That yellow stuff inside the happy, plastic bear? That might not be honey. Not technically.
More than three-quarters of supermarket honey, according to a new study by Food Safety News, has been ultra-filtered — against federal regulations — to remove all traces of pollen. Why? It could be to hide its unregulated origins in China or India and probable chemical contamination. Yum.
To taste real honey, you must go to the hive. You have to drive way, way out west, to a small farm on the South Anna River. You'll know you're in the right place when you see the wrecked farmhouse on the hill. When you smell the lavender smoldering in Cy Bearer's bee smoker. When you hear the hum.
Bearer, a 29-year-old landscaper and horticulturalist, bought this 20-acre farm a little more than two years ago, intending to cultivate Japanese maples. Then his Uncle Alfie Neuman, a hobby beekeeper, placed a few hives on the property. Bearer helped tend them. He watched the bees labor, hover and dance. Then he had to have hives of his own. Bearer Farms has since become one of the biggest producers of natural, raw honey in central Virginia.
The flavor changes with the season. In the early spring it smells subtly of clover blossoms. When the tulip poplar trees bloom a few months later, the honey darkens and becomes molasses-rich, with a sour bite. Bearer's honey is triple-filtered, the old-fashioned way, but not pasteurized or treated.
There's no other food in which the flavor of the components — nectar and pollen — translates so directly into the flavor of the final product, Bearer says. "Such an honest and simple taste."
Eighty candy-striped wooden hives dot his river property. (He has 140 more on neighboring farms.) On an unseasonably warm November day, Bearer uses his smoker to calm the residents of one hive. He lifts a honey-fat frame to the sun. The wax cells glow like a church window.
"Dig your finger in there," Bearer urges. It's OK, he says. The bees are good little handywomen. "They'll fix it by the end of the day."
The honey is light, lovely, sweet. "As fresh as it gets," Bearer says, with pride. — Melissa Scott Sinclair
Find Bearer Farms Honey at Ellwood Thompson, Whole Foods Market, Tom Leonard's Farmer's Market, Strawberry Street Market, Kuba Kuba, the Hoppy Dog and Urban Farmhouse.