Chefs are becoming food artisans, and two of the most popular foods, homemade honey and cheese, have created quite a stir.
Who would have thought honey could run in short supply? As scientists continue to study colony collapse disorder—the sudden disappearance of worker bees in colonies across the globe—they have pointed to chemical insecticides used in large-scale agriculture as one of the potential culprits. Concerned about this ongoing problem, more chefs have sought to support small-batch honey producers and, like Taylor and Casie Hall of Apis Restaurant & Apiary, become beekeepers themselves.
“Some research shows that neonicotinoids, a newer form of insecticide banned in Europe, weren’t killing the bees directly, but were causing problems with the fertilization and reproductive process, leading to fewer worker bees and a weaker hive overall,” explains Chef Taylor Hall, who—in partnership with his wife—opened the restaurant partly in response to this ongoing phenomenon. “Bee colonies face constant threats from mites, pests, and other invaders, but when the worker bees are healthy and the population strong, they are able to defend the hive.” In the past five years, however, bees have been losing that ability, and some experts point to the toxicity of pollen that is created by neonicotinoids and, in turn, ingested by honey bees, other insects, and even hummingbirds.
With 20 hives situated at the back of the 6-acre property, Apis Restaurant & Bee Apiary, which opened outside Austin, Texas, in February 2015, produces honey for its dishes and cocktail menu. The restaurant also brings in schoolchildren and community members to teach them about beekeeping. However, the Halls actually began beekeeping at their home six years ago, after learning more about colony collapse disorder and taking a beekeeping class. At the time, they were running a boutique catering company and planning their next move. “We learned about how important bees are in the food cycle, and we wanted to do more to protect them,” Chef Hall says.
“Bees ingest nectar from flowers and essentially regurgitate the protein food source in cells within the hive, capping it with wax to make honeycombs,” he explains. As the sweet syrup loses moisture, cures, and ages, it turns into that golden treat typically found on menus and in grocery stores, and it becomes food for the bees during the year—especially during the winter.
Chef Daven Wardynski, at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, has also become a beekeeper, growing and maintaining seven colonies on the property’s farm over the past two years. Like Hall, Wardynski harvests more of the honey in the spring and summer and less in the fall, leaving more for the bees to consume during the winter months. Depending on weather and other factors, the restaurant might collect up to 150 pounds of honey per hive, per year. “Bees don’t make honey for us,” Chef Wardynski says. “They make it for themselves to eat in non-blooming times of year. We just rob it from them.”
For his part, Hall protects the queen bee laying eggs at the bottom of the vertical hive by using a screen so she won’t be disrupted when some of the top-level “supers”—or wooden frames—are removed. Once out of the hive, these frames are quickly put on trucks and driven off-site for the honey extraction.
“Bees get a little aggressive when you open up the hive and start taking their hard work away, so you have to work quickly,” says Chef Hall, noting some newer models allow beekeepers to turn a crank on the side of the hive and collect honey through a spout without having to take apart the structure.
Both Hall and Wardynski use a similar method to extract the honey: Using a beekeeper’s “hot knife,” they scrape away the honeycomb from the frames, placing them in an extractor to spin for 10 to 12 minutes. That starts the flow of honey, which is filtered and drained into 5-gallon buckets for kitchen use or into small glass jars for display purposes. Recently, Wardynski started barrel-aging the honey in an on-site room that is also used for barrel-aging tequila. Similarly, Hall uses the leftover honeycomb to infuse sweetness into a local Texas bourbon.
Another consideration for honey as an ingredient is that bees pollinate different flowers, and that impacts the taste of the honey. “Honey from the gallberry flower in the spring is light and floral, while the palmetto honey in the summer is deep black, like motor oil, but tastes rich and buttery,” Chef Wardynski explains. “Wildflower honey in October is a mishmash as the bees pick up everything from purple thistle to American beautyberry and beggar tick pollen.”
At Apis, the bees feast on flouring wild mustard, prickly pear cactus, and even mesquite trees, the latter of which can lead to a more mineral-forward taste than the rich and fruity flavor commonly associated with wildflower honey. Chef Hall will make everything from honey vinegar, using a clear grain alcohol and mother starter, to homemade honey buns, to a green coriander-infused honey glaze that is used for a pan-seared duck breast paired with a Japanese-style local Chickasaw plum sauce.
He’s even infused homemade miso with lightly fermented bee pollen for a more floral, fragrant taste, mixing the miso with butter and dehydrated carrot and parsnip chips to create a crust for cod that’s simmered in a rich fish stock along with more of the miso.
Chef Wardynski uses his honey in an apple cider vinaigrette tossed with greenhouse greens, local pecans, and artisan Boursin cheese. He also incorporates the sweet treat in the hotel’s signature honey cake and in its ice cream, both served with a honey toffee and honey caramel topping, or he mixes the honey with liquid nitrogen to make honey milkshakes occasionally spiked with bourbon for a grown-up version.
Artisanal cheeses, those made from raw milk, have become another contested topic. The debate over raw milk is between officials of the FDA, who are concerned about potential foodborne illnesses, and artisan cheesemakers, who swear by the healthful and flavorful benefits of non-pasteurized dairy.
While the FDA prohibits the sale of fresh or unaged cheese made using raw milk, it allows the sale of raw cheese that has been aged for a minimum of 60 days and is clearly labeled as unpasteurized. However, the FDA has considered banning those cheeses, too, much to the chagrin of many cheesemakers.
Proponents of the product argue raw-milk cheeses contain naturally healthy bacteria that can protect against illness. Additionally, they point out that raw-milk cheeses introduce unique flavors because it is typically made using high-quality milk from smaller-batch dairy producers.
As fewer artisans produce raw-milk cheese because of the fear surrounding changing regulations, some chefs have taken raw-milk production into their own hands—albeit on a smaller scale in their restaurants. At Spoke in Somerville, Massachusetts, Chef John daSilva offers a rotating chef’s selection of cheese each night, including many raw varieties from Vermont and Virginia, and recently, he started making his own. Chef daSilva sources goat milk from a local farm to make a raw cheese by slowly heating the milk to 80 degrees, pasteurizing or cooking out the flavorful enzymes. He then adds rennet powder, letting the mixture sit overnight. The next morning, Chef daSilva cuts the curds and strains them through a cheesecloth, separating the curds from the whey. Once the curds have sufficiently drained, he seasons it with salt to taste, serving the raw cheese simply on his cheeseboard to showcase its natural creamy, tangy flavor.
While daSilva plans to experiment with aging the raw-milk cheese, for now, he sticks to artisan-made raw cheese for use in dishes. Using leftover beet greens, he makes an au gratin by incorporating cream and topping the greens with a mixture of sourdough breadcrumbs and raw Blue cheese, baking until the crust gets bubbly.