Sarah Wyndham Lewis
A professional writer and Bologna-trained honey sommelier, Sarah is a columnist for a leading beekeeping magazine, trains chefs and bartenders and runs raw honey tastings for food and drinks industry professionals.
She also runs tastings and workshops for clients including Petersham Nurseries, Lambeth Palace, Cookery School and Hiver Beers. Her most recent book, ‘Planting for Honeybees’, is published worldwide by Quadrille. Sarah is a Great Taste Awards judge and a member of the Guild of Food Writers.
As well as food tasting and writing, Sarah is passionate about giving back. Along with her husband (and bee keeper Dale Gibson) Sarah contributes her time, data, resources and money to global bee research and the training of the next generation of bee keepers. Together they run community projects and advise on public and private planting projects to feed both honeybees and wild pollinators.
Tessa Packard [TP]: Why honey and how did you start working with this product professionally?
Sarah Wyndham lewis [SWL]: When my (then) Stockbroker husband announced his intention to train as a beekeeper, I was horror struck, as I’m allergic to bee stings. He talked me round though and as he became first a hobby beekeeper and then later a professional, I became immersed in it too. There’s no halfway with bees… you have to be 100% committed ….and that obsession hit us in parallel, turning our lives upside down.
Obviously though, I was never going to be working on the hives; my obsession grew with honey. I’ve been a professional writer my whole working life, often involving food, and I come from a farming and wine producing family. So analysing food and wine was second nature to me and became my frame of reference as I started to learn more about honey. Where is it from? Who makes it? How do they make it? What is the terroir? All of those factors combine to make real honeys as differentiated from each other and as much a product of their terroir as fine wines or olive oils. These three products also share the sad distinction of being the most widely adulterated foodstuffs on earth.
Aside from the simple joys of good honey, the culture, art, science and global politics of bees, honey and the environment are all topics meriting deep research. The more I learn, the more I realise that I want to learn…and hopefully, the better I communicate through my own writing and teaching.
There are so many fascinating issues around honey, sustainability and biodiversity of which most consumers are unaware. So my role is to communicate ….. with no breast-beating or hair shirts…. I just want to seduce their palates, hearts and minds into starting a love affair with good honey.
[TP]: You trained as a honey sommelier in Bologna. Why Bologna and can you tell us a little bit about what it entails to train as a professional honey sommelier?
[SWL]: Italy celebrates, cherishes and supports its beekeepers and the authenticity of its native honeys – and Bologna University is the mothership of agricultural, environmental and food science studies. So, to have the chance to train there with ‘The Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey’ was something to be jumped at. It’s a very intensive and specific course, perfect (if extremely challenging!) for people like me already working in the world of bees and honey but wanting to advance their skills at the knee of some of the world’s greatest honey experts. If I could clone our course tutors’ brains and have just a quarter of their knowledge, I’d be busy processing it forever.
[TP]: If you could describe the taste of your London honeys in three words what would it be?
[SWL]: Luscious, herbaceous, profound; (we produce great country honeys too…)
[TP]: How differing in taste is honey from different parts of the world? Is it as wide ranging as red wines or olive oils? Can you give us an example of two very polar opposite tasting honeys?
[SWL]: The highly differentiated colours, textures and flavours in honey relate directly to the land and soil from which they come, the plants that the bees have visited, the prevailing climate and the specific weather conditions of the time. The bees fly out in a distance of around 3 miles from their hive, so their honey will be a perfect ‘snapshot’ of that place and that time.
So for polar opposites, you could compare the almost black, extremely bitter honey made from Europe’s Sweet Chestnut trees to the creamy white, potently floral and slightly camphorous honey from New Zealand’s Leatherwood forests.
[TP]: How has what you do shaped who you are as a person?
[SWL]: There’s such a thrill in finding a new career in middle age. I’m much less self-conscious now and happier in my own skin. In my past life, I’d have curled up in a heap rather than dare to share a platform with a Michelin-starred chef or be interviewed on radio/TV …but now I embrace every chance I’m given. It seems I’ve discovered a burning passion and conviction at a time of life when I can just be myself: generally upbeat, always driven, sometimes quite cross (!), often daunted, but continuously learning on the job, saying “yes” even to challenging opportunities. It can be heady stuff and I hope to keep working at it until I fall off my perch.
[TP]: How is most mainstream honey processed and what does that do to the quality of honey as a product, and to the bigger biodiversity picture?
[SWL]: What I tend to call the ‘supermarket’ or ‘catering’ honeys are the product of aggressive processing. They’re factory-made to order, to meet a specified (ultra-low) price point and standardised colour and viscosity. Meeting the brief is achieved through blending: mixing some good honey (maybe) with a lot of indifferent and some really poor honeys. (This is exactly the formula for wine and olive oil blends too.)
Along the way there are opportunities to adulterate, adding ultra-cheap sugar syrups to bulk out whatever honey is in the mix. So sophisticated are the adulterations nowadays that even the highest tech labs often cannot spot them.
The processing itself involves pumping the honey under pressure through miles of stainless steel, superheating (it then becomes cooked not ‘raw’, losing flavours and micronutrients) and blast-micro-filtering to remove the pollens, a tiny but crucial component of real honey. The pollens are filtered out both to delay the natural process of crystallisation and (far more sinister this) to remove the pollen evidence which would lead analysts to the actual countries of origin. The dirty business of transhipping honey globally has many back doors through which honey from one country can end up being re-labelled as the product of another.
Real honey is a wholefood, rich with natural enzymes, pollens and other micro-nutrients. Its components offer varied, authentic and complex flavour experiences as well as naturally beneficial properties including supporting our gut biome and being just what you need when you have a sore throat.
Blended honey is a set of anonymised, untraceable sugars, a hollow facsimile of the natural bee-created product. It threatens the environment very directly by depressing beekeepers’ incomes to the point where it is no longer economically viable for them to keep bees. A recent report by European farming unions estimates that the global flood of cheap, processed honey undermines beekeeping to such an extent that up to 10 million hives may be lost from the EU’s agricultural food production within the foreseeable future. It’s not exaggerating to say that the honey blending industry directly threatens our national food security.
[TP]: What advice would you give someone who has a small urban garden or roof terrace and wants to attract / support local honeybees?
[SWL]: Above all, I would beg people to understand that the oft-repeated mantra “Save the Bees” is less about honeybees than about the wild bee species. As confirmed by United Nations figures, hive numbers globally have never been higher. Honeybees are human-managed and, though grievously abused as a species, are not going extinct. (Beekeepers who lose or kill their hives simply breed or buy more bees. Therein lies another rant…)
So please don’t think that adding a hive or two to your city garden or rooftop will have a positive environmental impact. Most urban areas are groaning with hive overloads and the cumulative effect becomes a negative impact on wild bees such as the bumblebees and many solitary species.
But what you can do to make a real difference is PLANT!!!! Don’t be fooled into sprinkling packets of wildflower seeds around the place or setting up bee hotels, especially above ground level. They willmake little or no difference. If you only have small spaces to work with, garden in containers. It’s easy and adaptable. Plant them with compact flowering bushes (eg; blueberries, rosemary, lavender, heather) and/or masses of flowering herbs (eg; marjoram, oregano, mint, thyme.)
Honeybees and some bumblebee species prefer feeding on just one type of plant at a time. So, to aid them, plant in ‘clumps’ – for instance, fill an entire pot or trough with mint. And don’t keep pinching the tops off your herbs (all gardening books will tell you to do this) – just allow them to grow and flower naturally.
Bees also need water and prefer it quite ‘dirty’. Set up a bee drinking station by filling a shallow dish with stones or shells (to give them a perch) and then leave it out to fill with rainwater. Top it up in dry weather.
[TP]: What aspect of your job do you find most rewarding, and by the same token, what part do you find most tiresome and problematic?
[SWL]: Sustainable beekeeping, as opposed to what we call “robber baron” beekeeping, works because it is low impact, respecting the bees and the local environment in which they live. Being able to make positive contributions through both our own practice and by disseminating knowledge is very rewarding.
It’s amazing though, how the world sees beekeepers as public property, available 24/7 to get involved in mad schemes, donate to charities way outside our sphere or spend hours on the phone responding to weird enquiries. And people can get snarky if we don’t jump through their hoops. It’s lovely to be seen as a community resource, and we will always do whatever we can, especially locally… but at the same time we are trying to run a highly regulated food business, keep on top of our wages bill and, above all, look after our bees.
[TP]: You are a Great Taste Awards judge. Over the years, what have you been most surprised by and most disappointed by?
[SWL]: You see a lot of food trends as a GTA Judge and vegan is now such a big thing, with many entries into this sector. I’ve been disappointed by the highly processed and/or unsustainable ingredients that some of the entries contain and by the fact that they are simply not ‘good food’ in either flavour or nutrition.
With meat or without, delicious wholesome food is the basis of good health and one of life’s greatest pleasures. Happily, as a GTA Judge, you also taste lots and lots of glorious entries!
[TP]: In your opinion, what is the one thing that needs to change in your sector and why?
[SWL]: Honey labelling. Consumers should be able to see at a glance whether a honey is raw and single source or highly processed and blended. They need to know where in the world the honey comes from and – if it’s authentic – be able to follow a clear ‘chain of custody’, traceable from hive to jar.
There’s a lot of independent work going on around this, but it needs Governments worldwide acting together to regulate the honey market, empowering consumers to make informed choices between the ‘honey flavoured syrups’ on supermarket shelves and authentic honeys that have not been compromised. (This has already happened with Maple Syrup, so there is a reproduceable model to follow, but no will being expressed by Governments.)
[TP]: What one important fact about bees or honey do you wish everyone knew to change things for the better?
[SWL]: The facts behind blended honey. There is literally no reason on earth to blend or ‘pasteurise’ honey, except to disguise its origins and produce cheap facsimiles of the real thing.
You honestly don’t even need to know any more than just to check the small (sometimes miniscule) print on the label. If you see the word “blend” (as in ‘a blend of EU honeys’ or ‘a blend of EU and non-EU honeys’) or the word “pasteurised”, put it straight down. I can guarantee that it’s been highly processed, very possibly adulterated too….and it is not real honey.
Real honey is made by bees and is a precious, luxurious product. Blended honey is constructed in factories by food scientists. Meeting its price and production requirements tips both bees and beekeepers into slave labour.
[TP]: How easy is it for a beekeeper or honey producer to change the taste of their honey? Can this be done consciously by planting certain flowers within the hive’s vicinity or reducing the number of bees in a hive? Or are variations in taste year-in-year-out only the result of environmental factors, such as the weather?
[SWL]: Many people’s honey ambitions have come a cropper by trying to second-guess their bees’ foraging requirements. Yes, if you really wanted to build a particular floral note in a honey, you could try planting lots of that specific food source within the hives’ flying range (3 miles), but they may well ignore it in search of other preferred forage. And if they did honour your choice, you would need to take that honey straight off the hive once gathered, before the bees amalgamated it with later nectar sources. All rather difficult….
In other countries, where there are really large areas of rich nectar sources, for instance chestnut forests or citrus orchards, you will find many monofloral honeys – i.e. largely made from one type of nectar. In the UK though, we mostly produce polyflorals– sourced by the bees from many different types of flower (and NB, just like humans, variety of forage underpins bee health.)
But both monofloral and polyfloral honeys are highly subject to the terrain and soils in which they grow, the prevailing climate and the specific weather conditions of that particular year. These natural variations in honey, as in wine, are something to be explored and celebrated.
[TP]: You regularly volunteer your time and expertise to help further global bee research. What is the best way for ‘average joe’ to help the plight of the honey bee? Is it best to donate to bee charities or get involved in community planting projects? Or buy a certain type of honey? Where can (and how can) one help the most?
[SWL]: Hard for individuals to get to grips with, the plight of the honeybee is something that needs addressing at a global level, being largely associated with monocultural agriculture and its associated chemicals. Just one example …. The mass production of almonds to satisfy the global demand for ‘healthy’ almond milk leads to the death of millions of honeybees every year, but actually, people can make a difference here, simply by replacing their almond milk choice with oat milk (oats are pollinated by wind, not by bees).
For more info on this see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
You can directly support both honeybees and vulnerable wild pollinator species by planting either at home, or through joining local gardening or greening charities. (My book, Planting for Honeybees is a really approachable guide to planting spaces large and small.)
Donations to charities are important too, as government funding is scarcer nowadays. We choose the charities we work with very carefully, specifically supporting those involved in beekeeper training and/or important multi-species pollinator research. Here are some organisations really worth supporting:
Lastly, you can use your consumer power to boycott blended supermarket honeys in favour of real honey produced at source by actual beekeepers. You can connect with beekeepers at Farmer’s Markets and through local beekeeping associations (BKA’s).
You’ll find your local BKA on the BBKA website (above) and their members are usually hobbyists. Professional beekeepers can be found through The Bee Farmers Association, its members ranging from large bee farms to small artisan producers like us. I also buy honey everywhere we travel, again either from local markets, specialist shops or by tracking down local beekeepers. Some is sublime, some less so, but it’s always a flavour adventure.
[SWL]: Professional beekeepers across the world lead hard physical lives. So I’d like to bring together our international ‘family’ of beekeeper friends for a massive honey-themed treat …. Marie-Laure Legroux from Paris, Andrew Cote from New York, Anna Carrucan from SE Australia, Lesster Leow from Singapore, Sean Collinsworth from North Carolina and others from Canada, Italy, Greece, Burma and Barbados. All they’d need to bring would be a jar of their own honey for the feast.
We’d host the dinner at a massive window table at the Shangri-La hotel in London’s iconic Shard building, both because the hotel uses our honey and because the windows give panoramic views of our own London hive locations, from Lambeth Palace in the west to The Royal Docks to the far east of the city.
The evening begins with honey cocktails, devised and served by some of London’s most creative bartenders; using not just our honey but also our beeswax and propolis, the incense-like resins that the bees bring into the hive. (Wax and propolis are both used to add aromatics to cocktails.)
There are so many delicious recipes that showcase honey, so tonight’s menu will be a procession of small dishes from across the world. We’d sit down to treats including honey cured gravadlax, oysters with shallot and honey dressing, chorizo with red wine and honey, lamb with honey and cider gravy, chicken tagine with honey and saffron, oriental duck, honey-fermented vegetables, beeswax-aged fish, spiced honey glazes, smoked honey butter and honey breads from many different culinary traditions.
The last course, staying on the table for the rest of the evening, would be an incredible cheeseboard, accompanied by all of our guests’ own honeys, as widely varied as the beekeepers themselves and their home terroir. We’d nibble away at it all, comparing notes, laughing like jackals at tales of our beekeeping triumphs and disasters until way into the early morning
The drinks menu to accompany this feast? Not wine, or even mead, but, surprisingly, whisky. We’ve done several grand dinners at which honey-themed food has been paired with malt whiskies and it’s become something of a tradition for Bermondsey Street Bees events. Try it and see…
[TP]: In the world of honey, who are the next generation rising stars?
[SWL]: For me, it’s those chefs and bartenders who banish the dreaded ‘catering honey’ in favour of real, raw honeys that that they showcase on their menus. They understand vital sustainability issues being played out in world food and how powerfully their publicly stated choices can influence consumers.
If hospitality professionals lead the way to supporting beekeepers by paying fair prices for real honeys, the food and drink they serve will taste better, the beekeepers will be helped to stay in business and their bees can continue to pollinate fruit and vegetables, meadows for grazing meat and dairy animals and the plants and trees that produce the nuts, berries and seeds that also feed countless other species. Whether rightly or wrongly, humans have used honeybees’ natural adaptability and resourcefulness to make them the world’s primary pollinator. Without them, our current food economy and much of the global ecosystem will collapse.
[SWL]: Often, straight from the jar with a spoon! And I love using darker, umami-rich honeys in dressings and herb infused glazes. But one of my greatest pleasures is pairing honey with good cheese. A board of soft and hard artisan cheeses with two or three dishes of different raw honeys, fresh and dried fruits and some delicious nuts is a creative feast in the making.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Country…with sea
Favourite city? New York for work, Rome for joy
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Michel Roux Jr.
If you could time travel to any era? Georgian London’s ‘Bon Ton’: bewigged, bejewelled, simmering with intrigue
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? On a French mountain top. Lamb seared over a wood fire, sprinkled with sea salt and just folded into a baguette
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Earrings. Ever. Ever. Ever.
Pet hate? Greenwash
Biggest extravagance? Shoes
Favourite book? A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
What would your gravestone read? I’ve worked long and hard for this