Sep 25, 2014

Paris-flavored: Petit Bée


I live a very secular life and generally forget about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, then realize only after the fact that I was coincidentally eating honey and/or apples just at the right time. In my DNA, perhaps? Or just in my kitchen, and a reflection of seasonal abundance?

One Jewish New Year, which happens to fall over Patrimoine weekend, Anthony is out of town on a business trip (coincidentally, in China, so that the one completely non-Jewish member of my family is doing the most Jewish thing of all: spending a Jewish holiday eating Chinese food). While he's gone, the girls and I find ourselves at the13th century College des Bernardins, for a special visit by an apiculturist -- beekeeper, that is.


He offers tastings of about half a dozen kinds of honey. In a shocking turn of events, Pippa declares them all too sweet, and asks for a cheese snack. Gigi's favorite is the chestnut honey, which is dark and intense. My favorite is the honey made by the bees from the College des Bernardins' own ruche (bee-hive). Since the nectar is collected from whatever flowers can be found in the city, I guess you'd call it officially Paris-flavored. In any event, the beekeeper and I discuss it rapturously, because it has a fruity, acidic tang to it that cuts the pure sweetness. Too bad the bees can't make enough for them to sell it, because I'd buy it in vats.

This is not the only place in Paris where bees make honey. There are over 300 hives around, including on the roofs of the Opéra Garnier and the Grand PalaisThe mairie (town hall) of the 4th arrondissement has over a quarter million bees on it that produce award-winning "Miel de Paris" ("Paris Honey").

But almost certainly the most famous are the beehives at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Every year, they sell their honey at the fête du miel (honey festival) during Open Garden weekend, which is the last weekend in September. I would love to tell you how it tastes, but I've never gotten there early enough in the morning to get a jar. I always end up with the honeys that are sort-of-local but not actually from the Jardin. I'm all in favor of the honey, but as somebody who once almost died from an attack by a swarm of wasps, this is not my favorite part of the park.

Among the many interesting factoids about what goes into just one of these small jars of Parisian honey:

-about 7,000 bee hours
-enough distance flown that if you added it together, it would circle the Earth's equator
-accidental pollination of several million flowers (bees pollinate about 80% of the world's flora, including fruits and vegetables!)
-less pollution (from Paris' air) than when bees fly over farmland (from pesticides)

One year on Rosh Hashanah, I am preparing an after-school snack for Gigi and a friend when I realize I've got all the makings for a thematic treat. I break out two kinds of honey and three kinds of apples to mix-and-match. The interesting coincidence, too, is that Gigi's friend is half-Moroccan, and her mother and I had just been talking about how amazing Morocco was in World War II to not have lost or deported even one single Jew (the King's famous quote when asked by occupied France to denounce the country's Jews: "We don't have any Jews; we have only Moroccans.") It may be one of the best examples ever of Jews and Muslims living together harmoniously.

So, we are very happy to share this treat with our Moroccan friend and to wish you all -- whether it's your New Year's or not -- as they write in French, Chana Tovah (a Happy New Year)!
Petit Bée is a raw sheeps' milk cheese from Tarn, in southern France. But to be more specific, it's from the department of the Midi-Pyrénées, named after the river that cuts through it. And to be more specific still, it comes from the farm of Chantal et Dragan Teotski. The farm is called La Ginestarié, which explains the connection between this cheese and its near-cousin called Ginestarié. Both are bricks of creamy, lumpy, delicious brebis, sheep cheese.

The cheese is creamy, but firm, with a thin, delicate crust. It's got a mildly earthy flavor, with hints of nuts and herbs and a nice balance of salty and milky. The word "bée", by the way, means "speechless" or "widely open/agape", and usually follows the word "bouche" ("mouth"), as in, "The approaching swarm of wasps was so huge, she stood there with her jaw hanging."

Sure, you know and I know that the word "bée" does not mean "bee" (which would be "abeille"). But I can't resist the cross-language faux-ami. Plus, it happens to be a delicious cheese drizzled with honey.


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