Season to Taste: Cross-Pollination
Rosh Hashana season at Marshall’s Farm Honey finds customers buzzing about their stand at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. They are attracted to the promise contained on the sign hanging above the amber-toned jars of honey glistening in the morning Bay Area sun: “May Your Life Be Sweet.” Equally appealing to many is the opportunity to chat with Helene Marshall, the self-proclaimed “Duchess of Honey.”
Since there’s hardly a meal associated with the autumn Jewish holiday calendar that would not be made better by a generous spoonful of honey—whether stirred into desserts, swirled on a wedge of crisp apple or brushed onto fresh loaves of raisin-studded halla—people swarm around Helene to sample the products, get baking advice, kibbitz and extend holiday wishes. While many already have favorite recipes for honey cake, teiglach and tzimmes, when it comes to the sweet stuff itself, few can speak with as much authority as Helene. She is, after all, the beekeeper’s wife.
After moving back to her native San Francisco in late 1989, Helene was introduced to Spencer Marshall, a farmer and beekeeper who worked pollinating almond crops throughout northern California. They married just in time: Spencer’s sticky honey-making habit was threatening to overtake his makeshift production site on his parents’ farm in central California.
“When I met him he had 10,000 pounds of the stuff in drums,” says Helene, “and no idea what to do with it.” A bee flaps its wings 11,000 times per minute, and Helene moved nearly as fast building the business, doing everything from designing a logo to making deliveries and teaching honey-centric cooking classes. In the process, she became an expert, turning amateurs and professionals alike (fans include chefs Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck) on to the subtle differences between the nearly 40 varieties that Marshall’s produces (800-624-4637; www.marshallshon ey.com).
“The taste, aroma, color and viscosity of honey are a direct result of the season and microclimate in which it was produced,” explains Helene. So while Almond Blossom Honey—the result of cross-pollination of eucalyptus and almond trees—may be bitter and dark, the Star Thistle variety is known for its lightness, complexity and candy-like characteristics. With the fertile terrain of the Bay Area as his playground, Spencer traverses the hills and valleys like an apiary Pied Piper, seeking out the orchards, leading his bees to the most succulent flowers and plants at just the right time of year. If berries are at their best in late summer or pumpkin blossoms peak in October, Spencer’s bees are sure to be there to suckle the sweet nectar. Boxes containing the raw honey are brought back to the farm, where it is extracted from the honeycomb, strained and bottled by hand.
But this time of year, Helene focuses on those who come to buy jars with a Rosh Hashana message: “May Your Year Be Sweet Like Apples Dipped in Honey.” Those with a spiritual bent specifically seek out Marshall’s fresh honey—sold within one week of harvesting—to symbolize the chance for a clean slate that the High Holidays represent. “It’s a statement of starting over, reinstating the cycle of life,” says Helene. “A little extra sweetness never hurts.” (Marshall’s Farm Honey is certified kosher by the Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.)
For a simple holiday dessert, Helene serves a chunk of honeycomb with slices of apple and a hunk of blue cheese. The sugary, waxy comb melts winningly into the sharpness of the cheese, punctuated by the crunch of the apple. For a great holiday brunch, Yom Kippur break-fast or any time the need for a sweet treat arises, try these scones.
Sweet Potato, Honey and Ginger Scones
Makes 12 scones
-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
-1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
-4 tsp baking powder
-3/4 tsp salt
-8 TB butter, cold and cut into bits
-3/4 cup sweet potato, cooked, peeled and mashed
-6 TB cream
-2 TB honey
-1/2 cup crystallized ginger, diced
-2 TB sour cream
-2 TB honey
1. Preheat oven to 425º. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
2. Cut in butter using pastry blender or your hands until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Form a well in the center and add sweet potato, milk and honey. Toss in ginger and fold ingredients together with a wooden spoon or your hands until smooth.
3. Turn dough onto lightly floured board and knead until it forms a workable ball, about 15-20 turns. Pat down to 3/4-inch thickness. Cut with biscuit cutter or inverted glass dipped in flour, about 3 inches in diameter. Gently knead scraps together and cut the scones until you have used up all the dough. Place scones at least one inch apart on baking sheet and, using your thumb, make a shallow indentation in center of each for glaze.
4. Glaze: Whisk sour cream and honey together just before using. Spoon 1 tsp into the center of each scone.
5. Bake 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned.
Adapted from Covered in Honey: The Amazing Flavors of Varietal Honey by Mani Niall (Rodale).