Fancy combining a trip to the country with honing your kitchen skills? Amanda Wragg dons her apron at a hive of activity.
Bees are brilliant. The population is also in sharp decline. The bottom line is that if bees cease to be, the planet’s a goner. The National Audit Office has estimated that if we had to do the job of bees it would cost £200m a year; the retail value of what they pollinate is valued at closer to £1bn.
But I’m not standing in a field zipped up in a “bee-proof” white onesie in leafy Low Bradfield in the Peak District worrying about such weighty issues; I’m here to find out a bit more about honey production, and later to cook with it at the Tideswell School of Food.
Jez Draughty runs the Sheffield Honey Company. He’s clearly a passionate man and a good communicator, and our little band of future keepers hang on his every word.
Bee stats come thick and fast; it takes somewhere in the region of a million flower visits to make one jar of honey. One colony can produce 50 to 100 jars a year. In winter, they slow right down, cluster, disconnect their wing muscles and vibrate to generate heat. There’s one queen per hive and 99 per cent of the other bees are female workers and the rest are drones, for mating. Once they’ve done their job the worker bees throw them out, then the queen starts thinking about laying eggs on Boxing Day. How does she know it’s Boxing Day? She’s got an advent calendar of course, like the rest of us.
Jez has about 300 hives in 20 or 30 permanent locations, most of them urban, some in the Hope Valley in Derbyshire, and every year he takes them on a trip to heather moors to produce thixotropic (thick, not runny) honey.
So how did Jez get hooked? “I kept bees as a teenager and took it up again a few years ago.
“We’ve moved away from the idea of beekeeping being an old man’s hobby – many more women are taking it up – I definitely think there’s something in the theory that female pheromones favour women keepers. (Journalist and broadcaster) Martha Kearney is the poster girl for contemporary beekeeping. I think the resurgence in popularity is partly because increasingly we want to know where our food comes from.”
It’s a full time job. Jez calls it “livestock management”. He has a healthy respect for bees which doesn’t mean he doesn’t get stung. As we were kitting up he asked if any of us were anxious. My hand shot up, I’m not proud. “That’s good!” says Jez. “Never take bees for granted.”
Not particularly reassured I keep my distance but I’m close enough to see him carefully lift a honeycombed tray teeming with busy bees, the big brown queen in the middle of it. Extraordinary.
I might be a bit of a drip where a million hungry bees are concerned, but I’m happy to cook with their bounty. Tideswell is a picture-perfect village, and in 2010 a bunch of people got together, made a business plan and pitched it to the Big Lottery in association with the BBC for a project called Village SOS. Theirs was one of six successful bids and the Tideswell School of Food was born. An unused part of a showroom was co-opted and a fully functioning teaching kitchen was created, the idea being to use it as both a commercial and social enterprise.
We’ve returned relatively unscathed from Low Bradfield armed with jars of Jez’s lovely honey and chef/tutor Joe Hunt is going to show us how to make the most of it. On the menu today is honey & walnut loaf, roast peaches with honey posset and cardamom shortbread and honey and walnut dressing. Joe is the kind of teacher capable of enthusing the most cooking-phobic person on the planet. I’ve made bread, it doesn’t hold any fears for me but there are clearly people in the kitchen who haven’t, judging by the horrified looks that pass across one or two faces.
Joe cheerfully guides us through the menu, dropping some top tips on the way, always smiling, encouraging, none of that “yes, chef!” malarkey and before you know it, we’ve all made a banquet fit for a king. Or queen.
You can do all sorts of days here; Thai and Indian cuisine, patisserie, street food, sushi, tapas and cake decorating, to name but a few – they’ve even got a nano-brewery so you can learn how to make beer. Just behind the magnificent Cathedral (yep, Tideswell has a “Cathedral in the Peak”) is a community garden, so much of the produce used in the school is grown literally next door. There’s a lot of fun to be had in a communal kitchen; unlike your own at home where there’s often just you, sharing goofs and successes is massive fun.
Whilst I’ve grown a new respect for bees, I won’t be keeping any of my own, but I will be back at the School of Food in Tideswell. The pork pie and piccalilli making day has a certain ring about it.