Blog: Antwerp city honey

The roof of the restaurant Graanmarkt 13 is humming with activity. More than 120,000 bees fly back and forth as they produce city honey. Culinary blogger Marlies Beckers attended a workshop given by Rik Janssens from the urban apiary Amielo.

‘City honey comes from bees that sip nectar from the many flowers to be found all over Antwerp. Each district has its unique pattern of vegetation, so each honey tastes different.’ Clad in a beekeeper’s suit, I follow every impassioned word that Rik Janssens utters, as beads of sweat form on my forehead. It’s not just the heat of the sweltering summer day that is getting to me – there’s also my uneasiness as one of the thousands of bees creeps inquisitively up my leg. ‘Just stand still,’ says Rik. Just?
 

Thousands of flowers and herbs

We get started at the top of the building in chef Seppe Nobels’ herb garden – playground might be a better description – with a refreshing honey lemonade and a few nibbles of Iberian ham, artichoke with squid and beet, avocado and orange salad. Original, refreshing and pure, as we have come to expect from Gault&Millau’s vegetable chef of the year.
 
In the garden you can find a variety of culinary herbs and edible flowers. They make delicious food for us, and so too for the bees. Honey from these hives is named mille fleurs. ‘The thousands of flowers from the surrounding area ensure different flavours and more depth, which explains the gastronomic value of this honey. Chef Seppe is only too happy to use this fresh honey for his dishes in Graanmarkt 13,’ Rik explains.
 
The thirteen participants at the workshop are downright curious. Questions are fired and Rik turns out to be a fount of bee expertise. It all starts with three types of bee: queen, worker and drone.
 

It’s a bee’s life

The queen is selected by the workers while still an egg, and can live for up to five years. She is larger and longer-lived than the worker bees, thanks to her diet: as a larva, she alone is fed on an exclusive diet of royal jelly. This causes her female genitals to develop, and egg production starts in her alone. As a bee, it seems, you are what you eat.
 
Five days after birth, she mates. She is fertilised by as many as five to ten drones, or male bees. For the drone, mating is fatal: he loses his genitals and dies. The queen retains the sperm in a bag with which she can fertilise thousands of eggs – some 1,500 (!) per day, in fact.
The workers are on a constant quest for nectar to turn into honey, and live for about six weeks.
 

Ingenious defensive ploys

Not far from some unsuspecting guests dining outside stand two hives, which are almost black with bees.
 
Although bees are not usually aggressive, we protect ourselves with a special veil. Rik shows us an entirely dark comb. ‘Brood’ is embedded in it – eggs in the pupal stage. As well as honey, the comb (made of wax) also contains pollen and propolis, a natural antibiotic used to seal all holes and cracks in the nest.
 
The bees also use this sticky substance to ensure their security. If a mouse makes its way inside the hive, they sting it to death and then simply mummify the intruder with the propolis. There is another ingenious way of finishing off smaller enemies. Bees can detach their flight muscles from their wings. By making them vibrate quickly, they not only warm themselves up, but working as a group can actually scorch other insects such as hornets to death.
 

Honey, straight from the comb

The next honeycomb is light in colour: it contains honey, but no brood. Rik makes a hole and we greedily dip our fingers into the dark yellow sweet stuff. Fresh honey, food of the gods. Meanwhile, we have also spotted the queen, recognisable by the bright green dot Rik has marked her with. I can’t stand the heat any longer, and cautiously remove my headgear. We are now very close and can scarcely talk with Rik because of the humming. Exciting, fascinating and pure.
 
After our bee adventure, we sit down for a meal of sea bass with ratatouille, artichokes and basil juice. Dessert is a raspberry cake with cherry ice cream. Sensational. We finish with a madeleine based on local city honey. Better than in my wildest memories... Everyone keeps plying Rik with questions. If nobody had any jobs to go to, we would undoubtedly all have stayed until the small hours.
 
Would you like to attend a bee workshop sometime? Send an email to welcome@graanmarkt13.be to stay informed.
 
You can find out more about Antwerp city honey at www.amielo.be.
Bookings for Graanmarkt 13 can be made via www.graanmarkt13.be


July 2015

Marlies Beckers

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