It seems that every other turning off the A12 on the way to my apiary in coastal Suffolk is called Sandy Lane. But when you hear people in Barbados talking about Sandy Lane, you know that it only means one place: the immaculate Sandy Lane property in St James’s parish, Barbados.
Visiting this iconic estate, I bumped into Sandy Lane’s Executive Chef, Emmanuel Guémon, diligently patrolling the Sunday brunch buffet in the Bajan Blue restaurant to ensure perfection at every station. Ever the opportunist, I asked him about the provenance of the honey he used in Sandy Lane’s kitchen. His answer was “The U.S and Canada“. Had he tried local Bajan honey? “No“, Emmanuel replied, “I didn’t know there was any.” His answer didn’t surprise me at all. Yes, Emmanuel’s passion for fresh local produce was evident in the buffet’s seafood, vegetables and salads. But Bajan honey is a sparse and hard-fought resource. A plan took shape in my mind – I was determined to organise a Bajan honey tasting for Emmanuel and his brigade!
Lacking an active beekeeping association at the moment, beekeeping in Barbados is limited to a few large entities with around 50 hives each, and a dispersion of small, hobby beekeepers. That means that, with honey yields of around 30 pounds per hive, the total production of honey on Barbados is estimated to be around 6,000 pounds (source: Beekeeping in Barbados – Vernon Neblett). Given that honey imports from the U.S. alone are over 40,000 pounds, it is no wonder that indigenous Bajan honey is below most people’s radar.
I am fervent about local produce: I have my own allotment in Bermondsey Spa, honey from the hives on my London rooftop – and a small kitchen garden and delicious rural honey in Suffolk. Increasingly, top chefs and hotels are leading a renaissance of proprietorial ingredients, taking control of their larders and reducing food miles to food yards. Like a vineyard’s “terroir“, chef’s ingredients are increasingly local and site-specific.
So it was a pleasure for me assemble four distinct honeys from three Bajan beekeepers of my acquaintance to take to Sandy Lane the following week. Meeting the beekeepers, discussing their philosophies of bees and honey production and then tasting the big Bajan flavours of their honey was amazing, as were some of the locations and the honeys’ resourceful packaging.
On the morning of the tasting, Emmanuel had to drop out with a back injury, so we met Sandy Lane’s second Executive Chef, Brian Porteus, to taste the local honeys.
Globe-trotting Irishman Brian was intrigued by the project. Which was just as well, since the “Please evacuate the building” drill started at 10.30am (why alarm drills always start at 10.30am is one of life’s little mysteries) and continued looping for the first 10 minutes of our discussion.
We soon discovered a mutual passion for sourcing the freshest, the most vernacular ingredients, ideally organic, for unimpeded flavour discovery. Hugging the various formats of honey, we set off for the Pastry section of Sandy Lane’s kitchens. Mercilessly clean, the preparation surfaces gleamed as we set up the simple tools of a honey tasting: white plastic spoons and a generous swathe of Kimberly-Clark paper kitchen towel.
Honey tasting gets a bit more complex after that. It is a highly creative occupation, since the vocabulary to describe honey flavours is subjective – whereas for food and wine tasting, for example, there already exists a treasure trove of familiar references and resonances. In honey tasting the only rule is that use of the adjective “sweet” incurs a raised eyebrow, at the very least.
I always advise newcomers to honey tasting to test their patience by holding the honey in their mouths for five full seconds before trying to taste it. This allows the flavours to disperse to various destinations on your palate, rather than surrender to the attack of the sweetness. Snapping the seals, we scooped the honey with the tips of our spoons, peered into the dense liquid, sniffed briefly, then popped the honey into our mouths.
We first tasted a Spring honey in a soy sauce bottle. It was dark golden, a hint of rum on the nose and with a herbal, tamarind tang, veering towards eucalyptus, lingering on the tongue.
The second sample was also a Spring honey, but presented quite differently. In a jam-jar this time, but, more importantly I suspect that the extraction process was instrumental in the waxy mouthfeel of the conker-coloured, fragrant honey, which conjured up hints of coconut and hibiscus, layered under a multi-floral keynote.
The third was a “chunk” honey, with a long slice of honeycomb siloed in the glass and submerged in a hazel-hued honey. The wax on the comb was surprisingly brown, suggesting that this “friends & family” version was cut from brood comb, rather than virgin comb from the supers. The honey was quite similar to the first tasted, but the darkened comb subtly influenced my perceptions. A passable, rumbustious, tropical taste bomb.
Finally, we got around to the Guinness-dark honey, glowering out of a cough-medicine bottle. With trepidation, we took a taste of the linctus, encountering a deep, brooding complexity of elements: sour cherries. cinnamon and a delicate chilli heat on the finish. Certainly the favourite of the tasting!
So we had held the only local honey tasting at Sandy Lane in living memory. A small event, perhaps, but a big salute to locality, invention and culinary adventure!
And as for Sandy Lane’s own honey one day? That’s a story yet to unfold. But as Brian observed: “Well, we already have a golf course designed by a famous golf course designer – Tom Fazio – why not an apiary designed and laid out by an expert: Dale Gibson. Who knows?”
Indeed. Apis Beekeeping Consultancy will be ready to be involved if that day comes. After all, that’s what we do !