A white winter sun shone high across the broad grass-covered expanse of Ranchos de Taos this past week as I found myself at a fenced-in juncture where two acequia ditches met by a cluster of indigenous plum trees.
I’m vainly trying to balance myself on a four-to-five foot snowdrift that was once firmly packed powder, but is now nothing more than a slushy, unsteady mound in the ripening day as Jason Goodhue, owner of Taos Valley Honey patiently poses below for a photo.
A Denver, Colorado native, Goodhue is a true Rocky Mountain boy, and he definitely looked the part as he ambled into World Cup Coffee on the plaza in Taos earlier that morning, his dishwater-blonde hair somewhat disheveled underneath a newsboy hat, sporting a wide grin behind a pair of vintage 70’s John Denver specs.
We’d never met before, but in the closet-like space of World Cup, it’s easy to spot the anticipated meeting or rendezvous, as no one in Taos wants to run into anybody unexpected, and therefore duly goes about their business in laconic, mañana fashion.
After grabbing a Latte and pastry, Jason and I sit out in the warmth of the rising sun on the southeast facing patio to get to know one another better. I immediately ask him why and how he got involved in bees and honey, and between bites of his pumpkin cake, he concisely replies, “I’ve basically been doing this my entire adult life. I knew around ’96-’97 that I wanted to work with the earth closely. I knew I wanted to be out in nature.”
Goodhue originally came to northern New Mexico to work at the now-defunct Questa Honey and the area immediately became a part of him and his vision. A decade or so on, he’s found himself ensconced in the area and its rich agricultural fabric.
A family and his widespread colony of bees keep him anchored to the area now, and he takes that responsibility seriously. “It’s all about stewardship,” Goodhue succinctly states. “For the bees…It’s like I’m their shepherd…except I protect them from bears and skunks…but it’s a reciprocal relationship…I take care of them and they take care of me.”
From Honey to Ashes: Mead’s Primal Buzz
An hour, or so later, I’m waiting in a parking lot on the other end of town for Jason to show up and take me to one of his tucked away bee spots. He’s got them all over the valley, the variety of terroir evident in the taste of each individual honey.
I’m eagerly anticipating his arrival, as he’s promised to break open one of his 2012 bottles of Mead, the ancient honey wine that’s the original alcoholic beverage of mankind.
Mead has been found in vessels dating from 6,000 BCE in the Far East, and is mentioned in just about every ancient mythology from the cradle of civilization to the middle ages. In these various mythologies, honey is stolen from heaven (In the Hindu Veda’s, it’s an eagle that does the deed, in Greek, Zeus’ eagle, and in Viking lore, Odin changes himself into a bird to procure honey for man.)
French Anthropologist Claude Lévi – Strauss argues in his influential 1973 work, From Honey To Ashes, that the invention of mead is the crucial point when humankind made the transition from nature to culture.
Mead is the ambrosia of the gods on Olympus, and what awaits every warrior that enters the Viking Valhalla… so I figured I was in for a real treat, so much so I was compelled to make a quick trip to Cid’s Market for some accompaniments to give the mead a proper tasting.
I was fortunate to find ripe strawberries and kiwi, important because I’d asked Jason for some flavor profiles and he mentioned his Mead is somewhat dry, but not as dry as he’d like, and I knew the fruit’s natural sharpness would give the mead some focus if needed, as well as offer a contrast.
We both agreed beforehand on a goat cheese to pair and I decided on a Mitica Spanish Goat that straddled mild and sharp in order to cover our bases. I also procured some wasabi covered peas to provide an element of heat and hopefully create the perfect savory/sweet umami effect, some Sicilian almonds for some creamy- nuttiness and a ripe pear to provide a sweeter fruit element.
In a matter of minutes, I see Jason pulling up and we make quick eye contact, both immediately understanding I’ll follow him to the spot.
We turn out of the parking lot and head out down a small dirt road off the main highway for a few minutes before branching off onto another, smaller rut and boulder strewn road before pulling off onto a small clearing by an antiquated wooden fence.
He pulls back a portion of the fence and we cross a crude wooden bridge over an idle irrigation ditch down through a thicket of red willow to a strategically-placed stack of pastel-colored wooden containers that holds the colony of bees before turning to me and saying, “I brought this mask for you if you feel you need it, they may get excited we’re around.”
I politely decline, as I’m calm and serene in the low, reassuring hum of bees busy with the day’s work and the warm, inviting sun on high. I proceed to snap some photos as Jason goes about his business of working with the bees and in a matter of minutes he’s pulling out the bottle of mead.
We start to improvise a makeshift table near the bees, but as I’m cutting up the first piece of fruit, I can sense the hive’s excitement level rising and look up to meet Jason’s gaze who says, “Maybe it’s best if we set up a little further away.”
I nod my approval and start to pack up, Jason joins in and in a minute we’re set up out in the field about ten yards away. He hands the bottle to me and asks me to open it, reminding me to be mindful of sedimentary yeast on the bottom.
The cork comes out with ease and I take the first whiff, which prominently gives off undeniable aromas of sarsaparilla and cinnamon. My interest now fully piqued, I grab the bottle by the punt at the bottom, and minding the sediment on the bottom of the bottle, pour Jason and I a taste.
We do a quick toast and both quickly draw glass nearer to explore the developing aromas further before taking the first sip. The mead is full-bodied at the outset, yet surprisingly well-balanced; unctuous and rich, without being cloying and syrupy.
The first taste confirms the initial aromas before delivering a distinct apple-pie flavor that continues on the palate for a few seconds before vanishing altogether.
“Apple pie,” I say out loud to Jason, who immediately gets it and nods affirmation. “I used apple blossom honey,” he quickly adds, then goes back to his glass for another sip.
“It’s surprisingly supple…and just dry enough…I add after a beat.
Jason nods as his mouth is currently filled with mead. He swallows it quickly and says, “I wanted it to be drier than this…but this is nice…I used a Montrachet yeast.”
I concur that it’s dry enough, but admit I’d like to taste a drier version. The Montrachet yeast Jason used is a Burgundian strain generally used for Chardonnay, and logically should be used for mead. As I sip on my glass, I’m wondering what other yeast strains are capable of doing.
I tell Jason to dig into the accompaniments, explaining what effect I’d hoped to get with each taste profile. The kiwi and strawberry offer the anticipated acidic brace, accentuating the apple flavor and focusing the mead. The goat cheese is a natural; it’s sweet-creaminess everything I’d hoped it’d be, ditto for the almonds, which delivered the tried and true honey-nut combo in spades.
I saved the wasabi-covered peas for last, as it was the biggest gamble. I wasn’t disappointed in the least, as the full spectrum of taste, from heat to sweet unfolded in a matter of seconds, making me aware of the mind-boggling possibilities inherent in food/mead pairings.
The afternoon sun now high in the sky, the temperature climbed to about 60 degrees as Jason and I are talking mead and munching away when he suddenly pulls me back over to the where the bees are and starts to fire up his hand-held smoker.
“So what’s the premise here?” I succinctly ask.
“Well…it’s a smokescreen…in the truest sense of the word,” Jason calmly says as he gracefully pumps the small billow, causing a small plume of smoke to sprout up.
“Bees see fire as a threat,” he adds while maintaining focus on his emerging fire. “So when they sense it, they go into emergency mode…basically, it deters their attention away from me.”
He scampers off to distribute smoke about the area while I turn my attention back to my glass of mead, suddenly wondering what the alcohol level is. “This seems about 12-13 percent alcohol to me, Jason,” I offhandedly say and he waits a few seconds before saying, “Yeah…that seems about right. I didn’t really measure it…but that seems like a good guess.”
He’s got good smoke going and is tending the bees as I’m jotting a few notes, contentedly sitting in the late winter/early spring sun with Pueblo peak majestically poised above town as if out of some Grecian tableau.
For a moment, time seems to stand still as bees buzz in the distance and the heady aroma of apple pie à la mode leaps forth from my glass under powder blue skies. The simplicity of it all suddenly seems so clear…nature working on myriad levels as we’re engrossed in the world of commerce, its ancient, ceaseless, rhythm working on our behalf. Blooming flowers and bees and their interaction creating the means for a potion to inspire: all is as it ever was, and ever shall be.
Taos Valley Honey is available at CID’S MARKET and TAOS MARKET. He is in the process of getting the Mead ready for sale. Stay tuned.
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.