

The holiday of a lifetime, then, for us all, and hopefully the first of many for Boo, even if she was secretly suffering from chicken pox throughout and the spots appeared once we got home, coming down to earth with a bump, alongside a flat tyre, lots of rain, and somewhat bizarrely, dead pigeons.

Now I wrote two years ago exactly, that an unwell pigeon appeared outside the flat as if a sign that B was on her way (she arrived a week later) and it was a test for me to nurse it overnight. It symbolised, I thought, the arrival not just of our daughter but of Duncan Ferguson as first team coach who I’d seen that day at a pre-season friendly with my Dad.

This is him, the day he came to school.

Duncan was my idol as a teenager and as a young man. My GCSE art exam was a portrait of him leaving court. Yes, many will say he never fulfilled his potential, and he did go to jail for an on-field misdemeanour following lots of off-field ones but he gave us hope, a voice, he was an enigma, a genius, mysterious yet open and both loved and loving. He even made it into my best man’s wedding speech.

Fast forward two years, I’m at another pre-season friendly with my Dad – Duncan’s testimonial no less, which ended in tears with me reminiscing during his post-match address – and then, later that evening, at about 8pm we heard a thud, went out to investigate and a baby pigeon lay dead on next door’s drive.

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Meanwhile, a lonely feather and a ghostly outline, like a chalk drawing at a murder scene, clung to the glass.

I’d seen it with its parent, presumably learning to fly, and couldn’t help but feel sadness at the episode, signalling the end as it did, of my project photographing dead pigeons: although, somewhat serendipitously, my best friend / man had that very day sent me a specimen he had seen, a nicer way to close the project, methinks, alongside this classic that my father in law introduced me to the night I started writing this post.

The next day sees us off to look for garden sheds. How things have changed, you might think, and you’d be right: apart from Italy, another highlight of the holiday at half time is two days spent nitromorsing a fireplace to restore it to a former glory and it’s taking time but coming on well. So, after choosing said shed, we opted for lunch out, and after our last visit to Formby when I saw three current and former Everton stars, I wondered what – or more accurately, whom – awaited us this time.

Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed: two current Liverpool ‘stars’ who front NIVEA campaigns, having a cosy lunch I tried to ignore, and, on the next table, a former Reds player whose little boy played with B as he sipped his wine, which might have resulted in a missed chance the following weekend… the strange world of professional footballers, who took home loads of boxes of pizza and pasta whilst I got a discount code from my inbox in advance of the bill, and they presumably went home to their mansion whilst we came home to – a shopping trolley?

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The dead pigeon had gone, whilst opposite the house had appeared a TESCO trolley. I immediately thought of the excellent Gomez album of b-sides from back in the noughties. I searched for said hotline, obviously nowadays there’s an app for everything so downloaded that instead, and I used it to report the trolley but after two days (enjoyed drinking among the hipsters in town and then, in the night garden) when it hadn’t been collected as the app promised, I contacted TESCO and they’d arrived within the hour to take it away.

This all brought me back to the shopping lists and, strangely, the future.

There are lots more lists on their way, don’t you worry, including some from Italy you’ll be pleased to know, but I just wonder whether the excellent series HUMANS will ‘come true’ anytime soon, what with their synths who do everything for their owners and can remember shopping lists easily, and if shopping lists – just like holiday memories and the pigeon – become a thing of the past…

056 (MELON?)

July 16th, 2015

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A nice mix of specificity and disconcerting vagueness.

What seems at first to be particularly healthy, what with its fruit and benecol, then veers towards organic brand names and cheapish beers with a few intriguing question marks along the way.

The pedant in me would expect anyone who plans so meticulously their brand of peanut butter (what’s wrong with Sun-Pat?) to know that the ham has Parma in Italy as its Denominazione di origine proteta.

It then ends with another metaphorical question mark, in terms of type of juice needed.

I’m pretty sure it would have been organic, whatever flavour.

055 (BOGGY)

July 16th, 2015

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Another list with multiple authors.

Another with items crossed out.

Another bundle of contradictions.

What stands out most on here is actually its title.

It should be quite self explanatory that this should be a shopping list, quite why the authors needed to write this in again is beyond me, perhaps it was drummed into them by their English teachers that every page needed a title? This idea is heightened by their care to spell chewing gum correctly: a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, that I, who do the same, should serendipiditously retrieve and write about this list.

The list itself contains a wide range of products, going from the sublime (high end goods such as butternut squash) to the quite ridiculous – I have an idea of what boggy is, nor basta, and whilst some ingredients seem suitable for an OAP, others we assume are for babies, especially the ones written in the younger looking and more feminine manuscript. Meanwhile, others are pretty much illegible.

But at least we know it’s part of a shopping list.

054 (TOM)

July 16th, 2015

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A strange, minimalist, combination of items: one food, one toiletry, one confectionery.
Again, the notions of memory resonate, and the difficulty of remembering three items. Sesame Street reminds me most days, that even a child can recall three things when on an errand, what with its classic animation, I can remember:

Without wanting to slight anyone with amnesia or worse, surely the author could have remembered these three things, or not wasted paper and instead written them on their hand as I would have done in this situation, especially with the surreal mix of products…

I don’t really understand the link between them: maybe I’ve got the abbreviations wrong, and it’s simply a reminder that Tom has an interview so needs to smell nice in preparation.