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In the world of sweeteners, one of the more unusual flavours comes from Chilean ulmo (OOL-moe) honey. Steven Bodzin went to southern Chile to learn why this honey tastes so good and why it’s so hard to find abroad.
SUPERMARKET, down & under
Here at the Walmart-owned Lider supermarket in Santiago, Chile, I can buy ulmo honey for as much as 4500 pesos, or about 9 dollars, for a little 500-gram tub.
That’s more than four times as much as normal honey. But every now and then, I can’t resist. [AMBI DOWN & OUT] Ulmo honey is one of South America’s great treats. It has a perfumey scent and feels almost like butter in the mouth. I recently wanted to find ulmo honey in production, so I went to the Lakes Region, 1000 kilometers south of Santiago. I started by talking to Rodrigo Mardones, who is the agriculture ministry’s man on the ground in the region.
OFFICE up & under
The bees live in extremely biodiverse native forests. These are forests with a range of species, as many as 200 species of plant in a single acre. That includes trees that offer flowers for honey.
Mardones sent me to Rio Negro, where the government is working with small producers.
GRAVEL ROAD, CAR SOUNDS REMAIN UNDER NARRATION
Lenyvette Arvelo, a government worker and beekeeper, drove me through a steady drizzle. We rolled down gravel roads lined with blackberry bushes. We got to the home of Marisa Andrade, who has 18 bee boxes
We started in, like, 2007. It was because of this class they offered. That started it. I had no idea, I knew nothing about bees.
Ulmo trees are in bloom in the mountains, but constant rains have been keeping the bees indoors. Andrade says she’s worried that there will be little ulmo honey this year, which will keep people from making local recipes like honey cookies and ulmo pisco sours. Since there are no bees in the trees, I ask if I can see them at home in their hive.
BEE HIVE SOUND
Each box produces 35 to 40 kilograms of honey per harvest. Since ulmo can’t be grown in plantations, the few beekeepers like Andrade provide the entire world’s supply of ulmo honey.
BUZZING DOWN & OUT
Harriet Eeles is an Englishwoman who has lived in Chile for 26 years, and has spent much of that time keeping bees and organizing a regional beekeepers cooperative. I caught up with her in the city of Puerto Montt and asked her to describe the flavour of ulmo honey.
The texture is usually very fine. It’s sort of is like fondant in the mouth. crystals are v smooth. The taste however is surprisingly strong and persistent and resembles humid vegetation. It is very much a male taste. our experience is that when people are offered to taste different kinds of honey, the men prefer the ulmo honey, and the women prefer something which is not so strong and persistent in its flavour as the ulmo honey.
For all its pleasures, ulmo honey is almost unavailable in Europe, because Chilean honey is sometimes contaminated with pollen from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
There has been a ruling made by the supreme court of justice in Brussels in September of last year, which ruled that pollen has to be considered an ingredient of honey. Therefore, if the origin of the pollen which is present in the honey is GMO, it has to be labeled as such and can only be labeled as such if the total count of GMO pollen doesn’t exceed 0.9% and if the species originating this pollen is a GMO species authorized in Europe for consumption.
Chile doesn’t produce any genetically modified crops for human consumption, but there are fields where companies grow the seeds of genetically modified crops. The problem is that both the location of these fields and the nature of their crops have previously been secret. The honey growers are trying to get that information, so they can secure access to the European market. Longer term, beekeepers and the government are trying to create a denominación de origen for the southern Andes rain forests.
As we have this wonderful world biosphere reserve of the temperate rain forest of the southern andes in our region, it would be a wonderful opportunity to create a denominación de origen for the honeys produced in this reserve. because they are from an area a long long way away from the GMOs, from any kind of industrial production, any kind of agricultural contamination, and absolutely pure, pristine native forest.
For now, if you want ulmo honey, you’ll need to come to Chile. This year’s harvest will start soon and end in April, and the honey should be available for at least a few months. For Monocle, in Puerto Montt, Chile, I’m Steven Bodzin.