Sweet on Honey

Bees have made a comeback in Sonoma County, and visitors can revel in the sweet taste of success

When wildfires blazed across Sonoma County in 2017, burning more than 150,000 acres, they also took a toll on the local honey bee population. While the Jordan Estate and its vineyards were spared, the winery’s resident bees weren’t so fortunate. Though Healdsburg was many miles from the flames, drifting smoke drove a few colonies of Jordan bees to find new homes. Local bees that survived have faced a loss of habitat and a lack of wild and cultivated plants to forage for nectar. Two of the seven hives at Jordan were abandoned, but were quickly replaced the following spring by wild swarms, eager to find new hives.

“A lot of people lost their colonies,” says Todd Knoll, executive chef at Jordan Winery, “but in the following spring, we were able to capture wild swarms in the berries and madrone trees on the property. It seems that all of the bees were on the move; I’m sure we have traded with some of our close neighbors. We find the swarm balled up around their queen, carefully capture them and introduce the new swarm to the hive.”

About 75 percent of Jordan’s bee population is now comprised of captured hives—a surprising shift from what began in 2016 as the winery’s first apiary, when a beekeeper helped introduce local queen bees to populate the hives. Because it took time to reintroduce queen bees and establish new hives after the fires, Knoll held off on harvesting honey for three years.

The good news is that as of last summer, Jordan’s hives are in full production, yielding a whopping 170 pounds during their first full harvest. The honey is even more delicious and dark-hued than previous samples. Even though a few hives were abandoned after the most recent fall wildfire, repopulation has already begun.

Professional beekeepers first began bringing hives from the Sacramento Valley to Jordan’s 1,200-acre estate in 1996, to allow the bees to forage before the almond bloom season. (See “Go with the Flow,” 2018 Wine Country Table.) By way of thanks, the beekeeper made a tradition of bringing a half-dozen mason jars of honey to Knoll at the end of each year. Knoll was immediately impressed by the favor and quality of the honey harvested from the visiting hives, and came to view honey as another expression of the estate’s terroir. With local bee populations declining at an alarming rate due to colony collapse disorder, Knoll understood that creating a year-round home for the bees at Jordan was the right thing to do, and would also provide him with Jordan Estate Honey to complement his farm-to-table Wine Country cuisine.

Planted with a ready source of food from native flowering plants, Jordan’s apiary is located just a few feet from the winery’s culinary garden. Completed in the fall of 2017, the bee garden is filled with native manzanita, madrone, wild fennel, thistle, poppies and other plants to enhance the bees’ annual food supply. The type of plants pollinated by the bees plays an important role in the character of the honey. Just as there are wines made from a single grape variety, distinctive honeys are produced by bees that primarily pollinate a single type of plant.

Honeycomb with bees and honey
Jordan Winery Executive Chef Todd Knoll harvesting honey from Flow Hive

There are more than 300 unique varieties of honey available in the United States, each derived from a different floral source that imparts its own aromas, favors and colors to the honey. Colors range from almost clear to molasses brown, and favors fall anywhere from subtle to bold, with floral, smoky, nutty or earthy notes. Light-hued honeys are generally milder in favor, while darker ones are stronger. Just as grapevines produce distinctive wines with each vintage, flowers growing in the same spot may produce slightly different nectar from year to year, depending on the weather conditions.

In addition to Jordan’s estate honey, Knoll sources single-variety honeys from around the world to use in recipes he creates for winery guests. “You can really tell the difference when the bees are pollinating different types of plants,” he says.

Some of the most interesting and delicious honeys, Knoll adds, include Mexican coffee blossom and thistle, along with tupelo, produced by bees that collect nectar from the blossoms of tupelo trees found along rivers and swamps in the wetlands of Florida and Georgia.

The lightest, mildest honeys come from sweet clover, alfalfa and even stingerless honey from Brazil, while citrus blossom, tupelo, buckwheat and wild sage produce darker honey that is a bit stronger in favor. Wildflower honey’s profile varies according to region, depending on the distinct flowers found in each area.

Jordan’s honey is made from the nectar of multiple plant sources found within three miles of the bees’ estate garden home. The result is a complex honey that is dark but clear in color, with notes of chamomile and citrus. The honey’s distinctive character echoes the chamomile blossoms that blanket the vineyard and meadows in spring, as well as the blossoms of the Meyer lemon, ruby grapefruit and lime trees that grow in the orchard just yards from Jordan’s apiary.

Knoll uses the honey in everything from vinaigrettes to sauces and glazes for duck and pork. The golden honeycomb becomes a beautiful natural centerpiece for the exquisite cheese courses Knoll prepares for dinner parties.

One of his most spectacular showcases for Jordan’s honey is Knoll’s individual Baked Alaska shaped in the form of a Victorian-era skep beehive and filled with honey ice cream. The show-stopping desserts, often served at formal lunches and dinners in the dining room, are garnished with bee pollen collected from the estate apiary, then drizzled with fermented mango honey and finally adorned with playful handmade marzipan bees.

Guests can visit the Jordan apiary and garden, as well as taste Jordan honey on the Estate Tour & Tasting and Vineyard Hike experiences.

Five Steps to a Perfect Baked Alaska

A successful dessert awakens the inner child, a welcome touch of nostalgia and comfort to conclude a formal meal. It is the element of surprise from a tableside bananas foster, cherries jubilee or crepes suzette brought to the guest. For me, though, the impossibility of a hot dessert surrounding frozen ice cream or sorbet was pure magic, and to be able to perform the “trick” now is a bit of a childhood dream come true.

The history of the dessert is somewhat muddled if you dig into the lore. It is often attributed to Antoine’s Restaurant of New Orleans, created in celebration of the newly purchased state of Alaska from Imperial Russia in 1867. I tend to believe the first written account where it was named the “Florida Alaska” after the differences in climate. Whatever the origin, our Jordan Baked Alaska consists of Jordan Extra Virgin Olive Oil Cake or financier cake as the base, our honey ice cream and simple Swiss meringue, garnished with cuttings of flowers from our pollinator garden, the colorful pollen collected from our hives and whimsical marzipan bees we make by hand.

Bake a sheet cake of your choice and freeze; any sponge cake will work. At Jordan, we use either our olive oil cake or financier; but a brownie or even a cookie will work with some simple trial and error.

The ice cream is molded into ramekins for individual servings or layered in a plastic-lined mixing bowl for a large presentation to be sliced tableside. The ice cream is then frozen again for a minimum of 2-3 hours or up to a few days if wrapped carefully in cling wrap.

Cut the frozen cake to the size of the ramekin or bowl top and then invert the molded ice cream onto the cake. Return to the freezer to fuse the two layers together.

The day prior to serving, pipe or spoon the Swiss meringue (see for a thorough explanation) around the entire dessert and decorate as desired. Return to the freezer.

All that is left is a quick browning in a 500-degree oven for 2-3 minutes. Garnish with handmade marzipan bees and serve to stunned guests. Magic.