Paella, Bees, Elongated Skulls, Archaeological Museum a puzzling honey trail from Barcelona to Valletta and on to Mellieha
I was in Barcelona for a couple of days taking part in a filming project called “Medcruise & Princess Cruises Partnership Project” organised by Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn and P&O Australia. The goal was to offer the world’s best cruise experience and create a more meaningful, authentic, personal and exclusive guest experience in each of the destinations that these cruise ships visited. It was a challenge to highlight what first-time visitors should see and do in the limited time they have in port. I had 30 minutes, but it felt like the 30-second elevator pitch, so I made the best of it with the advantage of my deep involvement in destination management.
I love Paella, so I also indulged at every opportunity in Barcelona - lunch and dinner and breakfast if only they served it then - as we do not get the real thing in Malta. On my flight back I was flicking through the Vueling in-flight magazine and an article caught my eye. “El tanga engaǹoso y las abets mutants” which translates into “The deceptive thong and the mutant bees.” Perhaps it was the cryptic title or the innuendo, but whatever it was, it did the trick. I read the whole article and it left me intrigued and dismayed. I thought I knew everything about the Maltese islands, until I read this article by a Spanish journalist Antonio Dyaz. Diaz talks about a well-respected German entomologist called Klaus Böhlmann who theorises that in the past, there was a symbiosis between bees and humans with a cucumber-like, suture-less skulls. Klaus believes that this symbiosis gave rise to an ephemeral race so intelligent that it was unable to survive its own genius. My curiosity led me to dig deeper.
To the south of Valletta lies the most ancient underground temple in the world - Hal Saflieni or the Hypogeum. At this site, archaeologists unearthed human skulls of such extravagant proportions that many people put forward theories that these were the remains of a hybrid species. These remains were removed not long ago from the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta and have been put away in its underground storage facilities.
Back in the office, I put on my Sherlock Holmes cape and enrolled the services of my daughter Michela, who nurtured a love for forensics since her childhood, to help me investigate further. She trawled the internet and out came an array of interesting articles about Malta’s honey and skulls. Paracas skulls which were found on the southern coast of Peru in 1928 are similar to the Maltese elongated skulls. My interest became insatiable. I had to meet with the Curator of the National Museum of Archaeology and see these skulls.
The Maltese bee investigation led me to Arnold Grech, who was discovered by Jamie Oliver who wrote extensively about his honey experience when he was in Malta. In fact Jamie Oliver admits in his blog “Honey from Malta’s amazing bees” that this was “the best honey I’ve ever tasted”.
Malta is supposed to have its name derived from the Greek word for honey, meli. The ancient Greeks called the island Melite (meaning honey-sweet) and later, the Romans called it Melita. Malta has always been famous for its production of a unique honey due to its endemic species of bees, which also led to its nickname, “the land of honey”!
Honey is one of Malta’s most treasured harvests and my 20twenty DMC team and I were lucky to be given the opportunity to meet its master, Arnold Grech at his Mellieha fields in the north of Malta. He has kept bees for 65 years and is, therefore, the perfect guide. We walked into his apiary with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. His first words were not to wave bees away and to let him know immediately if we get stung so that he can intervene with his first-aid technique. He lit a piece of cardboard in a metal container and it began to smoke. The smoke puts bees on defensive mode; they stay in the hive sucking in as much honey as possible to preserve it from destruction as they think that the hive is on fire, but in doing so, they become too heavy to take off. As we moved closer some of us were brave enough to hold the hive trays in our hands. We also got a glimpse of the “queen bee” which Arnold immediately spotted amongst thousands of virtually identical bees. Staying close to the master of the apiary made us all feel inexplicably safe.
Arnold explained that bees follow seasons and each month during the eleven-month honey-making year in Malta, the bees get their nectar from one specific flower giving each month’s honey a distinctly different flavour. There are eight honey flows, each having its unique taste and health benefits. For example, Orange blossom honey is beneficial for people with low or high blood pressure as it helps to stabilise it with just one teaspoon in the morning. Mixed flora honey is beneficial for individuals with allergies or stomach problems. The nectar calendar is as follows:
- October/November – Carob
- December – Asphodel
- January – Borage
- February – Red Clover
- March – White thistle
- April – Orange Blossom
- May/June – Wild Thyme
- July/August – Eucalyptus
The eight honey flows in a consecutive honey season beginning from the 1st September and finishing on the 31st of August the year after. The first honey flow occurs in October when bees visit the carob trees, then in December asphodel which makes a highly flavoured and delicate accompaniment to the Italian cheese burrata. In January, the bees forage on borage flowers. Borage is used as either a fresh vegetable or a dried herb. Vegetable use of borage is common in Germany, in Spain, on the Greek island of Crete and in the northern Italian region of Liguria. Although often used in soups, one of the better known German borage recipes is the Green Sauce (Grüne Soße) made in Frankfurt. In Northern Italy, borage is commonly used as a filling of the traditional pasta ravioli. It is used to flavour pickled gherkins in Poland. In February it’s red clover. In March, we have white thistle and in April, orange blossom. From the last week of May and all June it is wild thyme. The last honey flow would be eucalyptus in late August and September. I have tried four of the eight honey types and I now need my daily fix whether it is on toast, or in my tea or on my cheese.
Some astonishing facts that we learned from Arnold are:
The queen is ‘created’ by bees, as one larva in the hive is fed a special diet, different to any other larva, and this alters the larva’s DNA and it becomes the queen.
Once a worker has found a source of nectar, it returns to the hive, points its behind in the direction of the source and waggles it at a certain frequency to let the workers know how far away it is. This is called waggle dance.
Bees have existed in Malta for over eight hundred thousand years and have been crucial in keeping the hundreds of endemic bushes and trees alive which in turn kept us alive with wholesome natural food.
When pure honey is added to boiling water, the enzymes are destroyed which means that the beneficial properties are destroyed. One must let the water come drinking point and then add the honey.
The investigation continues with my mug in hand - tea with orange blossom honey.