PEELS HONEY HITS THE SWEET SPOT
The Out & About team visited Peels Honey to learn about the magic of pure South African honey
Bee keeping and honey production is probably even older than the wine industry. But, whereas wine has been the ambit of wine connoisseurs through the ages, it is only now that a deeper appreciation of different honeys is emerging – and, with it, an opportunity to try honey tasting.
Derrick Dos Santos, operations manager for South Africa’s oldest honey brand – Peels – says that the company is on a mission to educate people about different types of honey. The only way to do that is to get them to experience and evaluate it.
Peels started by producing small jars of honey to promote products at store level. Then they realised that they could use the same little pots for a wide range of different varietals that could be used for tasting at the company’s landmark Midlands honey shop.
Customers select which honeys they’d like to sample using a honey chart which has a honey flavour and colour wheel and space to rank their choices in terms of colour, smell and taste. They can either complete their assessments unassisted or do a guided tasting.
For the average consumer who has seen honey as a fairly amorphous commodity with little to differentiate one jar from another, this is helpful.
The first lesson is that this has nothing to do with flavouring honey – a practice that is all but despised in honey circles. Nature does that for you.
Honey can be divided into multifloral (made by bees visiting a wide variety of different plants) and monofloral (the product of a single plant species). The taste of monofloral honey varies according to the flowers to which the worker bees take a fancy.
Whereas Peels is known for its standard multifloral honey that’s to be found in supermarkets, health shops, delicatessens and farm stalls, the company is now actively developing this artisanal side of its business.
It has close relationships with specialist beekeepers. “They will call us up and say I’ve got a batch of bean blossom that we’ve harvested or even carrot which was one that we got this year,” he explains.
Tasters can choose from between 10 and 20 small batches at any one time.
Derrick points out coriander, onion, buffalo thorn, black berry. There’s a Karoo wild flower, bean blossom and a canola honey – and even one of the more recent that has created a great deal of interest – aloe.
What is fascinating about this is that it is an unexpectedly white honey that comes
from the bright red pollen that the bees harvest during aloe flowering season. It is also a honey about which the laboratories that regularly test honey had little information until recently.
“The first aloe honey that I tasted reminded me of a Wilson toffee. It is really light,” says Derrick.
“It is nothing like normal honey and has a completely different consistency. We put in a big agitator and whip it for four to five hours to aerate it. Like all our honeys, we don’t add anything to it,” he explains.
Honey is also not confined to your breakfast toast. A recent tasting with respected Hilton-based chef, Jackie Cameron, and students from her chefs’ school proved a huge success with a variety of different honeys accompanied by freshly baked cheese bread.
Derrick says that honey comb when combined with figs and a rich goats cheese is particularly good.
He starts our honey tasting with carrot honey. We agree that it tastes “very foresty” and quite fresh and then we move on to fynbos honey which is brought in from the Western Cape and has become a staple for many honey lovers.
Derrick explains that even this can taste different, depending on where it originates – possibly in much the same way that a single cultivar can produce vastly different wines depending on region.
Next up, Derrick offers one of his particular favourites – black iron bark – which is what is known as a eucalyptus honey.
“This is very rare and is only harvested once every two to three years. So, when we do get some, we look after it. We got this three to four years ago,” he says, adding that honey is one of very few products that doesn’t have an expiry date. To comply with legislation, however, a packaging date is placed underneath each jar.
He admits that, again like many wine lovers, he “goes through stages” and develops a love for different honeys.
“I am a sommelier – but I never thought I would use any of my skills in the honey industry. Your palette develops. Initially, my favourites were lighter honeys and multi florals. But, as I spent time at Peels, I fell in love with bush honey, your dark acacia-like rural honey. It is very different. It is bold,” he explains.
This is a particularly good introduction to Peel’s Sizana honey which has both a story and a label of its own.
Essentially, this is community honey farmed by small beekeepers. Peels has teamed up with Sappi which has launched a community project aimed at uplifting between 30 to 40 rural beekeepers from the Mtunzini area. Peels buys the honey and bottles it under the Sizana label.
“When it comes in it is quite raw. It is beautiful and dark. This project is very close to our hearts,” he says.
BACK TO BEE BASICS
Derrick explains that Peels receives its honey in raw form from carefully selected bee keepers in white buckets or drums.
The first step is to check the moisture content of the honey to ensure that it is not higher than a stipulated level. If it is, then it is rejected as there’s a high risk that it may have been contaminated with water in the bucket or harvested before it was ready.
The honey is then prepared and bottled at the company’s new Hilton factory.
“What is really at the heart of it is ethics. Peels operates from the top down – beginning with a love for the honey that we put on shelf,” he says.
With a slightly higher price point, Peels is a premier product that is handled carefully to preserve the goodness of the product, honour the brand and meet the claims made.
The honey is extensively tested, first at a South African university which completes pollen testing to determine where the honey originates.
Peels is only one of a few local manufacturers that sends samples abroad to test for C3 and C4 sugars, otherwise known as adulteration testing.
It is also checked for pesticide residues and other possible contaminants. For example, although both the macadamia and citrus industries rely on bees to pollinate their crops, they also spray their crops to eliminate pests. That means it is difficult to find both orange blossom or macadamia honey with no pesticide residues.
Like many local brands, Peels faces challenges with the prevalence of fake and mis-labelled honey on shelf.
“This is South African honey. We supply South Africa with 100% pure South African and non-irradiated honey. When you irradiate honey, you are taking it to such a high temperature that what you are left with is just the flavour and none of the goodness. Irradiation kills everything- the good and the potentially bad,” he explains.
Because imported honey comes in at much lower price points, many local bee keepers and honey producers have exited the industry. As a result, we are net importers of honey. Ironically, China which is one of the world’s main honey exporters has more honey than it has bees to produce it.
One of the chief problems is that a lot of so-called honey is diluted and flavoured, making it more syrup than honey. The official name for this is honey fraud.
Derrick points out that this is a global issue and the reason why education is important and consumers need to check labels.
In South Africa, the problem is not lack of legislation to control the entry of sub-standard foods, but a lack of policing.
“We can’t go out and do that, so we can just hold our brand up high and keep doing what we are doing,” he says.
That comes down to encouraging consumers to support local agriculture and brands.
The Peels brand is actually a home-grown success story that dates back to 1924 and Midlands farmer Jack Peel who apparently sold off small quantities of honey to friends and family and, ultimately, from the boot of his car which he parked on the corner opposite the current day Peels Honey shop at the Merrivale / Underberg interchange along the N3 highway.
As the tale goes, in 1956, Peels hooked up with fellow bee keeper, Jack Smith and the partners worked together until Peel passed away three years later. Smith continued to build the brand, selling to loyal customers from a small wooden kiosk.
The number of hives grew and a formal shop and preparation facility that became a landmark alongside the freeway was built.
When Peels’ own hives couldn’t keep pace with demand, Derrick says the company began sourcing from five or six trusted farmers with which it maintains close relationships to this day.
Of these bee keepers he adds: “They are just as passionate about bee keeping as we are and they are determined that their honey goes to someone who is going to bottle it ethically. I think that that’s the difference.”
THE BEE-GER PICTURE
Initially Peels was just a KZN brand. Finding its way on to KZN supermarket shelves was a milestone which was followed by national growth into large retailers in Gauteng and the Western Cape. At present, Derrick says that the company is investing in various initiatives aimed at boosting its presence in other provinces.
The Peels shop and bottling facility moved in 2020. The shop relocated to a property that is more accessible to the N3. This is essential as 75% of sales come from passing motorists and 25% from the Midlands. The new factory – built to comply with stringent food safety standards – is located in Hilton.
“When we moved we didn’t want to go too far away. We wanted to establish ourselves close to where the brand actually started. That was important to us,” he emphasises.
The new factory also has an industrial kitchen that turns out a variety of honey brittles, honey comb and the recently launched Peels Honey Fudge.
Derrick says that Peels has diversified into honey based ice-cream toppings and salted caramel, caramel crunch and caramel sprinkles that can be added to desserts as well as a peanut butter and honey mix that formalizes a tradition but remains preservative free.
The Peels store at the Mushroom Farm in Hillcrest is the company’s first franchised store – and representative of a model that may be rolled out in the near future. At the same time, they are also looking at the option of rolling out more product to already established farm stalls.
Then there’s the development of the new property which still only houses a single bright red former shipping container which is home to the Peels shop and tasting facility.
New zoning for the property – that is likely to become known as the Honey Interchange – has just come through after three long years. Plans now need to be made to not only include other retail outlets and a coffee shop but
perhaps to develop a tour that will enable visitors to follow the honey trail all the way from the bee to the jar.
This will also spread an important conservation message to a world in which the honey bee is declining.
Derrick is adamant about the ethical and sustainable harvesting of honey. Without going into technical details, this simply means only taking as much honey as is necessary and leaving sufficient combs for the queen and her bees to survive.
“I think we are far away from losing our bees but there is always a risk that has to be managed. In the Midlands, we are lucky to have big open spaces and people who are interested in bee keeping. In the past, before I became part of the honey industry, I would flick a bee away. Now, I really nurture them. If you love honey, you start thinking differently,” he says.