The Food Producers – Sarah Wyndham Lewis of Bermondsey Street Bees
You're having a perfectly fine day, possibly cooking dinner. Then your stockbroker husband comes home and announces that, after thirty years in The City, he's giving it up to become a full time beekeeper. You have an allergy. Do you (a) have a hissy fit (b) consult a divorce lawyer, or (c) adapt in finest Darwinian fashion?
That's what happened to today's heroine. From the photograph you can guess (roughly) what happened next. Tom's Food! has featured Sarah before, but only in the context of a short honey tasting which she presented a couple of years ago. We have stayed in touch, and she agreed to be the star of today's big picture. An hour's chat plus background research is usually enough: in the case of Sarah, nearly three hours on Zoom passed in the flutter of a bee's wing.
While she is now a world expert on honey, having trained at the University of Bologna with the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey, it's not as though she didn't have a decent food background. She comes from a farming family who seem to have moved about a bit, including a spell producing wine in the Loire Valley. There is a good Scottish strain - I always knew I liked her. Mum was Cordon Bleu trained and a honey freak. In the bad old days she complained that it was almost impossible to buy real honey (we'll come to that) outside of Soho or, strangely, Glasgow.
Many foods evoke memories. Sarah's is of sitting in a farmhouse in Wales being given a doorstep of freshly baked bread liberally slathered with honey. She's been hooked since. If, like me, you know little about honey, chatting to her is an education. Some learning experiences can be dull - but not when you're listening to a passionate expert. Fifteen or so years on, Sarah and husband Dale run Bermondsey Street Bees. Their website proclaims their business to be about sustainably produced raw English honey. Some of it comes from hives on the rooftops of London. Who would have known? And who would know that there is an issue with overcrowding in London? No, not traffic congestion, but beehives.
So what is raw honey? I think the best analogy would be unpasteurised. Sarah is scathing about the quality of the product on supermarket shelves, which she refers to as funny honey. Heat and movement degrade the quality of honey, but that is exactly what happens to the processed stuff. The emphasis is on consistency and low price. In some cases that means bulking it out with sugar syrup, blending it, and removing all the pollen, that which gives real honey its individuality.
The inside of a bee hive is approximately blood temperature. Raw honey is never heated above that. While it does have to be filtered to remove hive detritus, the filters are big enough to let the pollen through. That's why Bermondsey Street Bees’ honey has won countless awards, including the 2020 Great Taste Award for Best Food Product in London and South-East, as well as both winner and runner up in the Honey category at the 2020 Great British Food Awards. Customers include Tom Kerridge, Hélène Darroze and Anthony Demetre. She also works worldwide, training and advising top mixologists (barmen in old money) who are looking for top ingredients for their cocktail ranges. Her official title is Honey Sommelier, and her skills are kept honed by regular tastings which utilise her vast collection of rare honeys.
I have enough material for half a dozen articles, but perhaps we'll draw to a close looking at some environmental issues. Worldwide, there are 25,000 species of bee, of which only 7 are honeybees. As the commercial source of honey and mass pollination, honeybee numbers are man-managed, with United Nations figures showing that hive numbers now exceed 91 million. Although often grossly mistreated by humankind, they are in no danger of extinction.
It is the wild bees that we need to worry about and many are on the verge of extinction, as their habitats are lost to climate change, urbanisation and big agriculture. Dale and Sarah work with many charities and corporates who are making significant contributions to biodiversity; however, Sarah warns, far too many businesses and individuals are still mistakenly jumping on the honeybee bandwagon. Every month, they turn down 5 or 6 requests to install beehives on the roofs of banks, solicitors' and accountancy firms. Instead, they direct them to turn their attentions to planting for pollinators, the single most constructive thing that any of us can do to help sustain bee populations.
I ask Sarah for advice for would be beekeepers. Well, for one, she says, it's hard physical work. Secondly, even if you have just one hive and it's a hobby, you become a farmer. You must get proper training; you must get an experienced mentor; and you must sign up to Bee Base which logs the location of hives and will pass on Government advice about disease.
Like many, Sarah and Dale's business has taken a hammering this past year, losing 90% of turnover with the closure of restaurants and bars. They had pulled out of the grocery trade some years previously, but were happy to find that sector still open to them in lockdown, and will now continue to produce honey in jars, which you can obtain through their online shop. They also do consultancy and media work and, in normal times, Sarah is much in demand for corporate events, experiences and workshops. If you ever get the chance, do not miss out. It may be in rather poor taste, but I have to say that Sarah's enthusiasm and passion are more infectious than the Kent variant. Good luck, both. I hope to come and visit soon.
You can follow Sarah on Instagram @honeysommelierlondon. I can also recommend her book Planting for Honeybees, available from all good bookshops and online book sellers
Tom’s back. Hurrah. In the flutter of a bee’s wing How poetic. Your holiday has done great things