Food: Queen bee

A taste of city honey with Annie Bell
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The first time I realised that bees live in cities was when I was scouring the shelves of Fauchon in Paris, and discovered its miel recolte sur les toits de L'Opera de Paris. This pale amber honey is produced by bees kept on the roof of the Paris Opera, and costs a small fortune for the tiniest jar.

The second time it came home to me had more to do with a scene from Swarm. Sitting reading at home one afternoon, I became aware of a background hum, of the niggling kind that wasn't especially loud but was disconcerting enough to demand an explanation. A quick check indoors revealed nothing until, casually glancing on to the terrace garden, I nearly had a heart attack. The apple tree had a vast cone of bees hanging from its branches.

The panic, though, ended happily enough a couple of hours later when two keen bee collectors traipsed through the sitting room in full white garb, nets over faces and smokers in hand, and lured the furry creatures into a box before carting them away. But had I known then what I know now, I would have got straight on the phone to James Hamill in Battersea.

South of the River Thames, Hamill is Mr Honey. He has apiary sites all over Wandsworth, Wimbledon, Tooting and Croydon, producing rich golden honeys spun from the comb. These are luscious heavy honeys that cling to the spoon, full of pollen and royal jelly, with the kind of hazy aspect you get when honey is unfiltered. As time passes, they cloud over and mature into a thick grainy goo, perfect for spreading on brittle slivers of toast.

If you are someone who has been led into believing that Provencal and Italian honeys are superior to ours, then a teaspoon tour of Hamill's honey might change your mind. (That said, after eating a deep-fried ravioli filled with melted caciocavallo cheese and doused in warm Calabrian orange- blossom honey at the Neal Street restaurant yesterday to celebrate the launch of Antonio Carluccio's new TV series, I have to concede that Italian honeys, too, can be sensational.)

Perhaps this has to do with processing. The French and Italians are less guilty of heat-treating and blending honey from any number of hives and countries - the sort of thing that makes Gales, for instance, taste more like a flavoured sugar syrup with all the goodness and character stripped out.

When I first met James Hamill, he had dreams of opening a bee theme park, which since have almost come true. He is currently planting out a four- acre holding in Surrey called "Bee Heaven Farm" with 150 rare species of apple tree and 4,000 lavender plants. The star of the show is an apple tree grafted directly from the one that Sir Isaac Newton sat under when a fruit fell off and hit him on the head.

Back in London, Hamill is about to turn his existing shop, The Hive, into a showcase, while opening a new shop at 93 Northcote Road in Battersea, where he will sell his products. "There are quite a lot of small beekeepers in London, many more than people would expect," he says. And it is easy enough to wander around London looking at the pavement and not notice the familiar outline of a white box on a flat roof top, more normally at home in the midst of a Somerset apple orchard. Some hives are also hidden well away from the public gaze in attics.

Contrary to what you might expect, city honey is exceptionally pure, often more so than country honey (unless it has been collected from hives dotted across a remote heather moor). City bees don't pick up the same traces of pesticides and fertilisers that are virtually impossible to avoid where there is agricultural land. It's a complex honey, too, as town bees get to feed off a huge variety of flora - just think of London gardens and the thousands of specialised plants that can grow within a tiny radius.

At the moment bees are having a field day with spring blossom and wild flowers, producing a honey that is pale and delicate. Later in the summer, it will get darker, richer and faintly crystalline, more like one of those unruly golden Italian honeys. And certainly as good.

Honey Cake, makes one 11cm x 20cm cake

This cake finds its inspiration in a recipe by Geraldene Holt in Michael Raffael's book Cream (Halsgrove, pounds 4.95). It's sticky and like a parkin - a good lazy summer afternoon cake to go with a cup of tea when you're lying around the garden.

Cake:

170g dark runny honey

150g unsalted butter

80g light muscovado or soft brown sugar

1 tbsp water

200g self-raising flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder, sifted

3 medium eggs, beaten

Glaze:

1 tbsp dark runny honey

1 tbsp dark rum

60g icing sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/ 180C (electric oven)/350F/ Gas mark 4. Grease and line a 20cm loaf tin. Melt the honey, butter, sugar and water in a small saucepan over a gentle heat. Remove and beat in the floor, baking powder and the eggs. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 35-40 minutes until the edges are shrinking away from the sides and a skewer comes out clean from the centre. Turn out on to a rack to cool.

Once the cake has cooled, combine the ingredients for the glaze. Smooth it over the top of the cake - some of it will run down the side and the top will show through just a thin coating of icing.

Dried Fruit Compote and Honey Syllabub, serves 6-8

This is incredibly boozy, a trifle really, so dust off that cut-glass bowl.

140g sponge fingers

Compote:

175g prunes

175g dried apricots

1 bottle dry white wine

50g golden caster sugar

Syllabub:

juice and zest of 1 lemon

4 tbsp brandy

2 tbsp sweet sherry

6 tbsp mild runny honey

425ml double cream

150ml sweet white wine

Place all the ingredients for the compote in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes. Cook uncovered until the juices are thick and syrupy. Leave to cool. Combine the lemon juice and zest, the brandy, sherry and honey in a bowl, stir until the honey dissolves and leave for two hours.

Combine the lemon-honey mixture with the cream in a large bowl and whip until it is the consistency of a pouring custard that leaves a trail. Now gradually whisk in the wine until you have a thick, fluffy syllabub.

Decant the fruit syrup into a shallow bowl. Cover the base of a straight- sided 20cm bowl with a third of the syllabub. Dip half the sponge fingers into the syrup so they yield between the fingers when gently pressed, without being totally sodden. Arrange on top of the syllabub, then scatter over half the fruit. Cover with clingfilm and chill for several hours, but not overnight - it's a trifle that needs to be eaten quite fresh. If you do want to leave it overnight, then you can leave out the wine and use a pint of cream, but it's a heavier trifle.

Salad of Roast Tomatoes, Egg and Olives, serves 6

If you add some grilled tuna to this, you have a salade Nicoise; some anchovies or bottarga are also good with it.

Salad:

10 plum tomatoes, halved lengthways

extra virgin olive oil

1 scant tbsp runny honey

sea salt, black pepper

6 large organic eggs

250g green beans, topped and tailed and cut in half

125g black olives, pitted

a handful of parsley sprigs

Croutons:

12 slices of French bread (ficelle)

Dressing:

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oven to 130C (fan oven)/ 140C (electric oven)/275F/Gas mark 1. Place the tomatoes cut-side up in a roasting dish, drizzle over some olive oil and the honey and season them. Roast for three hours, by which time they should be intensely flavoured and halfway to being dried. Remove and allow to cool.

In the meantime, boil the eggs for eight minutes, then cool in cold water, shell and halve them. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the beans, bring back to the boil and simmer for four or five minutes until they are just tender, then drain and refresh them in cold water. Heat enough oil in a frying pan to shallow-fry the croutons and cook them on either side until they are the consistency of fried bread. Drain on kitchen paper. Make the dressing by whisking the balsamic vinegar with seasoning and adding the oil.

Assemble all the salad ingredients on a large plate or individual ones. Pour over the dressing and accompany with the croutons

The Hive, 53 Webb's Road, London SW11 (0171-924 6233); Fauchon honey is available from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1

Annie Bell and Patrice de Villiers have both been nominated for Glenfiddich Awards for their work together on these pages. Annie joins Simon Hopkinson on the shortlist for 1998 Newspaper Cookery Writer of the Year, while Patrice is nominated for the Visual Award. Anthony Rose is also shortlisted for Wine Writer of the Year, and Michael Jackson is nominated for Drink Writer of the Year.

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