May is the month dedicated to bees, with 20 May being World Bee Day – La Giornata Mondiale delle Api. 75 per cent of the plants we use for food and medical purposes (more than 50000 species) depend upon pollination by bees. And there are also bees on the marshlands in the Lagoon of Venice, producing a unique type of honey, called miele di barena.
Just a few days ago, an article was published on a Venetian daily telling the story of apicoltura in the Lagoon. More than a third of the Lagoon consists of salt marshes, home to reeds and edible herbs like salicornia and limonium. These plants on the salt marshes start blooming in early April with tiny blossoms of inula and minutina, and resemble purple carpets by mid-August when limonium, the sea lavender is in bloom. And finally, it’s the turn of the pale violet blossoms of aster tripolium.
What a paradise for bees, whose honey tastes slightly salty, just like the vegetables produced on the Lagoon islands.
There are many culinary arts and crafts that were never forgotten in our Lagoon, and producing this special honey is just one of them! A few beekeepers still keep up this tradition, and the story by the Venetian daily La Nuova Venezia tells about Luca Semenzato and his beehives. In early spring, Luca takes the bees to the altopiano di Asiago, the Asiago plain northwest of Venice, when the firs are in bloom. And then in early August, the bees return home in the southern Lagoon near Valle Zappa, to collect the pollen of the purple-silver blossoms of limonium, artemisia and aster. The area around Valle Zappa is one of the last barene (marshlands) in the southern Lagoon, threatened because of an idrovia, a shipping canal connecting the Lagoon to Padua.
In the Venetian Lagoon, bees have been around since the early times of the Republic, and many culinary specialties as well as natural remedies included miele di barena. Also, those beehives used to be moved on boats to other barene with a different stock of vegetation to create special types and flavors.
Barene are plant-covered marshlands, consisting of mud, clay and sand, often submerged during the high tides but tightly knit and reinforced by the roots of plants, and in particular, the halophile herbs I mentioned above, like salicornia fructuosa, minutina, inula, aster, and sea lavender.
La transumanza delle api: When the limonium blossoms are at their best in late August, Venetian beekeepers place hives on palafitte (wooden poles) in the midst of the barene to ensure that bees can only produce honey from the blossoms nearby. And then in late summer, the bees collect the nectar and pollen of limonium, aster and salicornia blossoming between September and early October.
In late autumn, this bounty is delivered to the specialty stores in Venice like Casa del Parmigiano, to restaurants creating dishes with ingredients from the Lagoon, like Il Ridotto on Campo San Filipo e Giacomo – my tip if you’d like to discover a special chocolate dessert laced with honey from the Lagoon, also available in spring. Some of the honey is even delivered to artisan ice cream shops, like Gelateria Susò near Campo San Bartolomeo.
In the library of the former monastery of San Zaccaria, a document of the 18th century mentions the production of honey in the southern Lagoon, which belonged to the nuns, so this wild honey must have been an ingredient in ointments and remedies produced in the Venetian monasteries as well.
Miele di barena doesn’t taste like honey growing on the mainland but somewhat sharp of limonium narbonense like you’d bite into a lavender blossom, slightly bitter and salty like you’d eat a piece of kumquat, and balsamico recalling pine syrup. In ancient Venetian medical terms, miele di barena thus contains the flavors amarognolo (bitter) and acido (acid), balancing out one’s diet with sapori not available in meat or fish.
The Lagoon honey also has the sharp tang of spring which is probably because it was favorite ingredient the historical recipe for a well-known Venetian biscotto (cookie), as you’ll discover!
Especially for the humid and colder season, the balsamic-tasting honey from the Lagoon is perfect to keep healthy. If you’d like to try it, a well-known producer of this salty honey – miele salato – in the northern Lagoon is Miele del Doge on the island Sant’Erasmo.
Miele salato goes into many specialties you might have tasted in Venice, and is also used in a favorite winter and Christmas sweet consisting of egg whites and almonds called mandorlato, the Venetian torrone. A seasonal treat, available from late November at the small specialty stores along Ruga Rialto and Ruga del Ravano next to the Rialto Market.
And of course, there’s also a wonderful recipe for spring – zaleti camomilla e miele di barena – the famous Venetian zaleti cookies were also flavored, in an 18th century recipe of the San Zaccaria collections, with chamomille flower essence or syrup, and Lagoon honey. We share this recipe in our culinary membership Laguna in Cucina. A couple of years ago, I even saw these chamomille cookies at Caffé Quadri (Piazza San Marco)!
Another delicacy using honey from the Lagoon is the forgotten losanghe di San Zaccaria, the rhomb-shaped cookies which are the predecessors of the French calissons. These losanghe look slightly darker because they also use almonds as main ingredients, and special spice mix. We’ll talk about them soon!