We tested... Honey gathering with a beekeeper
We set the date with Gérard Jourdan, a honey producer based in Auriol, who can't wait to introduce us to his job and passion for bees...
Gérard's welcoming honey farm is set right out in the countryside, next to a small road running between Aubagne and Roquevaire. The farm entrance is located just below the road and decorated with ten or so colourful old hives. Just behind it lie another ten or so unpainted hives, home to the thousands of bees that produce the farm's honey.
It's a Wednesday in May and we thought it would be nice to take the kids along so they could find out how the stuff they spread on their bread every morning is made...
Gérard welcomes us with a big smile and suggests we go straight out to get some honey as the weather is good so "the bees are in a good mood", i.e. they'll be too busy gathering nectar from the local thyme, rosemary and wildflowers to be aggressive! After all, bees are like us – they don't like it when it rains and they can sting you even if you smoke them...
Gérard prepares the bee smoker using a few dry twigs. Do you know why we smoke the honey ?
Because the smoke stresses them (yes, they are afraid of fire just like us). As a result, they take refuge inside the hive and eat honey, which calms them down and makes them less aggressive. Once they're divided and full of honey, they don't want to attack and we, or rather the beekeeper, can gather the honey at leisure the honey.
So here we are dressed up in our bee suits, ready to go and bug the ladies in their hives. Gérard has several different suit sizes, for children and adults. The suit covers you well and the veil allows you to see what's going on without getting stung. Even so, we were a bit reticent about getting close to the little winged critters, but the children were so excited and enthusiastic we had to dive in! Gérard gave us some clear advice and instructions beforehand:
- do not take your hands out of the suit
- do not stick your nose against the veil (the bees can sting you through it otherwise)
- and especially, do not stop on your way in the middle of all the hives.
So, here we are in front of the hives. The bees are buzzing all over the place.
You know that smiling bee on your box of Cheerios? Well, we weren't smiling that much surrounded by hundreds of them.
Gérard sends in a puff of smoke, then lifts the top off the hive and takes out the first frame. The bees have built a honeycomb on it comprising hundreds of cells, harbouring the precious liquid. After taking two well-stocked frames, he shuts the top again and we head off back to the farm to extract the honey !
Inside the farm, you can see an empty hive and its various parts. The bees enter via the floor, then go up onto the various levels or "supers". Each level contains up to 5 honeycombs and the hive can contain up to three levels, depending on the colony, harvest and other factors that Gérard can explain much better than me. And at the top is the roof – the beekeeper always starts with the roof when he gathers the honey.
And above all, the honey farm smells like heaven! A sweet, gentle aroma that make you want to sample the honey. But before that, it has to be extracted.
For this, Gérard takes a knife to remove the wax cap holding the honey in the cells. This is called uncapping. He then places the frames in the extractor machine – a kind of large electric centrifuge. Then, you simply wait for the honey to run out of the little tap at the bottom of the extractor.
Of course, our little gourmets have their eyes glued to the tap, waiting for the honey to appear so they can taste it! They don't have to wait long to be able to slide a stick under the liquid honey and savour. Us grown-ups have to wait a bit longer, but when it's finally our turn, mamma mia, what sweetness, what a fabulous floral taste and what's more the honey is warm – an absolute treat!! The taste is so unusual and fresh, I can't recommend trying it enough.
The tour ends with a tasting session of around 10 different honeys. Of course, there is lavender, lime tree, rosemary and all-flower honey, but Gérard's speciality is honey from the Calanques fjords, broom and buckwheat (quite a feat that one). My favourites ? Broom and chestnut. And in winter, Gérard sells his 100% hand-made nougat made with honey and almonds at the local markets.
Simply delicious !
You can find him at Marseille's food markets on:
- Tuesday morning (Les Réformés – 1st arrondissement)
- Thursday morning (Place des Chartreux – 4th arrondissement)
- Saturday morning (Place Sébastopol – 4th arrondissement)
And if you're not in Marseille, you'll find all the local Provence honey producers in our guide. Some of them offer farm tours, but not all.
All the family, except babies and anyone who is allergic to bee stings. You never know.
In Spring, when the weather is fine (and not too hot), because the bees are less aggressive. If you want to see the honey being gathered, call Gérard a few days in advance and check back the day before if the weather turns.
Free, but you need to book ahead.
Gathering honey with a beekeeper and tasting the freshly-extracted honey.
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