The Taste of Here
What was it like to live in Minnesota last summer? I mean, not counting the experience of the people, the politics, or the cars. What was it like to live under the sky, with the rain and the flowers?
That wind, you remember it, it came sometimes from the south and was wet, but it usually blew from the west and was clear. Our sky, it was blue and brilliant some days, gray and cold others; why, sometimes it was striped with marshmallow bands, and other days it was piled miles high with majestic mountains of purple-shadowed cumulus. And what of the flowers, the spikes of blue vervain in the marshes, the orchidlike profusion of white faces in the basswoods, the little puffballs of clover in the meadow. Don't forget the rain. Spitty and cold in April; warm, fat, and violent in August, how would you express our rain? What was it like, to live in our world?
If you feel like there's no possible way of answering that question, I have a suggestion: Try some Ames Farm honey. This honey, this honey says our life, says our natural life as only nature can say it, expressed through honeybees.
Sample some of these Ames Farms honeys and you learn: Here is the taste of two weeks in a particular grove of soaring basswood trees digging their roots into the sheltered floodplains of the Minnesota River Valley. Here is the flavor of a month in the life of a stand of gnarled, wind-twisted horse chestnut trees living by the Blue Earth River. Here is the essence of a scrubby and scrappy stand of red sumac soaking up the sun out by Parley Lake, near the town of St. Boni. And the aforementioned are merely three from the six hundred individual bottlings of honey produced at Ames Farm over the course of a spring-to-fall honey vintage.
Yes, I said six hundred. Six hundred different flavors of here. Six hundred different postcards from where. It has often been said of our modern world that it suffers because there is no there there. Here is an antidote, because in this honey, there is nothing but here here.
For example, I am right now looking at six different jars of Ames Farm honey, and each is a different color, comes from a different place, and has a completely different floral origin. The elderberry honey is as clean as mist and tastes of limes and gardens in late spring riot. The boneset tastes like autumn pork, roasting in a pan with mint leaves, raspberry tea, and lemon peels. The precious limited-edition buckwheat tastes like an afternoon in an old library, all gingerbread, port, currants, leather, tobacco, and woodsmoke.
This is the most flabbergasted I've been by a local product in five years. Furthermore, and no kidding, I think these might be some of the best honeys in America. Certainly they are among the most intriguing, and each is unique.
This phenomenal accomplishment is pulled off by a married couple: Brian and Linda Fredericksen. Brian keeps the bees and makes the honey, and Linda does everything else, from packaging-wrangling to holding down the day job that makes all of this possible. (If anyone ever asks you why there are so many more interesting food producers in Europe, tell them: health insurance.)
I went out to visit with Brian while he made honey on one rainy October day, and saw how this remarkable Ames Farm honey is made. Here's the quickest possible overview. Now, honeybees, for the sake of this story, honeybees live in stacks of handmade wooden boxes. Stacks of boxes hidden far from anywhere that man sprays pesticides or herbicides. Now, some of the boxes in a beehive stack are filled with frames that slide in and out, frames that look like thin drawers for storing paper but have a beeswax screen in the middle.
The honeybees find these frames very helpful, because their great hobby is making food for later. Once they come home from a long day of visiting flowers (it takes about a million flower-visits to make a half-pound of honey), make their honey, and crawl down into a frame to put it away, they find that someone has helpfully already built the rear wall of the six-sided cell they needed to build to store their honey. So they finish the cell, fill it with honey, and top it off with wax. Once a box of these frames, called a super, is filled with honey, the bees move on to the next super. Once a super has been filled, or partially filled, all a beekeeper has to do is take this wooden box of frames home. There he can take one of these frames out of its box and he will see something that looks like a hardback book coated with yellow wax. If he scrapes off the top and bottom layers of wax, voilà! The honey cells will be revealed, and all the honey will come dripping out.
And that, that is all that Brian Fredericksen does. Once these booklike frames are scraped, he puts them into a sort of wagon wheel of slots inside a stainless steel drum and sets the wheel to spinning, and centrifugal force spins all the honey out of the cells. Brian then strains out any bits of wax and bottles the honey. He uses a laser printer to add specific information about the specific honey in question to his preprinted honey labels and then sticks the labels on the jars. Because one of these supers, one of these boxes full of frames, only makes 50 or 100 jars of honey, depending on how productive the bees were, it doesn't take too long. Frankly, it's about as much honey as you and your grandma could comfortably bottle up in a long afternoon.
Except Brian Fredericksen does this 600 times in a season, and, as you yourself might have noticed, there aren't 600 long afternoons in a summer. So he stays up all night, in a little vinyl-sided honey house beside a lake, a honey house that looks like a garage and is only about as big as you'd need for some storage, three honey-spinners, a microscope with which to identify pollen, a couple of boxes of disposable spoons for tasting honey, and a computer with which to record the correlations detected between honey, pollen (and thus, floral source), and bee location.
Those little notations that Fredericksen added with the laser printer are what allows you, with your bottle, to go to the Ames Farm website and find out exactly when and where your honey was made.
For instance, my bottle of elderberry honey comes from a farm in Martin County established in 1857; it comes from hive 857, super A. It was harvested last July 8. The web implies that if I want to drive myself insane, I could spend the rest of the month driving around to the various Kowalski's and co-ops looking for hive 857's other super, super B. I just might because I am simply mad about their super A. Why, it has a light, almost neon pale green color, and a light, subtle lemon-lime taste. It's clean and sunny and lilting, it's so pure and clean it's nearly buoyant in the mouth, and it has a whimsical floral finish, as if you've just caught a whiff of perfume from a pretty girl leaving the garden party. Who knows--maybe super B, harvested on July 20, had an even more intense floral sense, because now I have looked at my planner and realized it was pouring rain on July 5 and who knows what that did to my honey? That would certainly teach me a few things about life. (Speaking of life, the honeybees of the century farm in Martin County were orphaned this year when the man who had been caring for them for the last 60 years died, but Brian Fredericksen took them into his heart, and now they do what they ever did.)
My bottle of boneset honey from Center Creek, hive 751, super B, is dark, and it tastes of molasses and raspberry tea. It tastes slightly meaty, like pork juices concentrated in a pan; it has a long, long finish like a minty burnt lemon peel. It was collected on August 26 from a beehive in a cow pasture on Center Creek, not too far from Faribault. Boneset was a widely used plant in Native American and early American medicine; I've read that the name came along because it was used to cure a painful sort of flu called "break-bone fever," and also that it was thought that the way the leaves looked indicated it would heal bones. Who knows? Either way, honey, all honey, has amazing medical properties--it's antibacterial; anti-inflammatory; and heals ulcers, burns, flesh wounds, and eye wounds. In Australia and New Zealand they've spent millions of dollars studying the medical effects of honeys made from native plants, and they now use honey made from Australian manuka honey to cure antibiotic-resistant staph infections and wounds. Here in America, Ames Farm might be the only place producing boneset honey, and if it has any magical medical properties, I certainly hope you'll write a grant proposal and save us all from our ignorance.
Finally, there is my precious jar of limited-edition buckwheat, from a now-lost organic farm, hive 906, super D. Most Ames Farm honeys cost $5 for a nine-ounce jar at the farmers' market or about $8 in stores, but twice in his life Brian Fredericksen has found honey so astonishingly great, even by his standards, that he has called it a limited edition and raised the price by a whole dollar. This stuff is only available locally at France 44, and it has as many layers and as much nuance as a fine wine: 906D tastes like mahogany and tobacco, earth and whiskey, peat and port, a roast and a gingerbread and a long night in front of the fire with a fascinating Russian in big boots. This honey will never be re-created, not just because of the ever-changing nature of sun and rain, but because the organic farm it came from has been sold and converted to conventional, pesticide-heavy production. I cherish this honey.
I would go on and on about Painters' Creek common tansy honey, from hive 6, super F (light and sweet, orange blossom and thyme!) or the Minnetrista Meadows basswood honey, from hive 307, super A (mentholated and minty, grassy and green, like a Portuguese vinho verde, with a eucalyptus garnish), but I think you get the idea: Fredericksen calls them "single source" honeys, or "entities," or even, sometimes, "portraits." However you think of them, I think you can see that they are the land, the flowers, and the rain, as spoken by honeybees.
Part of the reason these honeys are so good is because of what Fredericksen doesn't do: He doesn't blend the honey from one super with another super. He doesn't boil it. He doesn't mess with it at all. It is "raw."
The Ames Farm way is a completely opposite process of how honey is usually made. You see, lots of commercial honey makers keep their bees on the backs of trucks and drive them all over the country, showing up in whichever orchard, berry patch, or citrus grove needs pollinating. Then they take all the honey that they gather, from the almond groves, the grapefruit trees, the strawberry patches, or what have you, and then they dump it into one batch and boil it. This keeps it from crystallizing, from spoiling, and from ever tasting like much. If the honey that comes out of this dump-and-boil is pretty lightly colored, they label it "clover" honey. If what comes out is pretty dark, it's called "wildflower," or, increasingly these days, "basswood" honey. In France, if you want to call something lavender honey, it has to, by law, have evidence of lavender pollen in it. Not so here. "For me, it's almost impossible to sell sweet clover honey," says Fredericksen, wincing in physical pain at the insult paid to his little bees when they labor among those humble flowers. "People look at it and say, 'I've had that, it's nothing special.'"
The reason commodity honey producers don't go to the trouble that Brian Fredericksen does is because, well, I'll let him explain: "It's insanity to do this the way I do it." Brian places his hives in locations that are ideal for bees--which is to say, that are heck for humans to get at. He has hives situated in secluded, road-free areas of the Minnesota River Valley, on multimillionaires' private prairie, on a chestnut-tree research farm, and in even more secret places than that. He visits his hives constantly and tries to empty them as often as he can in order to capture, say, the brief flowering of blue vervain, so that it doesn't get mixed up with other honey gathered from later-blooming flowers.
Who would level this much scrutiny and method on plain old honey?
A former research engineer, of course. Brian Fredericksen gave up his job at 3M (he had his name on five patents) so that he could raise apples, run with his sled dogs, and, generally, soak in as much sky and wind as his time on earth would allow. He bought his 40 acres due west of the Twin Cities, in that fertile, big-sky part of the state where rolling hills of prairie tumble into bottoms of wetland and lake. He started off in apples and added honey to the mix seven years ago.
He now has 16 different sites, spread over a good 100 square miles, and might visit each hive every week, or every other week, to check on the honey and the health and happiness of the bees. "Do you remember last year's bizarre spring?" Fredericksen asked me. "It never got warm, and the bees need temperatures in the 60s for them to get up and out--the bees were starving." That's part of the art of beekeeping--keeping the bees happy, understanding what's stressing them out. "That's why I'd never park them anywhere near a feedlot," explains Fredericksen. "They're creatures of their environment, and they need pristine, beautiful environments to thrive."
Fittingly enough for bees that thrive in beautiful environments, the honeys themselves are thriving in the Twin Cities' most beautiful restaurants: The comb honey has been showing up on cheese plates in restaurants including Vincent, Heartland, La Belle Vie, and the Corner Table. At Levain, Chef Steven Brown uses the buckwheat honey in a vinaigrette for an arugula salad with manchego and prosciutto crisps. "Usually buckwheat honey is kind of strong and stanky," says Brown. "But this is much more refined and subtle." At Cosmos, Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty serves Ames Farm's clover honey with an artisanal Swiss-like white cheese from Pleasant Ridge. "The single clover honeycomb is just fantastic," says Daugherty. "Sometimes when you get honeycomb it tastes earthy or dirty--this stuff is just so clean, it's practically white. We love it."
Of course, with anything that inspires such great passion, there are just-as-passionate detractors. I'm thinking now of the woman I saw at a pick-your-own apple orchard in October waving her arms around wildly and screaming, "The bees! The bees!" The small child in the stroller with her was soon in a screaming frenzy as well. That the insects in question were lady bugs didn't impact them whatever.
If you think that's a poor example of an enemy to single-source honey, keep guessing: Plenty of former farm towns to the west of us are now overrun with suburban types with an overwhelming fear of bees, and Fredericksen says he can't get permission to keep bees now in places he used to, out of other people's overwhelming fear of lawsuits. "They figure any wild yellow-jacket sting would be blamed on my honeybees, and don't want to be in any situation where they're trying to convince a jury otherwise," he says. "You also wouldn't believe the number of times I've been outright insulted by suburban people at the farmers' market--'Who are you trying to rip off?' they say, 'I could get twice as much honey at Cub for that price.'"
Meanwhile, one of Fredericksen's favorite fields just got seized for the expansion of Highway 212. Meanwhile, the 400 acres of old-growth forest that was adjacent to Ames Farm is now slated to turn into a 500-house development. Meanwhile, the multimillionaire with the private prairie is planning to sell his land for McMansions once the price gets high enough. Meanwhile, the Fredericksens' property taxes have been going up $100 a month every month for the past couple of years, and Fredericksen doubts they will be able to afford to stay in the area. "Saying that you care about sled dogs and bees out here these days is like saying you're a Massachusetts liberal," says Fredericksen. "In many ways I think I'm taking these portraits for the last time."
The first, and the last time. Are we really entering an age when the people, the politics, and the cars will be our only experience of our world? Is this the end of the road for the wind, the rain, the sky, the flowers, and the bees? Perhaps. But today, not only is there a here here, but we can eat it too.
Available at many locations including: The Minneapolis Farmers' Market, 312 East Lyndale Ave. N., www.mplsfarmersmarket.com; Kowalski's Markets, www.kowalskis.com; France 44, 4351 France Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.925.3252; And Local Food Co-Ops Such As The Wedge, Lakewinds, Linden Hills, And The Mississippi Markets.
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