Honey, Forget the Condiment. Try the Experience.


There was enough time to wonder, what would have happened if I had never come. I would be sitting on my bed, my cat curled under my chin, the hum of her purr like a lawnmower for faeries. There was enough time to think about the wedding we had been driving from, why didn’t we stay to spend the night, why did we drive through the dark back to Kars? There was enough time to consider how stupid it was to be hunting honey in the middle of May, in search of the most high quality specimens to entertain the National Geographic Expedition Council for my fifteen minutes of fame (not a cliche, this was actually scheduled as a fifteen minute presentation). There was enough time to wish I hadn’t dragged in my friends and family into this epic hunt, a hunt that would change our lives.

There was enough time for me to be wondering how the heck could there still be time. How could I be asking any questions at all? The flipping and swirling of our car never seemed to stop, as if we were in an unseen vortex of cold plateau air, pirouetting us round and round, like turn tables manned by a lethargic drunk deejay. Probably lasting only a total of five seconds, it was an incredibly slow tumble, off the side of the road, over a hill, to our neat little burrowed rut in the grass. Based on all the glass crashing around us, the sharp bends of the car, the twisted doors, I know it couldn’t have been slow or graceful. But somehow it felt that way. The tumble ended, I climbed through my window demanding everyone to follow my lead, thinking that all movies are true, and after accidents, cars explode. But nothing happened. The car was quiet, and as tsunamis of fear and adrenaline riped through my body, I was somehow quiet too.

After doing body checks in which we concluded we were all physically fine, I dug through the shards of glass in the back of my truck and pulled out my computer, my camera, and the centerpiece of it this insanity – my honey. One jar was black, bitter, chunky, the last karakovan deli + kestane (crazy + chestnut) mix I could find left-over from 2011. I paid 200 TL for 5 kilos, drove two days, and stopped in four villages to acquire it. This honey is dark, bitter, and the bees – when harvesting it – are mellow, but give a nasty sting. When I taste this honey, I can only think of weddings, dancing, wood houses, and mist with a weight and strength like giant’s hands.

Then there was the platinum colored honey from Posof, a nice creamy caramel looking honey comprised of fruit tree nectar with a citrus tang customary of plum flowers and thistle blossoms. When I taste that tang, I know it well. It speaks of this mid-mountain honey, where bees can fly between high yaylas and fertile valleys. This honey’s hives are generally teeter on the edge of tree-line, and the bees are light and playful. When I taste this honey, I think of Savsat, Posof, dark thunderstorms, the borders of micro-climates where steppes and mountains peak crash into bottomless valleys in one direction and high plateaus in the other. This honey was a gift from four migratory beekeepers. Teachers. Parents. They travel in caravans of wood and grow lettuce and cabbage and make cookies from all the fruit around them.

There was a generic store-bought organic honey, its factory label and plastic wrap nonplussed, the seal fortified for the trials of modernity, such as car accidents. This honey tastes sweet, and in its sweetness it is tasteless. This honey feels lifeless, scentless, emotionless. I keep it, as I do all my honeys, and this one reminds me what life feels like without feeling, without experiencing, or risking, or caring. It is a label for the sake of a label. Organic or not, I wouldn’t like this honey when its tastes or smells sit next to the honey for which I have hunted, and  at times felt I nearly died.

The accident passed. We were all fine. Relayed between hospitals I was diagnosed for bruising, bulging disks, bleeding, but at the time, I choose to laugh, between unrelenting bouts of tears, about how the only thing I could find to blow my nose on was sheep’s wool. Shivering in the hospital beds, signing off on a claim form that I am legally insane and therefore refuse an IV, a dark cloud of sadness sunk into my soul.

No car. My first tour begins in 12 hours. I’m in a hospital in Ardahan. My first guest and close friend arrived at the airport hours ago. How will I make it through? And why all of this? All of this for one great honey! I let myself cry for several hours. And I cried hard, aggressively, with force, and momentum, like I needed to fill a quota, because I knew there would be no place for tears in the next week. It was a timed work-out, and the seconds were ticking to expel all of my anxiety and fear in raw liquid form. Then I wiped away my tears and began planning what I needed to do. I had to prepare a seven-day tour about honey tasting. I had to prepare a 15 minute presentation for 45 members from National Geographic. And I had to move into a new house.

Any sane person who has read this far could think of a thousand ways to reprimand me – first and foremost take care of yourself! Why did you get in that situation in the first place? Where were you hunting for honey? Why is it so dangerous? Why was it so hard to find honey anyways?

Know that these questions all have legitimate thought out answers. But the one we need to focus on is why – oh why – is it so hard to find a good jar of honey. Why did we have to drive days across the region at the end of May in 2012, ultimately crashing our car at 4:30 am on a Sunday, in search of several very good jars of honey?

This subject, for me, is a book. The title reads “Why is it Hard to find Great honey in Turkey?” and these are the chapters: Chapter 1. Turkey Should be the Best Country in the World For Honey.  In this chapter, I tell you all about how Turkey has the highest concentration of bee-boxes in the world, of how micro-climates, historic human/animal/bird migrations, sea level, steppes, and steep mountain terrain make for a remarkable flower species variety that renders some of the most exotic honey imaginable. I tell you about honey and beekeeping’s deep history in Turkey, about the long tongue and nectar retrieving capabilities of the Caucasian bee, and the honey customs and cultures and traditions around tasting and eating honey that span back centuries. Chapter 2 reads: Mud-Rain, War, and Dams – Turkey’s Environmental Struggles. Here I tell you about how climate change, construction, and oddly enough – even war – affects the seasons and deep environmental life of bees, beekeeping, and honey in Turkey. Chapter 3: How Counterfeit Supplies, Smuggling, and Contaminated Materials Threaten Bee Populations. Chapter 4: Small-Scale Can’t Survive? – Why Small-Scale Beekeepers Struggle. Chapter 5: Migratory Beekeepers and the Unwritten Economy. Chapter 6: Quality Control and Pricing Schemes – How Advertising Manipulates Turkey’s Honey Market. Chapter 7: A Lack of Infrastructure and Development Is Honey and Beekeeping’s Double Edge Sword. Chapter 8: Why Beekeeping and Honey Needs A New Approach. Chapter 9. Honey, Forget the Condiment. Try the Experience.

For my seven-day tour and my National Geographic presentation, I spouted on and on about these topics, verbally relaying my book to anyone who knew how to ask a good question and be willing to join me for a long walk. I wanted everyone to understand, Honey is complicated! And finding it, experiencing it, understanding it, is no easy task! Once the tour and the presentation had come to a successful, exhausting close, I would sit quietly and stare into nothingness, thinking about bees, about my broken car, about my crazy will that takes me into some of the most remote and difficult places, putting myself and those I love at risk. The majority of the beekeepers I would need to access take days of walking, and are truly in some of the most remote mountain corners of the world. Here in these mountain kingdoms of the Caucasus, the seasons are short, ushered in by the mountain mist hands that can wrap wind, and snow, and fog around the forests faster than a Macaheli village man can climb a tree. Here, bees are frozen to flowers, and even our warm breath cannot untangle them from the fickle icy grasp of our weather systems. How would I navigate this terrain, safely delivering myself and my friends through the mountains and across the region to the bees and back? How would I get into a car again?

Working in Northeastern Turkey has some drawbacks. But for all of the hot filtered coffee and smooth paved roads that it lacks, it redeems itself in a warm community that takes care of its own. Slowly, my story spread. My dream of documenting bees in the Caucasus, the accident, my sadness – these truths were relayed between hypothesis about how I could have ever ended up here (she escaped from prison in the US, and can’t go back). My small cry for help was answered by the mountain bound off-roaders of the region. In their 4×4-full-suspension-caged-hydraulic-geared-super-wheeled-gadget-orienteering-high-powered transformer vehicles, the off-road began taking me and my fearless photographer Claire across the region, one beekeeper at a time.

As our journey continues, I thank them – for delivering us safely to the highest most unreachable mountain tops, to hidden ancient beekeepers, and to Turkey’s greatest honey. Slowly, we are collecting the jars, each one tasting of a memory, vivid, visceral, full of vitality. And I hope in some way we are touching their lives, fulfilling our mission that no one looks at honey the same again, one jar at a time.

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About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on September 4, 2012, in Business, Culture, Food, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I love the photos of the blog!

  2. thanks for telling us how unromantic and extraordinary your project continues to be.

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