Nectar from the serra

The honey you buy in supermarkets is mostly mass-manufactured, processed and pasteurised. Shame, as this way all the good qualities disappear. In the Algarve, some beekeepers still produce honey the artisanal way. Enjoy the Algarve visits beekeeper and small-scale honey producer José Chumbinho to find out more about the syrupy liquid that’s also called ‘nectar of the gods’.

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2016

 

Normally, in the Algarve beekeeping is something that runs in the family for many generations. The artisanal way of producing honey gets passed on from father to son or from mother to daugther. Not in the case of José Chumbinho (62) (pictured below).

He is the first, and probably the only one, in his family to produce the sweet golden liquid, under his DoChumbinho label at his house in Almancil. When he stopped working in a veterinary, José didn’t just want to sit around at home and watch TV all day. “I love working with animals and wanted to continue this, but I couldn’t have sheep or goats here. That’s why I opted for bees.”

His bees, José doesn’t want to reveal how many he owns, are placed somewhere in the countryside, the hives divided over different locations. His small factory in Almancil is currently full of racks as September/October is the time to clean the frames and prepare them with new wax. Recycling the old wax into new wax sheets and cleaning the frames when the bee colony has died is a process that involves fire and steam, with temperatures of up to 800˚C. “Some bee-related illnesses stay in the wood, so proper disinfecting is important,” José explains.

An amateur might suggest using antibiotics against those diseases, but no way for José! Pesticides are also a no go: “They kill the bees. Companies like Monsanto and Bayer might say they’re harmless, but we beekeepers know better. It’s a chain: herbicides or pesticides get into the flowers, they get in the nectar and thus into the bees, who then die.”

Another potential bee threat is monoculture. “That means that every year the same product, like maize for example, is grown in the same place,” explains José. “Bees need diversity. The best honey comes from the serra, where lots of different flowers grow.” With a lot of wild terrain, the Algarve is a great place to keep bees: “Also, there aren’t many GMOs (genetically modified organisms) here and the temperature is good.”

Before collecting the framed combs, José relaxes the bees with smoke so they don’t eat all their honey or sting. This is especially important as he works with Abelhas Ibéricas, very aggressive Iberian bees. “Also, I’m allergic to bee stings,” he reveals with a smile.

A hive can hold up to 11 kilos of honey, which is centrifuged out of the frames after cutting off the lids of the honeycombs. Instead of doing this by hand, Jose uses machines to cut the top of the frames, centrifuge the honey and fill the glasses: “Otherwise I’d never have time to sleep.”

The process, however, is the same as it has been for centuries, which results in so-called raw honey: it’s unheated, unpasteurised and unprocessed, and thus contains all the good qualities and anti-oxidants.

“Most people buy honey without realising the labour that’s involved,” says José, who made a movie to show this entire process and does everything himself, from cleaning the hives to making pictures for on the labels. José is a resourceful man; he has invented and built many of the machines that make his work easier.

The bees, who are left with enough honey to survive, always stay with the same hive; they’re ‘programmed’ to forage in a radius of about 3km and always return to the same hive (therefore, changing its location can only be done at night time, when the bees are all at home). The type of honey depends on the flowers the bees have been visiting. Only if honey contains over 18% pollen of the same sort flower, it’s considered monofloral.

Although it’s predominantly of one sort of flowers, all José’s honey is multifloral. Apart from the foraging area, the type of honey also depends on the time of year: “Wild lavender, for example, grows in March, April and May, so I can start to collect this honey in June and July.”

Honey lip balm, wax candles, honey vinegar, pollen and of course liquor made out of honey. Visiting José’s small shop is a feast for taste and smell. Highlight, of course, is the honey, which ranges in colours from a light golden to an almost dark brown.

“Darker coloured honeys are healthier,” explains José, as he opens a jar of his favourite, ‘amargo’, a slightly bitter tasting honey from the Arbutus Unedo, the Medronho tree.

We sample them all. The pictures and Latin names are practically superfluous as it’s so easy to taste which flower the bees have visited – there’s no way anyone could mistake the sweet carob taste of the Ceratonia Siliqua (carob tree) for the minty Mentha pulegium (pennyroyal) honey. “Sometimes people ask me if I add any taste additives,” José laughs. “But of course I don’t.” And why not? “Mel e mel!” he replies, stating the obvious. “Honey is honey. Adding anything to it would be porcaria, rubbish!”

 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2016

Posted in Features.