WHEN we opened the café in Almondbury, one thing I really wanted to do was sell a few items in addition to our own produce; choice produce from northern England, celebrating the bounty of the county, if you will.
One such treat is the amazing produce of some of Sheffield’s hardest working individuals. No, not steel, but something altogether more appetising: honey.
In dozens of hives around northern Sheffield, Jez Daughtry’s industrious bees go about their business, collecting nectar from the local flowers along the many stunning valleys that meander down from the highest heathery peaks through forests and lakes and all the way into the outskirts of the mighty city itself.
These are busy bees indeed. Jez is a man obsessed with bees and their welfare, and works incredibly hard not only collecting the several types of honey, but also keeping the hives working and populated, which is not an easy task.
Bees, as you may have noticed when one accidentally gets into your house, are not really open to persuasion or training, so manoeuvring a hive of several hundred individuals, all quite likely to either flee or swarm at any moment is an incredibly delicate procedure.
You may also have read about CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition which causes colonies of bees to die off at incredible rates, and which severely threatens not only the honey industry, but agriculture as a whole, given the vital part bees play in pollination of plants and crops.
It has been suggested that mites may cause the problem, although many suggest it is the higher levels of poisons in our atmosphere. I gather that the problem is less of an urgent issue than initially reported, but it’s still a worry for us all. So we must applaud the beekeepers of the world, and Jez in particular, as he’s one of our nearest apiarists, albeit ‘south of the border’.
I fully intend to join one of the courses he runs at some point, as I’ve always been fascinated by beekeeping, and more importantly the amazing serendipity that the end result of an insect feeding its hive can be not only edible, but actually immensely palatable, and so varied in its flavours.
Depending on a number of contributory factors, bees make amazingly varied honeys, from deep, dark almost treacly stuff, perfect for baking, to the lighter, citrussy floral types that are perfect for drizzling and dipping.
It has a very definite, unique flavour, almost perfumed, which sits well with both sweet and savoury dishes.
Try a drizzle over a just-roasted duck – amazing. A friend of mine swears by it in a mousetrap cheddar sandwich!
It’s a completely natural sugar, only refined by the bees themselves, so there’s no question in my mind that honey is very good for you indeed.
So this week, as I thought about Jez and his bees, out there in all that weather, presumably all blown to kingdom come and wet as dishrags, I decided that a spot of baking was in order, and honey should play a major part.
And then I had an idea to use a special cake tin that my friend had brought me from the US. Perfect! This is a lovely, easy honey-flavoured cake, ideal for serving with an afternoon cup of strong tea, although it would make a terrific post-dinner nibble, perhaps with a spot of vanilla ice-cream and maybe even a glass of Sauternes or some similar honey-tinged dessert wine.
I’ve included the method for making the cute little bees, too, although these are by no means integral to the recipe, and contain nuts, which allergic readers may wish to take note of.
Finally, if you fancy learning a bit about bees, or if you just fancy a go in one of those brilliant hats apiarists like to wear, you can find information on Buzzy Work’s courses at: http://www.buzzy-work.co.uk. Now, let’s get baking. Aprons on!
For the cake:
340g honey (I used Sheffield blossom honey)
180g unrefined light muscovado sugar
280g unsalted butter
400g self-raising flour
4 fresh, free-range eggs, beaten lightly
For the honey icing:
2 tablespoons boiling water
2 tablespoons honey
100g icing sugar
For the bees:
Black food colouring
A suitable cake tin (11-12”)
To make the bees, roll a little yellow marzipan into a fat little ball, and elongate it a little into a bumble bee shape.
Very gently, press in two flaked almonds as wings, and pop the bee gently onto a cocktail stick.
Carefully paint the stripes and a little smiley face on the bees and stick them into a piece of florist’s sponge, or even an unwanted apple or orange until you’ve done as many as you need.
To make the icing, gently heat the water, honey and sifted icing sugar until smooth, and keep warm until required. Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.
To make the cake, melt the honey, butter and sugar in a pan until softly bubbling and smooth. Sift the flour into a large bowl.
With a whisk, quickly beat the butter mixture into the flour to make a smooth batter, then whisk in the eggs gradually.
When the mixture is completely smooth, tip into the pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top of the cake is golden and risen and just beginning to crack.
Test with a skewer if you are unsure. Let the cake cook for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a suitable plate or board.
Drizzle with the icing and arrange the bees in a ‘swarm’ on top of the cake.