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AT THE MARKET / HONEY

Sweet Deal Headed for Shoppers : Producers say nectar-hungry bees are taking advantage of this season's abundance of wildflowers.

April 22, 1993|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County honey producers say they're as busy as their nectar-hungry bees right now, readying their sweet syrupy stuff for market.

"This is spring honey season," said beekeeper Ed McGuire of Camarillo. "You get your equipment prepared over the winter and have it ready to go for this time."

Heavy rainfall over the winter months has fueled an explosion of wildflower growth unseen here for years, local honey entrepreneurs said, thereby providing copious, nectar-rich blossoms for their bees.

That's good news for fanciers, too, who favor unprocessed, straight-from-the-hive honey, an abundance of which is available at all Ventura County farmers' markets.

Ojai beekeeper Brian Cox said the rains will result in the return of a premium honey type.

"This area is renown for its sage honey," said Cox, who maintains about 100 bee hives, which he sells at farmers' markets in Ojai (Friday), Thousand Oaks (Thursday) and Ventura (Saturday). Because the drought years took a heavy toll on sage growth, Cox said there has been little sage blossom nectar for the bees.

Now there's plenty.

"It will be outrageous this year," Cox said. In the next couple of weeks, he will transport some of his hives to Los Padres National Forest where sage is flourishing once again.

The idea, of course, is to bring the bees to the blossoms. Why? Because the various nectars--such as from orange, avocado and eucalyptus blossoms--impart distinct qualities to the honey's color, taste and aroma.

"I'm really looking forward to getting (honey from white sage blossoms) because I've never gotten it before," said Cox, who has been in the bee biz for eight years.

Sage honey has a light golden hue and delicate flavor. "It is a premium variety and a favorite for many people," Cox said.

The general rule when labeling honey is to know the bee's floral source. But that's not always easily determined. McGuire and Cox said bees travel from their hives in a radius of a few miles or more in search of nectar.

Just because a hive is placed in an orange grove, for instance, doesn't ensure the bees won't fly across the street for some avocado blossom nectar.

McGuire, who attends the Camarillo market (Saturday), never moves his 18 beehives from their two sites. A few overlook the Oxnard plains; the others sit in the Camarillo hills. "Whatever is in bloom that's what the bees are working," he said. Instead of specifying a certain variety of honey, his label reads "wildflower."

The honey produced by McGuire's bees will undergo subtle flavor and color variations as the seasons change. The bees will visit the blossoms of orange and other citrus, avocado, eucalyptus and a wide variety of wildflowers.

Here's a general breakdown on honey varieties common to Ventura County:

* Orange: A light-colored honey with a rich floral aroma--reminiscent of an orange grove--and taste.

* Avocado: Very dark in color. Stronger, heavier body than the more golden-hued honey. Taste is distinct and reminiscent of molasses.

* Eucalyptus: "Strong, distinctive taste, kind of a bitter flavor," Cox said. Aromatic. Amber color. Trees bloom in December and the honey is generally available in January and February.

When it comes time to reap the rewards of the hive's labor, beekeepers slice a thin layer of wax off the top of the honeycomb. Honeycomb frames are then placed in a rotating device, which creates a centrifugal force and drains the tiny hexagonal cells.

A word about crystallization. Many large retailers will heat their honey to 130 degrees for a sustained period. This procedure will halt the natural tendency of raw, unprocessed honey to crystallize.

According to Cox, when honey is heated in such a manner, the enzymes present in honey are destroyed. "These enzymes are beneficial and aid in digestion," Cox said. Some unprocessed honey types, such as sage and tupelo, will not crystallize, he said.

And while crystallization may prove to be aesthetically unpleasing to some, the integrity of the honey's taste is not altered. Simply place the container in hot water for a brief period and it will return to its former consistency.

McGuire and Cox sell their honey in containers of various sizes. McGuire offers 8-ounce-, one- and three-pound jars, as well as squeeze bottles. Cox offers one-, two- and three-pound glass jars. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $2 a pound.

SERVING SUGGESTION / MEAD

Honey can prove to be a tasty embellishment for any number of recipes--including those for desserts, salad dressings and barbecue sauces. But Ojai beekeeper Brian Cox has discovered a lesser-known way to enjoy his honey.

Cox practices the ancient tradition of fermenting honey.

This spirit of sorts is called mead, and according to the Academic American Encyclopedia, mead is one of the oldest fermented drinks from Europe. There was an industry dedicated to its preparation and sales in 15th-Century Germany and, the encyclopedia states, ancient Greeks and Romans were also known to imbibe the honey concoction.

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