From my perch at the pounded metal bar at TOCA at the Ritz Carlton, I could not think of a serious competitor for the beauty of that backlit pale amber syrup.
While the smartly dressed clinched their coats and whooshed through a glass revolving door into a blue Toronto evening, the bartender poured Bombay Sapphire gin and Angostura Bitters into the glass and mixed vigorously with a long spoon. He produced a martini glass, chilled with a flourish of liquid nitro smoke, applied the garnish of lemon peel.
He waited for me to take a sip. I said I found the drink very comforting; did not say that I was lost in nostalgia. For while some families draw together around a holiday ham, or perhaps a plate of chocolate chip cookies, mine came together over its official cocktail, a gin and tonic, and, in less festive times, the official remedy for colds, a “tea” made with more honey than water.
Never had I thought to combine the two beverages, although the idea is quite an old one. During U.S. Prohibition, when “gin” was as often as not a homemade concoction of cheap grain alcohol and juniper berry juice, honey and lemon masked the harsh flavor and scent of the makeshift spirit. “The bee’s knees,” is how a flapper might have described this warm and comforting concoction, using a popular phrase in the 1920s that meant “excellent”.
TOCA’s Bitter Bombay Bee is a modern variation of the classic cocktail that became known as Bee’s Knees. And it was excellent indeed.
But it turns out that the actual knee of a bee did have a bearing on the cocktail I enjoyed that night.
The honey spooned into my bar glass was local, from the province of Ontario, home to 2,900 beekeepers, whose charges spend the summer searching for flowering plants.
A single female bee -- all foraging bees are female -- will land on somewhere between 150 and 1,500 flowering plants each day, perhaps on a bloom of Ontario clover, or goldenrod, alfalfa, buckwheat or basswood, returning to the hive with her honey stomach full of nectar. She will then collaborates with her sisters to transform the nectar into honey – food for the family, and fuel for her future flights. She will supplement this meal with the pollen she’d collected in her corbicus, or pollen basket, located just below the joint that's the rough equivalent of a bee’s knee.
Although a bee hive can produce between 150 and 250 pounds of honey a year, a single honeybee’s life’s work amounts to one teaspoon of the syrup. So I had three bees to thank for the sweetness of my cocktail that night. And many, many more who had lent their labor to flavor so many of my Canadian culinary travels.
At Home Tasting Room, a sleek restaurant in Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Mall, there’d been Alberta honey, infused with lavender, poured into a shot glass, behind three hunks of Canadian cheese. A mere loonie and a half purchased a small dish of Fraser Valley wildflower honey, to accompany a theatrical three-tiered cheese and charcuterie tasting at Au Petit Chavignol in Vancouver.
And while a chilly rain had prevented me from walking the wildflower labyrinth at the Tangled Garden, in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, against the windows were shelves of honey in glass jars, with herbs in suspension. They filtered the thin Autumn light to a golden glow of palest yellow, deep saffron, and gamboge, as I sampled Annapolis Valley blooms transformed into honey, infused with rosemary and rose petals.
In the Mile End neighborhood, my world wobbled when I first bit into a Montreal bagel. As a native New Yorker, I’d always took it for granted that my city’s bagels were the best. But a small sesame bagel from St. Viateur’s changed my worldview: it was a revelation in its texture, it fought back against my teeth in just the right amount of chewy; in its flavor, a slight warm sweetness. I realized I loved this bagel more than my beloved New York variety, which now seemed too fluffy and flavorless in comparison. When I returned to the bagel bakery to learn what had shifted my allegiances, I first felt the heat of the traditional wood-fired oven (ruled out by New York City code). And I peered into a steel cauldron, where pale rings of dough were boiled before baking. The water had been flavored with honey.
Honey had been in the mustard on the peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery at St. Lawrence Market, not far from where I was drinking my honey-infused Bitter Bombay Bee.
Also nearby were the first bee hives I’d even seen up close, on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York. The castle-like building was erected in 1929, built after the demolition of a smaller hotel called Queen’s, which before a change of ownership had been called the Revere, and before that Sword’s, and before that a theological college. In 1853, a lake boat captain that had decided to repurpose the building as a hotel.
As it happens, that was just one year after the modern beehive was invented. For centuries, beekeepers had used “skeps”, still the iconic image of a beehive, resembling an upside-down vase made of grass, wicker or straw. A skep had to be destroyed to remove the honey, but Lorenzo Langstroth, a pastor in Pennsylvania figured out that a wood box, with removable vertical frames would allow a bee colony to continue on at home after their honey had been harvested.
What Langstroth would of thought of his hives being given names like the Honey Moon Suite, Royal Sweet, the V.I.Bee Suite, the Bee+Bee suite, not to mention Stayin'-a-Hive or Comb Suite Comb is anyone’s guess. The bees were certainly indifferent to the names painted on their mint green hives which sit on gray gravel on the 14th floor deck of the Fairmont Royal York.
Although all I could see was cityscape, the bees had a different vantage. Their range was a five mile radius, and within that they could find blooms in the city’s 1,473 parks, or one of the nearly 200 “green roofs”, like the one on top of city hall – or even a window box. The resulting 700 pounds of honey per year is used in the hotel’s restaurants: for ice cream, for dressing, for vinaigrettes, and, for weekend afternoon tea at the Library Bar, for a madeleine made with white chocolate and honey.
“Canada is incomparable in its wealth of wild- and honey-producing flowers which give so great a charm to the landscape,” wrote C. Gordon Hewitt, a Canadian entomologist, in a 1912 bulletin called The Honey Bee, published by the Canadian government to encourage beekeeping. Hewitt’s interests were less in the culinary merits of local honey and more in the benefits of pollination to Canadian agriculture – a honeybee, after all, could have been the midwife of every locally grown plant that anyone’s ever eaten here.
But while I grant that Canada has been far better known for another sweet liquid, maple syrup, and will probably remain that way for years to come, it seems to me that the essence of the entire Canadian landscape can be tasted best when it is encapsulated in honey.