Boutique Hong Kong honey, and the hotels where you can eat it
Hotels in the region are sourcing honey from local small-scale beekeepers, and some are even making their own
If you visit The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong before the end of July, the hotel's Lounge & Bar is offering a Honey Bee Afternoon Tea in collaboration with Bee's Nest Pure Honey. Among the teatime treats are traditional scones served with clotted cream and raw honey and a nod to Hong Kong with steamed milk custard topped with honey jelly - a twist on the traditional Cantonese dessert.
The honey is the first batch produced by the hotel's beehive at Bee's Nest farm near Tai Tam reservoir. In keeping with The Ritz-Carlton group's quest to support local businesses and environmental issues, the hotel has adopted a beehive there. Tours with one of the founders - Hong Kong beekeeper Gordon Yan, chef Cedric Alexandra (previously of TWG) or manager Patrick H. Zepho (ex Roka chef) - can be arranged for hotel guests.
Having set up Bee's Nest three years ago, the team now has 100 hives and is expanding to 500 next season. As well as being organic (the only certified organic honey in Hong Kong) the nectar is monofloral. Bees at their apiary pollinate from a single species of flower rather than several, resulting in a more intense taste and aroma.
The bees feast on three types of flowering plant: ivy - an evergreen tree native to Hong Kong from which a medium coloured and fragrant honey is produced, longan (which results in a dark, very sweet tasting honey) and lychee (light coloured and tangy in flavour).
Executive pastry chef Richard Long uses the longan honey to glaze walnuts on top of mini blue cheese tarts and adds it to dark chocolate pralines as he says the fruitiness works well with both. The ivy flower honey features in a custard filling for Bee Sting Cake - created by executive chef Peter Find.
"The location in Tai Tam has an abundance of ivy trees so it's very difficult for other bee farms in Hong Kong to produce a winter ivy honey as distinctive as ours," says Zepho.
Unlike farms that produce intensively, Bee's Nest honey is collected from the hives every seven or eight days.
"Each beekeeper has his own personality and method to produce honey that will affect its quality," says Zepho. "Gordon has learned the trade the traditional way to ensure the highest grade. Few beekeepers use this method now. It is a much longer process that requires breaking down the harvest in steps to remove as much of the moisture as possible, resulting in a more concentrated flavour and creamy texture."
Beekeeping is creating a buzz in hotels across Asia. The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong plans to serve honey harvested from its adopted hive on the menu for either breakfast, or the lunch and dinner buffets on a continual basis. The InterContinental Hong Kong has reintroduced its rooftop beehives after a cold winter and heavy rains killed off the bees two years ago. Three new beehives have been installed.
"This time we are using a bee farming concept with planter boxes where the bees can pollinate rather than them needing to fly within a 5km radius for food as they did before," says a spokeswoman for the InterContinental Hong Kong, which is working in conjunction with the Beekeeper Association of Hong Kong.
The hotel has also set up nine hives at its own garden in the New Life Farm in the New Territories. First harvest of the rooftop honey is expected at the end of this month and there are plans to use both honey batches in the hotel's F&B outlets from September.
On the southwest coast of Cambodia, at Song Saa Private Island Resort, the strongly flavoured honey served at its restaurants is sourced from Mondulkiri province in the east of the country. "Mondulkiri honey is famous in Cambodia because only around there do we still have strong jungle and forest," says F&B manager Chenda Nem. "And the [beekeepers] always produce real honey, they never mix theirs with syrup."
The countryside of northern Thailand also provides rich pickings for bees and subsequently honey making. Four Seasons Chiang Mai has an impressive selection of local honey on its breakfast buffet.
"Our honey is not bought in bulk from industrial distributors but created by local beekeeping tribes in the surrounding forests, using a distinct species of regional bees," says a hotel spokesman.
By sourcing its honey this way, Four Seasons is also helping ensure the tribes' livelihood continues.
Depending on the time of year, the honey carries the flavour of flowering plants in the area such as rambutan, sunflower, sesame, sabsua, longan and lychee. "Our selection is based on seasonal availability with the honey being brought in fresh from the farm to the resort," says executive chef Stephane Calvet.
"Wildflower honey is typically fresh and aromatic with a liquid texture and matches very well with plain yogurt. Longan honey is more refined with a runny texture and is a perfect match for goat's cheese. Lychee honey is slightly bitter with a thick texture; it matches well with Thai food."
The Fairmont hotel group has developed a honey bee sustainability programme, designating some properties - including two on the mainland - Honey Bee Hotels to help the environment and provide honey for its guests. The Fairmont Beijing buys honey from Shangrila Farms which has apiaries in Yunnan province and teaches locals in rural villages about beekeeping.
At the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake Resort in Kunshan, beehives have been installed on the lake. The hives are tended by an experienced beekeeper.
"The bees we keep are an Italian breed, not local Chinese," says the hotel's general manager Jeff Cheng.
"They are larger and less sensitive than Chinese bees, which means they come out of hibernation and begin harvesting honey earlier, in late March or early April, when the outdoor temperature reaches 12 degrees Celsius."
The bees thrive on the hotel's 80-hectare organic vegetable garden. In good weather conditions, the more than 2,500 bees can produce up to 50kg of honey a day in peak season and it is used in the hotel's restaurants and also bottled for sale.
"The taste of their honey varies over the season, according to nature's flowering," says Cheng. "In early spring, the honey is light with the overwhelming fragrance of spring flowers. I prefer the light perfumed fragrance of petite chrysanthemum during May. Honey in September and October when the osmanthus blossom is also delightful. It has a faint and refreshing scent with the distinctive fragrance of osmanthus and goes perfectly with Chinese pastries and cakes."
The hotel's pastry team has created a version of the local steamed rice cake, made without sugar, and served warm with osmanthus honey. "It really is heavenly for afternoon tea," Cheng says.