By Karen Pearlman
Oh, honey! How we love you so. Whether sweetening tea, cutting the spiciness of prepared mustard, easing a sort throat or as an ingredient in a recipe, honey has been used by millions for thousands of years in all ways imaginable. On Rosh Hashanah, it’s a given that most Jews will enjoy it with apples, symbolizing a sweet new year.
The creation of the thick amber liquid is nothing short of a thoughtful and painstaking, if natural, process. In honey production, while bees themselves are not kosher, what the insect does is.
Honey is produced from nectar, which bees gather, store inside their bodies and transport to their honeycombs. While inside the bee, enzymes break down the nectar and transform it into honey. But — here’s the kicker that makes honey kosher — the liquid is not actually digested by the bee, so the honey is not a product of the bee itself.
Helene Marshall, a Jewish city girl from San Francisco turned rural beekeeper, is an expert in honey production. For 20 years, she and her husband, Spencer, whom she met in 1989, have been beekeepers in Napa Valley.
There, in the land famous for grapes and wine and “the whole food industry,” she says, they and their 15 worker bees (of the two-legged variety) care for the bees and create hand-crafted honey for their family business, Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey.
“We’re a little bit bigger than a mom and pop type operation,” Helene Marshall explains. “We started out, and it happened by accident, that basically, my husband was keeping bees as a hobby. He dreamed of doing a farmer’s market.
“We met each other when I was in the gift business. My background is art. For him, doing a farmer’s market was a really big deal. He’s really an artist; he’s that good at keeping bees. Here I was doing gift shows all over the country with products I was designing. So I gave his honey a label. I took it from the hive to the market, ‘hive-to-table,’ so to speak.”
The Marshall’s Farm natural honey, certified kosher, is 100 percent raw, pure and “one step away from sticking your hand in the beehive yourself,” she says. No pesticides are ever used, and bees are not treated with antibiotics. Unlike some store-bought honey products, their honey is never watered down, nor are the bees ever fed corn syrup, Marshall notes.
Though honey from Marshall’s Farm is not USDA-certified organic, she says her farm maintains hives and treats the bees “in an organic way.”
“We put in bees in areas that have as little pollutants as possible in this day and age,” she says.
Marshall is a bee and honey expert. Among other things, she explains that the United States is home to 300 different honey-producing flower species. Each one produces a different tasting honey.
Honey the farm sells includes California sage from the Monterey coast, California orange blossom from the Bakersfield/Fresno area, wildflower honeys from the San Francisco Bay/East Bay and infused lavender honey tea bags containing lavender flowers immersed in wildflower honey for up to three weeks.
“The honey soaks up the essence of the flowers,” Marshall notes. “The result is a honey that tastes and smells like lavender.”
Marshall, 68, who says she is not religious but still identifies as Jewish, calls herself “California Reformed,” and likes to joke that her bees get “buzz mitzvahed.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Marshall says she travels to Portland, Ore., to be with her family where they attend kids’ services. Marshall fasts on Yom Kippur and goes with girlfriends to an assortment of services in San Francisco and Berkeley throughout the day. Her husband is not Jewish but supports Helene’s Judaism.
Currently, she says, the honey business is booming and Marshall’s Farm’s myriad products are selling practically as soon as they become available throughout Northern California and online.
Sales always spike during Rosh Hashanah, she adds, and the farm offers special pricing for synagogue fundraisers.
“We do a lot of farmer’s markets, and people come up and say, ‘Oh, is this is real?’ ” Marshall says. “Especially Arabic and Asian customers. They are always questioning us, because in their countries, the honey is often tainted. We say, ‘Do you see this [kosher] symbol? This symbol is a symbol of purity.’ ”
Marshall’s Farm, whose kashrut for 10 years has been overseen by Rabbi Jacob Traub of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council in San Francisco, even has a special Rosh Hashanah display they put out at farmer’s markets from San Francisco to Sacramento, all over Marin County and in Berkeley.
They sell an item called “Rosh Hashanah in a Jar,” which is a jar of their honey with dried apples added.
“We’ve been doing it for about three or four years now,” Marshall says. “At Rosh Hashanah it is a big seller. It’s such a fun idea and a nice gift to bring to somebody’s house with a special label.
“I’m proud that we have it certified kosher,” Marshall continues. “A lot of people could say their honey is kosher, but you can’t just put the symbol on it unless it’s certified.”
Symbolic all year long to Jews, at Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to dip an apple slice in honey, saying a prayer that God should grant us a good and sweet year. In Psalm 19:11, it is written that the Torah and doing mitzvot are “sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.”
Marshall’s Farm regularly offers tours to the public.
“[Tour groups can] see how we don’t process our honey,” she says. “Processed honey implies pumps, water, heating it…all the stuff we avoid doing to create this artisanal product. It’s real.”
For more information on Marshall’s Farm and kosher honey, visit www.marshallshoney.com or call (707) 556-8083. If you’re ever in the Bay Area, visit the farm at 159 Lombard Road, American Canyon, CA 94503.
Inside a Beehive
The queen bee lays up to 2,000 eggs per day in summer season. The brood hatches and spends most of its 45 living days inside the hive doing jobs to sustain the hive population. The last thing the worker bee does is fly and forage nectar and pollen. Inside the hive, the bees graduate from cleaning out the cell (the compartment in the comb) to producing royal jelly to feed the queen and developing larvae. They become part of a chain from the entrance of the hive to the cell in which newly foraged nectar and pollen is stored. They all have jobs, including guarding the hive from invaders and producing beeswax from special glands in their bodies. In the hive there is a supply of drones as needed to be there to fertilize a new queen.