Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A few friends asked me recently for some travel-related gift suggestions, and I thought it would be a good idea to share these -- and many more -- here on my blog (and it is also a motivation for me to move more quickly through the enormous piles of books and materials I have set aside for the blog -- note photo below of towering books in my bedroom!).  So this month will be devoted to posts about gifts that I believe travelers like you will find of interest.

I often buy honey when I'm traveling to places where it's a specialty, which as it turns out is a great number of places in the world (honey bees live on every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic).  My favorite honey memory took place in the Peloponnese region of Greece, with my good friend Sarah.  We were driving on a very rural road, in a hilly but not quite mountainous area, when we saw an elderly man seated in front of a small table on the side of the road.  It really seemed he was in the middle of nowhere, so we felt we had to stop and see what he was selling.  What he had were glass jars of honey, of several varieties.  He offered us a few tastings, and after we'd purchased a few jars, he asked us where we were from -- not that he spoke English, but we got the gist of the question.  When we told him, he eagerly clasped our hands and said, "America!" as if it was a mythical, magical place.  And of course for him America really was a place he'd likely only heard about, and he clearly stood in awe of our country.  He was so sweet and so proud of his honey, which was deep and rich and delicious.

I not only buy honey for myself but also for gifts, and I no longer have to travel far to find it (but I'm not referring to the kinds of honey sold in most supermarkets).  Honey is no different from wine, cheese, coffee, and chocolate in that it's an artisanal product, and giving a quality honey with a copy of The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey, With a Guide to More than 30 Varietals (by C. Marina Marchese and Kim Flottum, Black Dog & Leventhal) is a wonderful present that just about anyone would be happy to receive. 

In case you hadn't noticed, honey is hot: it's found at practically every farmer's market anywhere and specialty retailers sell dozens and dozens of varieties, making it hard to choose what to buy, which is why The Honey Connoisseur is so useful (and it's a very handsome, beautifully illustrated book besides).  Williams-Sonoma offers its own artisanal honey collections that also include beekeeping kits, and as authors Marchese and Flottum note, the growing interest in beekeeping "reflects people's desire to have a say in where their food comes from" and "keeping a hive of honey bees is more than a hobby.  It changes one's entire outlook on nature and connects us to food."

Making the leap to beekeeping may be too large for many of us, myself included, but I am kind-of pondering it.  Marchese noted in an interview that "keeping honey bees is the best-kept secret...Beekeepers are the gentlest and wisest people I've ever met...once you join, you will never leave."  !  But for the moment I'm just enjoying several honeys in my house right now: honey produced from hives on the roof of the Palais Garnier Opera house in Paris (sold in the Opera's gift shop and at Fauchon; also, guests at Le Meurice receive small jars); Let it Bee; and honey from Littlefield Farm on Block Island.  All of these share the qualifications that authors Marchese and Flottum note, which is that honey should always be purchased closest to the source and if the label isn't clear about this try a different one.  Many varietal honeys (such as apple blossom, linden, and thyme) may not be local but they should be produced in areas where the best terroir is for that variety.

The Honey Connoisseur is the kind of book that you can get lost in for hours -- I had no idea there were so many varieties of honey...Saw Palmetto? Sourwood? Catclaw?...clearly there is a whole honey world out there to explore.  And of course the authors would not leave out recommendations for tasting flights of honey and five recipes (right now I have my eye on Honey Struck Chocolate Truffles). 

Great book, great gift.  And I can't resist noting one of my all-time favorite episodes of 'I Love Lucy,' where Lucy gets a loving cup trophy stuck on her head upside down.  She has to get down to the club so that Ricky can try and help figure out a way to get the cup off her head, so Ethel ties a scarf around the cup and under her chin.  They're on the subway, and Lucy notices that a man is staring at her.  She turns to him and says, "What's the matter, haven't you ever seen a beekeeper on the subway before?"  I have a whole new appreciation for beekeeping, as well as for the honey I drizzle on my yogurt in the morning.

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