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Thursday, August 30, 2007 | return to: news & features


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Hive talkin’: Napa''s kosher beekeepers sweeten things up for New Year

by dan pine, staff writer

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"And he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes brightened." (1 Samuel 14:27)




For someone allergic to bees, Helene Glickfeld Marshall sure does love apis mellifera. From dawn 'til dusk, she is surrounded by bees, and she adorns herself with honeybee pendants and honeybee earrings.

She fills her days filling jars and filling orders for luscious wildflower honey hand-packed at Marshall's Farm, the Napa County enterprise she launched 12 years ago with her husband, Spencer Marshall. The workday is long, and usually Marshall is as busy as a ... well, you know.

The 4.5-acre Marshall farm is largely open field dotted with thistle, sage, fennel and lavender. Cats patrol the grounds looking for mice; geese honk happily on the lawns. Eucalyptus and acacia trees mark the property line. And on nearly every blossom, stamen and petal, one of 50,000 pollen-dusted bees probes for nectar.

It's the land of milk and honey, minus the milk.

The biblical reference isn't too far off, though. Marshall's Farm honey is certified kosher by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council.

"People kept calling to see if the honey was kosher," says Helene Marshall. "I was tired of people accusing us of putting stuff in the honey. I said, 'I'll have it certified kosher.' It's a big plus."

It's midsummer and Marshall, 64, works overtime to pack L'Shanah Tova gift baskets filled with cute little jars of honey and handle other High Holy Day orders. After all, the song does not go, "Apples dipped in salsa for Rosh Hashanah."

The Marshalls produce 100,000 pounds of honey annually, about 20 varieties harvested from 650 hives. Some hives are on the farm, others are spread out all over the Bay Area. In fact, "some of our most productive hives are in the city," Marshall says.

Each micro-region, with its own unique flora, produces a unique honey, which is why Marshall's Farm markets lines like Buzzerkely, Marin Mix and Pumpkin Blossom (from Half Moon Bay). Depending on the nectars, the honeys range in color from pale blond to dark molasses.

Bees are the only insects that make a food eaten by people.

Out in the field, Spencer Marshall, 64, is loading his pick-up truck with hives, each housed in a wooden box wrapped in burlap for travel. He's a big man with grizzly hair; his skin tough and bee-proof. Marshall usually doesn't bother with a protective suit. After an estimated 30,000 stings in his career, he figures there's not much more the bees can do to him.

Except die on him.

Colony collapse disorder is the name given to the mysterious global honeybee die-off that has plagued beekeepers in recent years. So far, no one knows the cause, but the effect could be devastating to crops such as almonds, peaches, avocados, alfalfa and cucumbers, which are utterly dependent on pollinating bees.

"It's hard to keep them alive," laments Spencer Marshall. "In the old days, a queen would live several years. The government is starting to jump in."

At the "honey house," Helene Marshall checks in on their small staff of workers, who've just extracted a batch of honey. It's a mostly hands-on operation. About 60 oblong wood frames, pulled from the hives and dripping with honey, go into a spinning extractor about the size of a washing machine. After loading, a worker switches on the machine.

Gravity does the rest.

It's the very same operation Rabbi Jacob Traub oversees when he renews his kosher certification of Marshall's Farm. As the kashrut chairman of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco, Traub knows what's safe and what's traif. As long as it's 100 percent pure with no questionable additives, Marshall's Farm honey makes the grade.

"Honey is one of the interesting anomalies in Jewish law," he says. "The bee that produces the honey is non-kosher. However, the extract is kosher. That's the wondrous nature of the halachic [Jewish law] experience."

The sages of the Talmud actually put in some overtime when it comes to the kashrut of honey. In Tractate Bechorot, one sage asks: "Why did they say that bee-honey is permitted? Because even though they bring it into their bodies, it is not a product of their bodies. It is stored there but not produced there."

Traub notes that the ancient Hebrew word for honey -- "d'vash" -- does not refer to bee honey but rather to derived from the date palm.

In many traditional Jewish homes, honey is served with every meal between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, and even drizzled on bread as the Hamotzi blessing is recited. And of course, there's that tradition of young yeshiva bochers starting their first day's lesson with a dab of honey on the aleph-bet to signify the sweetness of a Jewish education.

As for the Marshalls and their products, Traub is a big fan. He is now a connoisseur of honey scooped right out of the honeycomb ("You can really taste the difference"). And as for Helene Marshall, he chooses a one-word description: "Indefatigable."

"She's a wonderful woman," he adds, "and very good businesswoman."

So how on God's green earth did a nice Jewish girl from San Francisco, who had a bat mitzvah at Congregation Sherith Israel, end up on a Napa County farm married to a beekeeper?

Call it buzzshert.

Her immigrant grandfather once worked in a cement factory and raised chickens not far from her bee farm in American Canyon. Her father sold police uniforms from his shop on Larkin Street in San Francisco. Her aunt was a president of Congregation Emanu-El.

Helene went on to earn an art degree at U.C. Berkeley, and for years made a living as a graphic designer. Then, in 1990, divorced and with two grown daughters, Marshall went on a date with a Norwegian American carpenter with a thing for bees. The two hit it off, and a few years later, they married.

The first thing Spencer Marshall noticed about the Jewish family he married into: Everybody talks.

"This is what functioning families do," he remembers thinking. "Intellectual discussions. Family reunions. Verbal abilities are a part of Jewish families."

Though their products can be found at outlets such as Whole Foods and Elephant Pharmacy, as well as the Marshall's Farm Web site, Helene Marshall often spends her weekends at local farmer's markets, hawking her sweet stuff directly to customers.

One of her selling points: A few daily teaspoons of honey, especially if it's one those "microbrews," can work like an allergy shot. If you're allergic to Oakland plant life, for example, eating honey made from neighborhood flora should help dry up those sniffles (Marshall's has an Oakland variety: Hood Honey).

It does seem like magical stuff. Like us, bees eat honey. At 15 percent moisture, honey is highly digestible, pure and concentrated enough to act as a preservative (bacteria cannot live in it). Archaeologists have found ancient stores of honey that was still good enough to eat, though the Marshalls prefer to sell something a bit fresher.

Their motto: "Honey so fresh the bees don't know it's missing."

Back in the office, Helene gets to the day's paperwork. There are special orders to complete, including plenty of weddings and bar mitzvahs (goodie bag-sized honey jars at every table). She also has a gift shop with every permutation of bee doll and honey curio imaginable. The Marshalls also have a tidy side business selling beeswax for candles.

As enthusiastic as she is about the farm, Helene Marshall knows its days are numbered. She and her husband started the business relatively late in life, and none of their adult children or stepchildren is likely to step in when the Marshalls retire.

Meanwhile, Helene takes a midday break. She's prepared a special snack of Wheat Thins spread with fresh blue cheese topped with globs of honey right off the honeycomb.

Terms like "scrumptious," "delicious" and "abso-freakin'-lutely awesome" don't begin to describe the flavor.

Afterward, it's back to the office and the honey house and the buzzing fields of plenty. At her stage in life, Marshall could be chilling out on some cruise ship or playing with one of her five grandchildren. But she prefers the sugar rush she gets putting in long days on the farm.

"It connects me to my roots," she says as she packs up a few more gift baskets for Rosh Hashanah.

And, once that's over, Marshall has a very sweet Jewish holiday in December to look forward to.

Or, as she calls it: "HoneyKah."


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