By Zoe Christodoulides
AS THE first heavy rain of the season pounds down on the markedly barren hills which slowly weave their way up towards the Troodos mountain range, I’m led down a winding dirt road towards what appears to be your average village house. Standing tall in the doorway of the solitary Peristerona dwelling, Dimitris Papacostas waves to greet me.
“Have you ever taken part in a honey tasting session before?” he asks. The question catches me slightly off guard. “It’s just like wine tasting really, except you’ll be sniffing away at honey, and indulging your taste buds too.” And this is not just any honey. The sweet temptation known as Tziverti has just recently been crowned as the very best honey in the world at the 2013 World Beekeeping Awards in Kiev.
With 30-year-old Dimitris as the general manager of the family-run Honeymell company that produces the award winning Tziverti, it’s little wonder he’s so excited about getting people to try it.
Through a few doorways and round a couple corners, the house gives way to a spacious factory area, filled with an aroma that smells good enough to eat. As one might expect, hundreds of large tubs are filled with local honey pilled high as far as the eye can see. But where are the factory workers? And why is everything locked up?
“The season is over now,” Dimitris explains. “Harvesting only takes place in May and August; that’s when this place really comes to life.”
Out come a couple of tea-spoons which Dimitris starts to dip deep into the various tubs. “What do you think of this one?” he asks with a child-like enthusiasm.
Bright in colour, the herbal tanginess is rather different to anything I’ve tried before; an almost bitter aftertaste lingers, following the initial bout of sweetness.
“You’re absolutely right,” nods Dimitris in avid agreement. “This is our thyme honey and it’s actually our best seller.” I’m given a glass of water to cleanse the palette, before being presented with yet another few spoonfuls of weird and wonderful varieties.
“Tasting honey is a whole procedure that needs to be done properly,” he clarifies, suddenly taking on a serious demeanour. “Better to do it in the morning and not eat beforehand. Have a smell of the aroma in an open glass so you can get a real whiff. Then taste it, really taste it. Have a few pieces of apple on hand to cleanse the palette otherwise your taste buds will eventually get confused.”
Out comes some eucalyptus honey, followed by the smoother polyflora honey. The former has a rich almost toffee-like flavour, harvested from the eucalyptus trees of Saint Ioannis in Malounda. The latter has a smooth fruity flavour, comprised of a whopping 1908 different species of plants. And how can one be so sure about these figures? “Vigorous testing in the lab,” confirms Dimitris.
It’s certainly no small deal that the recent World Beekeeping Awards saw a total of 112 honey samples compete from 25 countries. Tziverti was at the very top of the league. And it’s not the first time that Tziverti honey has been awarded in European and international competitions. So what’s the big secret?
“It’s the aroma, it’s the flavour, it’s the unique taste of Cyprus. For a start, the Cypriot flora is something we are very lucky to have growing under the warm sunshine. What we try to do, is take advantage of the best quality blooms during each season,” he says.
“There’s a Cypriot saying that goes: one thousand flowers, one thousand types of honey. And it’s very true. The bees obtain nectar from so many different types of wild flowers and all this makes for a wonderful product,” adds Dimitris. “What we have, that other countries don’t, is exceptional quality. We can’t really compete when it comes to mass production or low prices because we are too small for that. But what we can provide is the finest produce for a niche market.”
With a few exports to the Middle East and North Africa, America has now recently jumped on the Tziverti bandwagon. With 100,000 jars produced a year, it might seem like a lot, but the number pales in comparison to the capacity of big factories abroad.
What seems to make this particular Cyprus honey rather exceptional, are the years of care that have gone into the whole endeavour. The winning formula is similar to that which was established years ago in the 1950s when Dmitri’s grandfather’s father-in-law gave him twenty clay cylindrical hives. Not as efficient as today’s Langstroth hives, they still did the trick.
With the family then living in Karpasia, the hives would be periodically carted by truck to Morphou and other citrus growing areas to take advantage of the orange blossoms.
The 1974 invasion put a halt on production, but by 1980 the children of the family had set up the Peristorona factory.
“This place wasn’t chosen by chance,” the Honeymell Manager points out. “It’s an ideal location that looks out towards Morphou and is great for beekeeping.”
But the hives never really stay put, with much time spent on taking them to varying locations around the island according to the time of year. From Astromeritis and Peristerona to Lagouderia and Flasou, the hives go where the herbs and flowers grow. There is a lot to factor in. What’s in bloom? What’s the weather like? Did it rain well or not in a particular area? Will there be enough flowers growing?
Then there’s the health and wellbeing of the bees themselves to take into consideration; officially known as Apis Mellifera species or the ‘European Honey Bee’.
“Some bees are problematic and others have diseases – we have to be sure they are ready for the season,” Dimitris says.
That’s not to forget the uncertainty of mother-nature herself. “Climate can be a big hindrance when it comes to production. You can never predict what it will be like at the start of the year. Ideally we want it to rain lots in the winter and be warm but not scorching hot in the summer.”
With the harvesting taking place during the summer months, six employees busy themselves with the honeycomb extraction and bottling at the Peristerona plant for a few months before the bottles are distributed to various outlets around the island and beyond.
“From the bee-keeping to the honey extraction and the bottling, it’s the attention to detail that has made the difference,” says Dimitris with pride. “From start to finish, we do it all ourselves.”
But Cyprus still has a way to go if it wants to make waves around the world when it comes to its sweet produce. Dimitris refers to the hype surrounding New Zealand’s renowned Manuka honey as an example.
“There’s no doubt that it has some excellent antioxidant properties. But you must also remember that the New Zealanders have very rightly invested time, money and ample research into their honey. If we did the same here on the island, I have little doubt that you’d find some very similar properties in Cyprus honey as you would in Manuka honey.”
While appropriate research seems to be the way forward, Dimitris lets on that a very specific clinical trial is now taking place on the island, examining the significant health benefits of thyme honey. Dimitris hints that thyme honey may be extremely effective at fighting degenerative diseases due to its high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. But again, specific findings need to be made official.
In the meantime, the Honeymell family will continue doing what it knows how to do best, putting jars of tempting, award-winning Tziverti honey on the supermarket shelves.