Honey blows our minds
“Honey blows my mind” Tom Kerridge, The Hand & Flowers
While the fossils haven’t survived, bees are thought to have emerged about 120 million years ago with the oldest known fossils from 96 to 74 million years ago.
There is evidence that humans have been using farming bees for about 9000 years, right back to the dawn of agriculture - with traces of beeswax found on pottery, not long after we emerged from the last ice-age.
Bees deliver so much more to us than honey… according to Greenpeace, they pollinate a third of our food – crops such as apples, almonds, broccoli, strawberries, cucumbers. They have an incredible array of additional talents, from being able to predict storms, to helping reduce the growth of cancerous tumours.
Bees are also declining globally, according to the U.N., this is due to intensive farming practices, mono-cropping, excessive use of agricultural chemicals and higher temperatures associated with climate change, affecting not only crop yields but also nutrition.
“ To a bee, a flower is a fountain of life …..To a flower, a bee is a messenger of love ”
It’s also amazing to be writing this blog 400 years since the landmark publication ‘The Feminine Monarchie’ was published in 1623 by Pastor Charles Butler ‘the father of English beekeeping’ – in fact this month (August 2023) sees the 400th anniversary celebrations in the village of Wooton St Lawrence (coincidentally the nearest village to some of the hives that make our honey!)
Pastor Butler discovered critically that the hive evolved around a Queen Bee (and not a Drone King as had long been thought). He was famous for his patient observations to record the craft of beekeeping and the sounds of honey bees, highlighting how the hive hierarchy, the honeycomb geometry, bees and music reveal a divine order of nature.
In 1954 a stained glass window to commemorate Charles Butler was installed in the north aisle of Wootton St Lawrence church.
It’s not just honey, it’s M&S honey…
When Steve and I were developing our very first chocolates, we really liked the idea of integrating honey into the recipe because it gives such a beautiful depth of flavour and to celebrate some of the amazing British honey out there.
First we needed to find the right supplier – we wanted to work directly with the bee farmers; so when Steve met David and his daughter Dawn Wainwright and heard them talk about their different honeys and flavours – as ‘terroirs’ – like a fine wine – we knew we’d found the right people. Indeed the Wainwrights family also supply Marks & Spencer amongst other quality stores and David has recently made a TV ad with celebrity chef Tom Kerridge (of Hand & Flowers fame) for the posh supermarket.
The Goldilocks level of honey
So, with the help of Wainwrights, we set about designing our signature milk and signature dark chocolates.
It took a while - the earlier prototypes were over-honeyed and became almost ‘cake-like’, so we reduced the levels, optimised the recipes, and continued to iterate to find the ‘just right’ level for our indulgently creamy fresh chocolates.
Working with David Wainwright, we also chose two different honeys for our signature chocolates:
- Essex Borrage, with its delicate, creamy and almost caramelly taste with subtly refreshing, mildly herbal notes coming from nectar gathered from starflowers – a vibrant blue flower (and traditional Pimms garnish) grown for its oil and medicinal properties – this was perfect for our Creamy Milk.
- Salisbury Plain summer honey with a rich golden colour, and gently spicy depth of flavour with cinnamon notes, made by bees that forage throughout the summer on the chalk downs where clovers and multiple wildflowers flourish – this works beautifully with our Smooth Dark
- Coincidentally, the Creamy Milk will accompany our new honey-inspired micro-batch later this month (shhh, a secret!)
Beyond adding a touch of natural sweetness and depth of flavour, honey has an additional role as a totally natural preservative – helping to keep our chocolates deliciously fresh in transit.
Wainwrights have been great partners from the start – when their very first delivery was delayed by couriers, deep into lockdown, their beekeeper Lewis got up at the crack-of-dawn to drive from Anglesey and personally deliver our honey pails to Steve’s house in Birmingham for the very first trial production. That’s customer service!
Big ambitions with a startup budget
So, back to the present. We’ve long had an open-invitation from David and Dawn to come visit their hives and managed to find a date that worked for us all in July this year.
We wanted to record the occasion; however we without the M&S big budgets for a film crew – we used our in-house expertise – Sofya for videoing and editing and Giles’ son who is a keen nature photographer to capture the bees.
David Wainwright guards the location of his hives very carefully, so we met at a secret farm gate and he drove us out to the fields.
The first thing that struck us, beyond the idyllic rural scene, was the amazing violet colour of the borage which was perfectly in flower
While we donned the special suits to enable us to get close, David talked to us about how we had started beekeeping in the 1970s when, in a time of economic hardship, many Brits had gone back to the soil (for those with long memories – ‘The Good Life’).
He explained how he had started with just a couple of hives, and now had well over a thousand – thus making him a ‘bee farmer’, one of only about 50 in the UK, whereas there are about 40,000 beekeepers in the country.
David also explained how all of this experience enabled him to understand the mood of the bees (at one point guiding us to not stand between hive and the flowers as the bees were starting to get agitated). He demonstrated how the smoke helped to gently disrupt the bees communication and calm them while we were up close.
It was amazing to see David gently, expertly open the hives to show us the busy interiors. Both bees and David seemed very calm – we learned this was because they had an abundance of food so close. While David wore a full suit, we were amazed that he didn’t seem to need the gloves!
I’d always wondered how much honey is taken vs what remains for the bees - David showed that a decent amount of honey is left for the bees to help them last though the winter, while he sorted through the racks in one hive to point out the Queen who was clearly very very busy (they can lay over 3000 eggs per day during peak season)
Of course what we really wanted to do was taste the honey, super-fresh from the hive – this was incredible, so light and fruity and gently floral, utterly delicious. Such a privilege to be this close to the source of one of our key ingredients.
The moment of truth
Steve would happily describe himself as ‘a feeder’ – he LOVES giving people new chocolates to try and had brought along a prototype of our next Micro-batch for David to try – a little homage to honey. He was pretty tense while David played ‘the man from Del Monte’ – luckily, our taster said ‘yes!’, but agreed they needed a slight lift (that Steve has since applied)
What a day – we were buzzing…
At Russell and Atwell – we’ve always got a little something at the end of a meeting – so David seemed delighted to receive a few pouches of our fresh chocolates.
It was a truly special day for the R&A team, and we came away, literally buzzing with admiration for the skills of David and his team, with awe as to the work rate and society formed by bees and, blown-away by just how good the honey tasted.
Now, which supplier shall we see next?