Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Peter Shanks, 2006)
To many, Caucasus is a region shadowed by a tumultuous past marked by discord, invasions and instability. Cast aside the geopolitical tensions, and it won’t take long to appreciate there is something much more about this region nestled between Europe and Asia.
From Turkey to Georgia, all the way to Armenia and Azerbaijan, the area is a verdant paradise, ticking everything from lush mountain valleys to unspoilt villages with rugged mountain backdrops to an eclectic blend of Byzantine, Christian and Muslim sights.
Turkey’s location at the crossroads between East and West graces it with a heterogeneous landscape comprised of picturesque coastal towns, quaint villages and the vibrant legacy of the Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman empires. Farther in the east, Armenia is said to be the first nation to embrace Christianity and its old monasteries and churches are its greatest cultural troves. North of Armenia is Georgia, with frozen-in-time villages dotting the mountains and a long history of wine-making dating back to the 6th century B.C. Farther to the east, Azerbaijan parades a medieval core completed by Muslim heritage, hillsides that spout fire, mud volcanoes and, generally, an uncharted territory for many travellers.
Even if it’s often portrayed together geographically, Caucasus remains impossible to be rendered as a sole entity. Each country has its own individuality, compelling language and dialects, peculiar landscapes and paramount traditions. But in each of these countries, you will instantly find some common elements: hospitable locals and… honey.
The first records of honey reveal that our forefathers have been using the ‘golden goods’ thousands of years ago, and in Georgia, archaeologists even claim to have unearthed artefacts containing the oldest honey in the world. Similar to the ancient Egypt rituals, Georgians used to pack honey, along with other precious items, for a person’s journey into the afterlife. Today, the use of honey in the Caucasus may not be as ‘spiritual’ as in the past, but it is ubiquitous. In rural Georgia, for example, bees are still part of everyday life in Georgia and locals consider them as creatures close to God.
Boasting the highest concentration of bee boxes in the world and plenty of beekeepers proudly hanging on to generation-old traditions of honey making, Caucasus presents itself to the world as a significant honey hub.
Originating from the high valleys of Central Caucasus, kafkas or the Caucasian honey bee is one of the reasons why local honey is so delicious; merrymaking in this part of the world is as simple as adding freshly-picked honeycombs as dessert to a hearty traditional meal.
The Caucasian bees play a special role in the taste of honey, as they are known to be gentler to handle and very hard working. They are also tolerant to harsh winter environment, building up slowly during the spring and having a low inclination toward swarming. Caucasian bees make more propolis than any other species and according to Armenian beekeeper Vahagn Gharibyan, depending on the season, a bee hive can produce 15 to 30 kilograms of honey; this yield not only makes sweet-tooth addicts happy, but also contributes to a plethora of health benefits such as royal jelly and medicinal drugs.
Honey flavour also depends on the flower species from which the bees gather the nectar. Acacia is typically sweet and light, while forest honeys are richer. Dearer are the mono-florals made predominantly from the nectar of one flower species, as they are more intense and pure and are so delicious that you can simply spread them on freshly-baked slices of rye bread.
Georgians have long taken pride in producing unique wine and many contend Georgia is the oldest wine-producing land in the world. Adding to the country’s fame for wine prepared in qvevri, traditional egg-shaped clay vessels, honey has also attracted epicurean aficionados, albeit on a more niche scale.
According to Kristina Papunashvili, product and sales manager at Caucasus Travel, honey tasting sessions can be arranged for interested tourists as part of larger tours throughout the country. The recommended regions to visit are Kazbegi and Svanety, especially from May to July when a large variety of flowers are blooming. Honey enthusiasts can also visit apiaries and chat with beekeepers.
One such beekeeper is Tengiz Baratashviltan, who hails from the Pasanauri district in Dusheti. This honey guru of over 10 years, counts it a privilege to have learned the tradition and art of honey making from his father, as well as be able to perpetuate the craft. Honey making, he pointed out, has made him who he is today.
During summer, each day he is religiously dedicating his time taking care of the hives, which he builds himself, cleaning them and adding more frames when needed. Baratashviltan braves the swarming bees — he calls them his friends — daily and refers to honey as “godly nectar”. Honey, he shared, tastes different in each region, mainly due to the fact that it can be obtained from fragrant linden or chestnut flowers, as well as from the flowers of both trees.
Turkish delight of a different kind
Foodies in Turkey wouldn’t miss a chance to feast on the ultimate kebab, bite into a perfect-crusted lahmacun (pizza) and try every possible Turkish delight variant. But shops are also ‘swarming’ with delicious pastries and the omnipresent baklava coated in finger-licking honey.
Honey or bal makes its way from the forests and fields of Anatolia, from the mountains along the Mediterranean shore near Marmaris, the mountains near Konya, as well as from Maçahel region and the town of Kars, at the border with Armenia.
Here, ancient traditions have been kept unchanged for hundreds of years. The lush valleys and hillsides along the old fabled Silk Road are dotted with bee boxes, and hundreds of beekeepers flock there every summer to ‘feed’ their bees different flora.
In Kars, a small town that was once home to some important Armenian dynasties and today primarily known as a great agricultural-farming area, honey and cheese are the main products. The area is famous for its pure honey, with nectar coming from the wild mountain flowers.
This is the place where local beekeepers work hard from day to dawn, trying to protect honey making from commercialisation; many swear their bees are never given any sugar to increase production. In Kars, more than 60 honey shops line the town, proof that locals take the English expression “busy as a bee”, literally.
Keep calm and bee still
In Armenia, families have been bingeing on honey for centuries and till today, locals can’t get enough of it. Honey cookies and marlenka (layered honey cake) are treats you cannot avoid if you enter a traditional home. Moreover, if you happen to be invited to a wedding, don’t be taken aback if you hear folks pledging that honey symbolises happiness and a streak of luck for the newly weds.
But not only does honey represent good luck, for many local keepers it is synonymous with meditation, — transcending to a deeper realm amidst the buzzing distractions.
Vahagn Gharibyan, a keeper for more than 25 years from the Gegharqunik region, takes each day as a challenge, spending hours just listening to the hum of bees and feeling the aroma of flowers. To him, making honey is not a mere job, but a way of life.
He hopes to continue the tradition for as long as possible, with passion and without fear of a sting or two. There may be infinite checks on thousands of bees and stir-crazy months spending assembling hives, but sweet is the path he has chosen!