Tuesday 26th December, 2006


David E Bratt, MD

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How sweet it is

“Honey is the flower transmuted, its scent and beauty transformed into aroma and taste”—Stephanie Rosenbaum, Honey: From Flower to Table.

“Something sau’t, something sau’t, something sau’t to put in meh mou’t,” sings the calypsonian. But on a day like today, after the harsh drinking of Christmas, and with the Carnival season upon us, some sweetness in your life is obligatory. What better drink than mead—water sweetened with honey and allowed to ferment.

If you can find it, that is.

It used to be thought that beer, from hops, was the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage but mead’s claim to be first seems credible, since cultivated grains, such as wheat or barley, first appeared about 10,000 years ago, by which time honey hunting was well established.

Man has a well developed craving for sweets. Being able to identify sweet things probably played a crucial role in our evolution. It enabled our ancestors to distinguish between bitter food sources, such as deadly plants, and sugary food, which is rich in energy.

Plundering bee nests seems to have been an important human activity for many millennia. Graphic descriptions of honey hunting can be found at numerous sites throughout Africa and the ones at the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa were probably done about 10,000 years ago.

Paintings depicting honey hunts are also found in caves in India. The ones at Bhimbetka, just south of Bhopal, the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster, date back 9,000 years.

Beekeeping in India can be traced back to the Vedic period, 4,000 years before the birth of Christ and remained widespread until sugar cane, “the honey from a tree,” began to be cultivated about 200 AD.

Honey was so important to ancient Egypt that the hieroglyph for the honey bee was chosen to be the symbol for the entire region. Egyptian beekeeping practices influenced the Mediterranean world.

Greeks and Romans were avid beekeepers and consumed honey in enormous quantities. The Romans, especially, elevated beekeeping to a fine art and it is in the words of their great poet, Virgil, that we first hear of the values of bee society, something we might do well to ponder this Boxing Day: “They alone hold children in common: own the roofs of their city as one and pass their life under the weight of the law.”

Among the pre-Columbian Maya, the husbandry of stingless bees dates back at least a thousand years and honey was considered as prized food and effective treatment for cataracts and conjunctivitis. In exchange for honey and beeswax, the Mayans received cacao and precious stones for their religious ceremonies, from northern Mexico.

As the Catholic Church became more and more predominant in Europe, the need for beekeepers increased because, whenever mass was sung, only candles made of pure beeswax, produced by “virgin bees,” could be used.

It was an article of faith among the church fathers until the 15th century that, like Christ, bees came into being as the result of virgin births. Bees, pure and sinless, were believed to have fled the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve.

With the coming of the Reformation and the appearance of sugar or “Indian salt” from India, honeybees apparently fell from grace, still however to be found up the Mount in St Augustine until some years ago.

There are more than 20,000 kinds of bees on our planet. They make up to 64 different kinds of honey. There can be up to 60,000 bees living in a hive: one queen to lay eggs, a few hundred drones to fertilise the queen and then die, and thousands of sterile daughters to do the work of producing honey and wax.

Bees fly between one and three miles from home, at a top speed of 15 mph, to collect nectar from flowers. A hive can take in from three to five pounds of nectar a day. Honey is simply concentrated nectar. To produce one 16-oz jar of honey, it takes tens of thousands of bees flying a total of 100,000 miles to forage nectar from 4.5 million flowers. Unlike Trinis, bees could work!

They are also hygienic creatures and will not foul their nests with their own excrement. They fly out of the hive to take care of business.

The drinking of mead gradually declined over the centuries. Several factors contributed. Competition with wine started around the 14th century, when the quality of wine making improved and wine quickly became the drink of an increasingly sophisticated aristocracy.

The Reformation in the 16th century did its bit. During the 17th century, supplies of honey began to shrink as flowers disappeared beneath growing cities and the farms needed to supply food for them. The price of honey soared.

The coup de grace for honey and mead, however, came from down here, the Caribbean, where the colonisation of the islands led to the establishment of those vast sugar cane plantations fuelled by cheap slave labour, producing “King Sugar” at prices everybody could manage. Honey, increasingly hard to find and increasingly expensive, just could not compete.

If you can’t find mead to drink today, it’s because of us.

©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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