Irish bees, Irish honey, slow food – Aoife Nic Giolla Coda (spring 2009)

I am not in the habit of writing articles, but when the editor asked me to write about Irish bees and Irish honey from a Slow Food perspective, I readily accepted, as they are two areas for which I have a passion. For those not familiar with Slow Food, it is an international “convivial” movement in which people share a passion for eco-gastronomy. The movement was founded in Italy in 1989 to counteract “fast food & fast life;” the disappearance of local food traditions; and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. It has 100,000 members all over the world and is divided into local associations or “convivia,” of which there are 15 in Ireland. These local associations hold social events revolving around locally produced artisan foods or rare foods. In these modern times, it is very important to document, record and highlight the diversity of food around the world. Slow Food achieves this through presidia, which is the plural of presidium, the Latin for “fortress.” This is the name given by Slow Food to certain foods to which it offers support. The name is quite apt, as each presidium aims to help protect a particular food. It applies to foods that are of regional importance, are rare, or are endangered. Slow Food has established presidia for hundreds of foods around the world.

There is no doubt that Ireland has an excellent quality standard in terms of honey production. However, sometimes I think that Irish beekeepers in general can fail to appreciate that they are producing an artisan food. As we all know, Irish wildflower honey is very unique. Just think of the variety of flavour – sycamore, dandelion, horse chestnut, hawthorn, clover, blackberry blossom, fuchsia, bell and ling heather and even ivy! Not to mention all the minor honeys that add to the complexity of flavour and character. The process of beekeeping in Ireland is one of artisan food production. Apart from a few areas, the craft has changed little since the introduction of the moveable frame hive. Our native bees also have a direct influence on Irish honey through the way they cap the comb, which gives a particular advantage. Leaving a tiny air space between the honey and the wax capping of the honeycomb cells improves the ripening process of the honey. This characteristic bestows a bright translucent appearance to the white comb capping giving Irish comb honey, whether sections, cut comb or chunk honey, its attractive qualities.

In Ireland, the combination of the Irish black bee, the craft of Irish Beekeeping and Irish wildflower honey make for something very special. These three areas create a powerful image from the food lover’s point of view. It is wonderful that the public have become so aware of Irish honey, especially over the last few years. It would be great to see a similar awareness of the native Irish black bee. The FIBKA labelling scheme has been an excellent tool in communicating to the public what Irish honey is. I think those of us involved in the conservation and promotion of the black bee should incorporate the fact that we use native bees into the marketing of our honey. If beekeepers produced a simple black and white label to put on the back of their honey jar with a little information Irish bees and Irish honey, I think that this would make quite a difference. Irish Honey and the native Irish black bee are a part of our nation’s food heritage. Threats from external factors mean that they should never be taken for granted. We should do as much as possible to highlight to the public the fact that we do not import honey and that also we do not import bees, as a way of protecting our own native gene pool from new disease.

At the moment, there is only one Irish Slow Food presidium: Raw (unpasteurised) Cow’s Milk Cheese. There are six more Irish foods that have been put forward to be made presidia. These are Irish Edible Seaweeds (Dilisk, Sluachan, and Carageen Moss); Boxty; Blood Puddings; the Moile Cow (Ireland’s oldest cattle breed, there is only one herd in the whole country); Kiln Toasted Oatmeal; and Irish Wildflower Honey with the Irish Black Bee. As of yet, none of these have been made a presidium, but it is only a matter of time. When the one with which we are concerned does reach this stage, I think it will play its part in highlighting to Ireland and the world that we have something very special flying around this Island. Anybody who would like to find out more about Slow Food can log onto www.slowfoodireland.com. If anyone would like to get involved in the Irish Wildflower Honey and Irish Black Bee Presidium you can contact me at aoifemacg@ireland.com.

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