England, my mother,
Lift to my Western Sweetheart
One full cup of English mead, breathing of the May.From ‘Drake’ by Alfred Noyes (1880 – 1958)
Callington in East Cornwall calls itself ‘the town below the hill’, the hill in question being Kit Hill which is a ‘Marilyn’ (guess why?!) meaning that its summit is more than 150 metres higher than its lowest slope. Kit Hill (the name derives from kite, the bird) was given to the people of Cornwall in 1985 by Prince Charles as Duke of Cornwall to mark the birth of his first son Prince William, the heir to the Duchy, and it is now a country park.
Kit Hill is the highest part of the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. From the top you can see the Eddystone Lighthouse, around Plymouth Sound and over to Bude on the north coast. The hill has been used by humans for over five thousand years, from prehistoric times through the long years of mineral exploitation and right up to the present day when it sits quietly in the sunshine like an old miner after a lifetime of hard work.
Callington too has a long history and is one of the main contenders for the site of ‘Celliwig’ the ancient capital of Cornwall and site of the court of King Arthur. In 1267 King Henry III granted Callington a charter to hold a market and one has been continuously held there since that time. From the early nineteenth century a Honey Fair was held every August and this continued until the Second World War. In 1978 the tradition was re-established and Callington Honey Fair is now one for the largest street fairs in Cornwall.
It is still however very much a place for the county’s bee keepers to meet together at the end of the summer and compare their experiences of the season with a little gentle competition thrown in. There are competitions for the best honey, honey products such as combs and beeswax and for recipes made with honey. I love the fact the competition details and rules are contained in a document referred to as ‘The Honey Schedule’.
Many very old Cornish recipe books contain recipes for ‘sweet wine’, the old Cornish term for mead or metheglyn - mead’s spiced variant, both of which are made by fermenting honey into alcohol. So it’s safe to assume that bee keeping has a long history in the county. Indeed the ‘First and Last Inn’ near Land’s End used to boast that the monks who apparently ran a pilgrims’ rest house on the site gave local newly weds enough mead to last them for one phase of the moon – giving rise to the term ‘honeymoon’. Well maybe.
Like apiarists all over the world, Cornish beekeepers are as susceptible to superstition as the rest of us, and an account of bee keeping on Trencrom Hill in the nineteenth century records the hives being placed in mourning by being covered with black cloths when there was a death in the house of the bee keeper. Certainly my beekeeping acquaintances say it’s important to tell the bees household news or else they may feel neglected and move on to a friendlier home.
This is a variation on a honey tart I made last year, I've added the spices that would have been added to mead to make metheglyn, so this is a sort of -
Shortcrust pastry made with 8oz flour and 4 oz butter
4oz stewed cooking apples cooled and sweetened with two tablespoons of white sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon and a good scraping of nutmeg
4oz fresh breadcrumbs
Zest and juice of half a lemon
6 tbsp good local honey
1 tbsp golden syrup
Line a shallow 10” plate with the pastry. Spread the apple over the pastry. Warm the syrup and the honey in a pan and add the lemon juice. Stir in the breadcrumbs, ginger, spices and lemon rind. Pour over the apple and bake at 180c for 30 minutes.
Serve with clotted cream or rich vanilla ice cream
You are my honey, honeysuckle,
I am the bee,
I’d like to sip the honey sweet
From those red lips, you see.
From the London Stage Play "Bluebell in Fairyland" (1901)
(William H. Penn / Albert H. Fitz)