A guest post from my other half, Mr. BT:
One of the great pleasures of living in Israel is the country’s agricultural riches, something that already led to the Land of Israel being described in the Bible as eretz zavat chalav u’dvash – ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ The milk in this description was probably more from sheep and goats than cows; and the ‘honey’ was almost certainly the sweet syrup of the dates that grow all over the country, not bee honey. Nevertheless, the historical image of honey as an integral part of the country’s agricultural tradition remains strong within Jewish culture, and especially so at this time of year, the early autumn, when we celebrate Rosh Hashana, the New Year.
Like Pesach in the springtime, when Jewish tradition dictates that we place on the Seder table, and eat, certain foods with symbolic religious significance, we put on the Rosh Hashana table foods with symbolic importance. But unlike the Seder, where we eat bitter herbs and unleavened matza to remind ourselves of the Children of Israel’s suffering as slaves in Egypt before the Exodus, and hasty exit without having time to let our dough rise, the symbols on the Rosh Hashana table are all about the sweetness and success we wish upon ourselves for the coming year.
Of all the culinary symbols – which according to tradition include pomegranates, a fish, courgettes, and carrots – the most important, and the ones most associated with the festival, are apples and honey. We sprinkle honey on the challah or other festival bread to express our hope for a sweet year, instead of the salt that is traditionally used on Shabbat; we eat slices of apple dipped in honey as well; and the blessings over all these foods reflect our desire for success, fertility and sweetness. And of course, we keep on using honey during the following three weeks of festival period to reinforce the message.
It’s not only the honey itself that it important in Jewish culture. The honeybee, too, has a special significance in Jewish history: the name of the Biblical prophetess and judge Dvora (Deborah) – the Jewish people’s only woman leader until Golda Meir, and a pretty feisty leader in her own right – means ‘bee,’ and her name is still popular among Jewish and non-Jewish girls alike.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that when Baroness Tapuzina and I go shopping during the whole month before Rosh Hashana, every supermarket, grocery and stall in the shopping malls is crammed with jars of honey waiting to be consumed during the holiday period, and all of it locally produced. But, like pretty well everything else in Israeli food culture today, we have a tremendous variety of honey: from eucalyptus blossoms, thistle, clover, citrus, avocado and more. Not only that, but on top of the mass-market labels, there is a good variety of artisanal honey from small producers all over Israel.
To celebrate this wealth, the Baroness and I decided to visit a couple of local producers during the annual honey festival shortly before Rosh Hashana, both to taste a good selection, and to learn more about the Israeli honey industry.
Our first stop was at the shop of Simon’s Bee Farm in Kfar Sirkin, a moshav (agricultural village) just on the edge of highly urban Petach Tikva. Simon’s is special for two things in particular: one is that they sell all the output from their hives, which are scattered around most of the country, whereas most Israeli beekeepers sell at least part of their output to large companies, in particular the Yad Mordekhai label (originally owned entirely by the kibbutz of that name, but now owned by the Strauss food conglomerate). The other is that they have ten different varietals, including a honey that comes mainly from onion flowers, one from avocado and mango blossoms, and a Jordan Hills honey that the bees gather from avocado and lychee blossoms. Although we’re familiar with most of the other types, we had never tried these three before: I liked the onion honey more than the Baroness did (she found the oniony flavour off-putting), but we agreed that the other two were delicious, and bought a jar of each one.
Unlike in the United States, where honey is usually pasteurised and therefore remains clear and liquid, Orna Simon explained to us that none of the Simon’s honey is pasteurised, so some of it becomes thick and even crystallises in the jar. But she says that for many of their customers, especially the Russian immigrants, this is a sign of high quality.
From Kfar Sirkin, we went on to another moshav not far from our own called Tsofit (we do have beehives on the moshav where we live, but their output isn’t sold in the village). Here at Tsofit, beekeeper Yanay Sachs has a small factory at the back of his house, not only to produce and package the honey from his hives, but also to educate Israeli children about bees and honey.
Yanay showed us a very cute film (made mainly for children) about beekeeping and how honey is extracted from the hives, and then took us on a tour of the production facilities. Here, the beeswax seals covering the hexagonal cells in each frame are scraped off with a broad mechanical knife, so that the honey can flow out into a separator (where any solid bits of dead bees are removed) and then to large storage containers, from which the jars are filled.
Yanay doesn’t have the same wide selection of varietals as the Simon family bee farm, but he says that in the case of honey, as opposed to wine grapes, talking about varietals “is a bluff, because the bees fly to all the flowers within a range of three kilometres, and you don’t know where they’ve been.” A former head of the national beekeepers council, he also dismisses other beekeepers’ marketing of organic honey as a gimmick, saying that “organic honey is no more organic than anything else.”
However valid Yanay Sachs’ comments may be, we Israelis certainly like our honey: some 400-500 beekeepers around the country, of whom 100 are full-time professionals, own 90,000 hives, each one of which produces 30-40kg of honey every year. But this isn’t all for the sake of satisfying the national sweet tooth. Agriculture is still a central part of Israeli life just as it was part of the history of the Jewish people going back more than 3,500 years, and all the honey that Israelis consume during Rosh Hashana, and the rest of the year, is just a by-product of the bees’ real work: pollinating the country’s crops and ensuring the country’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural sector continues to produce all our wonderful food.