Making sacrifices to harvest honey naturally in Kars, Turkey

The Perennial Plate

The Perennial Plate is a weekly, online, documentary series that follows two people who travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries. The duo, chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine, find their way into home kitchens, onto farms and fishing boats. They have a goal: 12 countries, in-depth, in 18 months. They recently visited Kars, Turkey, where beekeepers who harvest honey naturally are fighting to keep their traditions alive.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What part of Turkey were you in?

Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine
Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine

Mirra Fine: Kars, which is a town in the eastern part of Turkey, right on the Armenian border. It's really well-known for its honey. There are about 70,000 people who live in Kars, and they have 65 honey shops. If you use that ratio in New York City, it's like one honey shop every two blocks. It's amazing.

Outside of Kars, the countryside is dotted with all these little, tiny villages, which is kind of like stepping back in time. They look like they're built in these old ruins. They keep cooking traditional methods, herding animals, and many of them have been honey-beekeepers for generations.

Daniel Klein: There are lots of folks who keep bees, but the real traditional way is unfortunately dying out in the region. Most of the time when you eat honey, the hives are fed with sugar.

MF: They usually eat around half the honey in the hive. Most people who do commercial beekeeping will feed them sugar, so that they don't lose any honey from their hive.

DK: These traditional beekeepers in Kars are very strict and very adamant about not giving any sugar to their bees. They are willing to sacrifice and actually not harvest any honey for a year, if it's a bad year, because they want their bees to stay in this natural way. They generally split the hive in two: They take the honey and leave half the honey for the bees.

LRK: Does this honey taste very different from other honeys that you've had from other places?

DK: It tastes so good.

LRK: Is it very intense?

DK: It's intense -- it kind of gives you a little bit of a tingle on the back of your throat. I don't know if that's because there's a little more pollen in it or what it is, but it has got this natural depth.

The honey is also special because up in the mountains, it's gorgeous. There are no crops, so there are no apple trees, no almond trees, no pesticides; it's just wildflowers. The honey is harvested in this completely natural way.

Hives in Kars, Turkey
Hives in Kars Turkey (The Perennial Plate)

LRK: Is this honey sold as something very special? Do they see a premium for making this sort of sacrifice?

MF: It is sold as something very special, but there are also lots of commercial beekeepers who sell honey at every shop on a street. That's sold at a lower price, so it's making it more difficult for these people in the small villages to make money.

DK: One of the issues that they're finding is that the commercial beekeepers are coming in -- because Kars honey is famous in Turkey -- with bees from outside. There's a Caucasian bee that's native to Kars. Because these outside bees are coming in that are more prolific, which are able to bring in more honey, they're actually killing off this native bee. It's kind of a dubious situation by which the government is encouraging people apparently to do more honey production, but at the price of this native bee.

LRK: Are people objecting to this? Kars honey isn't going to be Kars honey.

DK: People are definitely objecting. We had sort of a funny situation. We went to interview this one beekeeper. We started filming, and then another beekeeper comes up, "Can I talk?" Then a third beekeeper comes up. Pretty soon we have the whole town talking about this issue ...

MR: ... Kids, wives and dogs. They usher us into one of the beekeeper's homes and we sit down. They serve us honey with the comb still in it on bread that's made in something like a tandoor oven, then kaymak, which is like a Turkish clotted cream that is the top layer of cream that forms after you boil milk. They serve it all in this bread, and it's the most amazing, amazing thing.

Beekeeping in Kars, Turkey
Beekeeping in Kars, Turkey (The Perennial Plate)

LRK: Did they have any ideas for solutions to this problem?

DK: Their solution is really to have the government encourage the maintenance of this type of Caucasian bee. They've been petitioning the government to stop other bees from being allowed into Kars because it's killing off their bees. They're just saying, "Stop that; encourage this." What is really going to make and continue the culture of Kars beekeeping is to have the original bees and their delicious honey be made as opposed to diluting it by making it available to anyone, to these commercial operations.

MF: And to not give up. Many of the beekeepers didn't get any honey this past year, but they won't stop. They still keep on trying. They're not willing to do it the commercial way because it's something that's part of their history and their tradition and they want it to stay alive.

DK: In this village we visited, the number of traditional beekeepers had decreased dramatically over the last 10 years -- you know, where a family has 10 hives. They sell it at the market. It's very special; you don't get to taste non-adulterated honey very often.

Kars Honey from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

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