If you’ve been following this space since March you heard of my love for St. Patrick’s Day and the kickoff of beekeeping season. Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written and those of you who’ve been taking notes will have noticed a severe tapering off of attention to essays when we finally got our store opened. Life speeds ahead.
I have a moment to take a breath while I look forward to another of my favorite holidays – Thanksgiving. After that I may get busy and go dark for a while again.
For me, Thanksgiving remains one of the purest of celebrations because it has, in our cynical age, kept focused on family; it stays close to home; and it is about giving thanks for all we have, and eating. It’s right in my wheelhouse.
And maybe we’ll complain that Uncle Walter spends the whole day watching football, drinking too much, and doesn’t help with the dishes. And we can watch with dismay at the mega-retailers who insist their employees come in to work at midnight. And while I have willingly embraced a life in retail I still cannot bring myself to use the phrase “Black Friday” without sneering. It calls to mind Black Monday, Black September, or Black Sabbath – bad things. At the Honey Exchange we will just be calling it “Friday” or maybe “Evacuation Day.”
But for all the beekeeper joy ushered in on St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving brings on a bit of beekeeper melancholy. Here in Maine, the day marks the official end of beekeeping season. If the hive isn’t buttoned up and ready to face the winter by Thanksgiving, a beekeeper can do little to help afterward.
During the summer, we watched for diseases and kept an eye on our queens’ productivity. As autumn approached, assessment and control of Varroa mites was essential. As fall progressed, we were watching to ensure each hive was storing plenty of honey in the hive boxes and capping it off for winter. We want to have a reduced, but healthy broodnest in the bottom and 60-90 pounds of honey up top. As the weather turned chilly, we needed to worry about keeping mice and shrews out of the hive, either with an entrance reducer or a mouse guard.
I prefer to avoid beekeeping rules on the calendar, but Thanksgiving is a hard deadline: mice out, something absorbent on top, and dark color on the outside of the hive.
Remember, bees aren’t hibernating in the winter; they’re active – vibrating their muscles for warmth and eating honey for the energy to vibrate. They are breathing and expelling moisture. In the warmer months, they are also coming and going and venting that moisture but in the cold the moisture is rising with the warmth of the hive. Left alone it will condense on the cold cover and drip back down on the bees and brood. It’s a recipe for disease. So if you go to the Internet you’ll find a thousand different ways to absorb moisture from the hive in winter. I like homasote. Homasote is a pressed recycled paper product, like the material from an egg carton. Our boards have a dado along the underside for improved ventilation; the dado lines up with the dado of an inner cover to provide an upper bee exit, so long as the outer cover is pulled forward.
If I were starting anew with beehives I would choose a dark color to paint them – a nice deep green or blue, probably. But when I began with bees I knew less, and I thought it would be lovely to have yellow hives to match the chicken coop. I also like the way bright yellow hives in my neighborhood beg to be noticed. Now the store (which begs to be noticed) is yellow and it’s sort of a trademark. So each year at about this time I wrap the hive with tarpaper. It has nothing to do with insulation. Make a jacket out of tarpaper and go out in the wintertime. No help. The dark color on the outside of a hive merely absorbs sunlight and warms the sides. It helps the bees work laterally toward their honey stores – if it were always dead cold they would steer clear of the chilly sides.
So, get that done. Then it’s time to think about Thanksgiving.
My favorite way to jazz up some turkey is with some spicy Cranberry Chutney. Try it out:
3 Tbs vegetable oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
½ tsp cumin seed
½ tsp brown or black mustard seeds
1 Tbs minced fresh ginger
1 big Thai or Serrano chile with seeds, chopped
1 small onion, sliced
½ cup golden raisins
3 oz. dried apricots, cut into ¼ inch pieces
3 oz. dried pears, or dried peaches, or if you can’t find those, use your imagination. I can’t make every decision for you. Oh, cut those into ¼ inch pieces too.
6 oz. (½ bag) cranberries, coarsely chopped*
1 cup very cheap dry white wine
½ cup honey (I’d recommend cranberry honey, but that’s just because I’m a big honey nerd.)
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large saucepan until it is nearly smoking. Add the red pepper, cumin, and mustard seeds and heat until the mustard seeds begin to pop. Throw in the ginger and chiles and cook until the kitchen is filled with piercing, eye-watering chile fumes and your wife starts hollering from the other room “What in the sweet name of Jesus Christ are you doing in there, you psycho?!” (Or you can add the onions at the same time and avoid this sickly entertaining step. Sissy.) Sweat until the onions are translucent. Also sweat the onions. Add the dried fruits and stir until they’re coated with oil. Add the craneberries (you know, they used to call them craneberries. True story. Like tomatoes, they were at one time presumed to be poisonous. Only the cranes ate ‘em. I learned this fact from my grandmother, who made a point to mention it every time we visited her on Cape Cod.) Stir the berries until they are similarly glossified with oil, then dump in the wine, syrup and vinegar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce to a simmer, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the consistency is like a hearty pizza sauce. (It will thicken as it cools, so don’t shoot for chutney consistency at this point.) Turn off the heat and add the salt, garam masala, and black pepper. Cool.
The chutney is best the next day, when the flavors have married. Also, it seems to get a bit spicier over the course of a couple days. I recommend it as an accompaniment to any rice preparation or curry, pakoras (vegetable fritters,) or check it out with sliced turkey and cream cheese on a baguette. Or use your imagination, like I said . . . .
*Note: if you make the fabulous cranberry bread recipe on the bag of Ocean Spray cranberries, you will have this many cranberries left over. Make both recipes and serve the chutney on the bread for breakfast and you will be the envy of your gender and the sexual desire of the opposite. Trust me. Of course, if you’re already having breakfast with ‘em the battle’s pretty much won, eh?