Saturday, 30 July 2011

Falling in the honey

Fallen in the honey is a wonderfully evocative expression my friend Dimitris once used to mean caught up in love: ‘I thought you had fallen in the honey with him’. I fell in the honey with the little Greek island of Tilos three years ago, eventually found a way to stay, and now I’m living next door to the honey factory where today, we’re making honey.
No money, no honey, they say… But Ntelos (Delos), born and bred in the village of Megalo Horio, has in the last few years turned his family’s tradition of working with bees into a small family business, Ntelos/Delos Honey. No honey, no money.

There’s a bee on my arm as I watch the process begin. I’ve got used to having bees around, hovering in the flowers and basil bushes, sometimes coming for a curious look in my kitchen when I’m working with the doors open. I can’t see or hear my nearest neighbours in this valley, but I like to think of it as a buzzing place…
Ntelos’ father Pavlos removes the wooden frames from the hives. ‘Don’t write about me, I’m just the worker!’ he says; but without the worker bees, there’d be no honey… The frames are like hanging folders in a filing cabinet, and each holds an uneven slab of honeycomb. The best ones are almost covered in sealed wax cells holding honey.

Pavlos takes a heated knife and skims off the outer edge of wax, releasing the clear golden liquid. It gleams as it pours off thickly. ‘Here, taste,’ he says, and hands me mouthfuls of oozing soft honeycomb.

It amazes me that it’s ready to eat straight out of the hive, this perfect food full of goodness – it needs nothing from us. What we’re doing here is just releasing and gathering it, cleaning it and putting it in jars. The actual making of honey has all been done by the bees. As Pooh bear said to the bee: the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.
The offcuts fall down onto a mesh and the honey will drain off, while the wax will be cleaned and packed into blocks for making new honeycomb.

Meanwhile, as each honeycomb is opened up, it is slid into a compartment in the centrifuge which will extract all the honey. When all the compartments are full, the machine is closed and starts spinning.
It circles to the left for a few minutes, to the right for a few minutes, slowly at first to protect the delicate honeycomb from breaking as it empties. If you were on one of those fairground rides that spin you round, you’d be saying: that wasn’t too bad, was it? Then it starts to the left again but fast this time, causing the honey to start pouring, thick and caramel-coloured, into the vat. And then it stops and spins fast to the right, at which point if you were on the fairground ride you’d be thinking this was a bad idea.
But it’s only a bee or two that was on the ride, having been asleep perhaps in one of the honeycombs, and now they’ve fallen in the honey and are perhaps thinking ‘But what a way to go…’

The smell of warm honey is intoxicating. It’s thirty plus degrees outside and the hives were standing out there not long ago, the bees happily coming and going, blissfully unaware. Now we’ve taken their food, Ntelos will feed syrup to the bees for a while so they don’t die or leave.
In the old days, the wheel was spun using a hand-crank, and there was no electric heated knife for cutting off the wax. The hives, when Ntelos’ grandfather made honey, were cylindrical stone jars, still standing in the factory.

After the machine stops, the frames with their emptied, intact honeycombs are taken out. They’ll be kept at a low temperature in the big fridge to kill any bacteria, then used again. The new, pale yellow honeycombs are the best – the bees prefer them to the old, dark brown ones, as if preferring the modern IKEA look to dreary antiques. When there are flowers in the fields, the bees can fill up a honeycomb in as little as a week.

‘Here, take some more,’ says Pavlos, scooping up spoonfuls of honeycomb that looks like treacle sponge onto a plate. My hands are getting too sticky to take notes.
‘This honey is made from herbs, votana, flowers that are healthy for your body, and thyme. We don’t use any chemicals.’ (Aha, the word for herbs is the root of botanic!) Tilos was always famous for its herbs that grow wild everywhere, and bee-keeping is popular here: its mountainsides are mostly empty except for hundreds of tiny chapels, plus bee hives and goats. The Koumpanios family grow a lot of food and are passionate about never using chemical pesticides or fertilisers in their gardens and fields: it’s not only bad for you, but the bees and the birds eat from there.

Having become a conservation area some years ago, Tilos is a deeply natural environment with little to pollute it. At the honey factory, we’re surrounded by goats and donkeys, crickets and lizards and birds. There’s nothing added to the honey, nothing that isn’t pure and natural.
Life certainly is sweet when you live next door to the honey factory.


  1. Mmmmm... Greek honey is the best! I always try to buy Greek honey unless I'm seduced by local honey at a farmer's market. I remember walking through the countryside in Folegandros and crushing wild herbs under my feet, with the scent rising up in the heat. Beautiful. I also got stabbed and spiked by lots of sharp plants, too - but I didn't mind, as it was was so sunny and free out there. Hard to believe that was back in 1997 - I really should go back to Greece sometime...!

  2. You make me want to move to Tilos! What are you going to make with your honey?

  3. See Alex, that is why you are a chef and I am at best a sous-chef... I just... eat the honey. Someone did recommend a salad dressing I could make, but if you saw my village shops you'd realise I don't even have the ingredients for that, not this week... The closest I've come to making anything is mixing it with tahini, which is delicious, and maybe some yoghurt too, and just eating it from the bowl. I would, by the way, highly recommend moving to Tilos!