Over the moon about honey

Jack Kirk on Chum. (Photographer unknown.)

MY maternal grandfather, Jack Kirk is a legend.

If you haven’t heard about the famous KwaZulu-Natal midlands farmer, horseman and beekeeper before, it’s probably because you have neither met me nor visited the Lufafa Valley near Ixopo in aforementioned province.

Locals will tell you that the ghost of Jack still roams the lush countryside on misty nights (i.e. almost every night), and you don’t have to be around me for long before I cunningly contrive to introduce a “tag” (tale about grandpa) to the conversation.

But, where the pre-determined subject is honey, there is no need for me to concoct a reason to recount stories like The Beekeeper Who Was Never Stung and Honey Cures All Ills.

Jack loved bees. Bare foot as usual – he only wore shoes to weddings and funerals – and dressed in his customary short-sleeved khaki shirt and shorts with a felt hat propped on his bald head, he hunted down wild swarms in the indigenous forest that enveloped a deep gorge near the farm. Having located a colony – typically in the branch of a tree or in the old burrow of ant bear – he carefully folded one of his massive, rough hands around the queen bee and then stood motionless while the rest of the swarm settled upon his hand and arm in a bustling ball of bodies.

He was never stung: “Bees are very smart,” he told me, whenever I asked him why the bees did not zap him as they crawled across his flesh seeking their sovereign. “They understand, because of my gradual and gentle movements, that I don’t want to harm them.”

With the mass of tiny passengers in place – an average bee colony comprises 40 000 bees – my grandfather walked home slowly. Once there, he introduced the swarm to one of the many little communities of wooden beehives that were strategically located across the farm. There were a dozen hives beneath the blue gums, eight more alongside grandmother’s rose garden, a cluster under the willows alongside the dam, and ten in the wattle plantation. They were thus situated because Jack wanted the bees to produce as many different varieties of honey as possible, and he knew that the flavour, colour and consistency of honey depends on the flowers from which the bees collect nectar.

When the air was thick with the rich aroma of honey, my grandfather would head off, bucket and knife in hand, in the direction of the hives. Inevitably, I followed and, from a safe distance (I was not convinced that bees would not harm me), watched him lift the lid of each hive, slide the wooden frames that were caked with honeycomb out, slowly slice the booty from its casing, and gently tip it into the bucket. Again, he wore his uniform of lightweight khaki. No cumbersome veil, hood, gloves or any other special protective clothing for this bee-compliant keeper.

“Robbing the bees?” he responded in horror, when I asked again why the bees did not sting him, particularly when he was clearly raiding their homes. “I am neither raiding nor robbing them. They are rewarding me for providing them with such lovely and safe surroundings. I respectfully take my reward with as little disruption as possible and always leave plenty of honey behind so that they can easily survive winter.”

Back at the farmhouse, large mounds of oozing honeycomb were wrapped up in muslin cloth and hooked onto the wooden rafters in the kitchen. There they hung, like giant golden raindrops, while big, sticky globules of clear honey dripped, sweet and slow, into wide metal basins below. And, as I trailed my older siblings in and out of the farmhouse, we did not resist the urge to plunge our fingers, first into the rising mass in the basins, and then into our mouths.

“I can taste the gum trees,” I’d brag.

“No, you moron,” a cruel brother would taunt, “that lot is from the hives near the pig sty!”

Raw, unpasteurized honey – sometimes still containing bits of wax and pollen – was eaten on, in and with almost everything we consumed on the farm. Every morning, bowls of mielie meal porridge were flooded with dollops of honey and melted butter. Honey was also lavishly smeared on toast. Later in the day, fat slices of freshly baked bread were coated with peanut butter that was, in turn, smothered in honey. Grandmother used honey instead of sugar in all her baking. And, come Sunday, roasts were glazed with a mixture of mustard and honey, and dessert was honey cake and cream.

The natural unpasteurized condition of the honey was, said Jack, fundamental to its quality, both in terms of taste and medicinal value. He believed – and I later discovered that his intuitive view is supported by scientific evidence – that, while honey that is heated up during pasteurization might retain its clear condition for longer than raw honey, heat-exposure can affect the appearance, taste and fragrance. Moreover, processing of honey removes pollen impurities, which Jack (and others) believed reduce sensitivity to allergies when eaten by allergy-prone individuals who live in the area from which the honey comes.

In fact, my grandfather believed that raw honey could remedy almost any an ailment. He applied it to cuts and bruises, both on humans, cattle and his thoroughbred stallion. It was consumed with lemon at the first hint of a common cold, and to treat a sore throat and/or cough. He mixed it with vinegar to dose us against worms. And it was the first thing he reached for when anyone had chapped lips or burned themselves on the big wood stove in the farmhouse kitchen.

“Who needs a doctor when you have honey? But don’t lick it all off,” he would say with a smile.

Beekeeping smiles, particularly those in the southern most area of the Western Cape, are waning somewhat at the moment. Honey produced there is currently under threat following an outbreak of American Foul Brood, which is an infectious disease that – while completely harmless to humans – affects the hatching of bees. There is much speculation about how this will impact honey producers and the deciduous fruit market, which depends on bees to pollinate fruit.

“It is difficult to guess what the impact of the disease will be,” says Kai Kiessling of Bee & Kie Honey Factory in Kleinmond. “I think we will only really feel the effect in three to five years time. In the interim, we continue to tend our hives with care and to enjoy the incredible honey produced in this region.”

In addition to bottling raw honey made by bees in the region, Bee & Kie makes honey-based cosmetics and a large range of honey-made gifts, organic tea, wax furniture polish, sweets and candles. The company also offers a free tasting of up to 15 different types of pure honey, including eucalyptus/blue gum, wild flower, Karoo wild flower, river gum, sugar gum, spider gum, apple, pumpkin, grape, prune, Kleinmond fynbos, vyeboom fynbos, South Cape fynbos, mountain fynbos and creamed honey.

“South Africans are generally not that knowledgeable about the many varieties of honey available,” says Kiessling, who qualified as a honeyman and beekeeper in Germany. “The tasting gives them the opportunity to compare and appreciate the wonderful variety and quality of the honey produced by these amazing little insects.”

Appreciate honey? Amazing little insects? Where have I heard those phrases before? Well, of course…my grandfather…the legendary Jack Kirk. Did I ever tell you about the time he…

(This was first published in The Weekender in May 2009. It was thereafter picked up by food editor extraordinaire, Brenda Neall and included on her website http://www.foodstuffsa.co.za. Regrettably, I do not know who took the photograph of Jack Kirk (in semi-formal attire, i.e. shoes but no socks) on his steed, Chum but I credit him or her in my ignorance anyway.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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