Honey enjoys high cultural significance in Ethiopia. In many legends of the country, bees are buzzing around. Legendary is the taste of some varieties.
For Gashaw Melese, there is no doubt that the best honey in the world is being produced around the small town of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia. To prove this, the beekeeper likes to tell the legend of the birth of the emperor, to whom the city owes its name: When he was born, the imperial infant was swarmed around by bees, without them stinging him. Which is why he was baptized Lalibela, meaning “the one chosen by the bees”.
By the year 1250, when the emperor, later canonised by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, allegedly carved the eleven world-famous rock churches of Lalibela with his own hand, he was supported not only by angels but also by bees. So does the legend, which for Melese is proof enough, that there could be no bees anywhere else that produced better honey than those from his homeland.
The fact that Ethiopia is the country of origin of the coffee plant and that the best beans in the world sometimes come from here is well-known. Also, how the Ethiopians uphold their coffee culture and offer the drink to their guests. Less well known, however, is that honey has at least as long history and ritual significance in the country. For centuries, it has played a significant role in the traditional healing of Ethiopia. The so-called Tigray honey, named after the region in the north of the country, in which also Lalibela lies, produces the bees during the Ethiopian “spring”. So after the rainy season in the months of September to December, when the otherwise dry and dusty plateau with its red mountains and dramatic gorges turns into a lush green landscape with colorful flowers.
Honey wine for the Queen of Saba
“Sometimes we even reap a second time, in May and June, but it takes a particularly rainy year, which has become less common lately,” says Beekeeper Melese, giving in to Tej, the local Honey wine, which in former times was reserved for the local nobility and clergy.
Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon Tej drank when they fathered Menelik on a romantic night, crowned the first Emperor of Ethiopia. However, not all Ethiopians are convinced of the excellence of the Tigray honey – in the South there should be even better ones.
Two day trips
The trip takes about two days on the Land Cruiser from Lalibela in the north of the country to the honey collectors in the southern Harenna Forest. The journey goes through the grassy landscape of the East African Rift Valley, also known as Rift Valley, then up into the Bale National Park, over 4,000 meters above the dusty gravel roads, through barren lunar landscapes and straight into the clouds.
The vegetation changes abruptly, the road leads downhill again into the foggy thicket of the jungle. The Harenna Forest is a forest of the picture book, with mighty trees, lianas and rugged rocks, which protrude from the emerald green vegetation. Home he is the black maned wolf, the Anubispavian and the endangered Bale Grünmeerkatze and countless plant species.
Techniques passed down through generations
“Our bees pollinate up to 20 different plant species, which makes the honey so complex in taste, so unique and so famous,” says Ahmad Mako, a gaunt man with a red goatee and a scarf on his head posing as chairman of the Beekeepers Cooperative by Rira.
The bustling little village lies on the southern slope of the Bale Mountains and at the beginning of the Harenna Forest. The Cooperative covers about 50 beekeepers, the chairman continues. Honey production is still very traditional here, the techniques have been passed down through generations.
Honey harvest as a complex process
The hives are significantly different from those used in Europe. The local are called Kafo, are cylindrical and made of eucalyptus or other bendable wood species. To protect their valuable contents from wild animals, the kafos are housed in the treetops, explains Mako, climbing over a fence to reach his sticks.
Not only the height of the trees, but also the nature of the beehives ensures that the honey harvest is a much more complex process than with the easier-to-open, quickly re-closable and generally easier to handle European sticks. In addition, African bees are a lot more aggressive than their conspecifics in Europe.
Of course organic
“Of course, our honey is biologically produced,” stresses the chairman as he unlocks the door to a warehouse housed in a simple box. There are no chemicals and intensively ordered fields around Rira. Besides, the bees would work exclusively in the thoroughly untouched Harenna forest.
“A big advantage is also the special climate,” says Mako, “here the rainy season lasts almost nine months, which is why we can harvest twice in the highlands almost every year.” In addition, there is just the extreme variety of plants in the jungle, which ensure that in Rira the best honey in the country is produced.
The objection that the beekeepers in the Tigray region assert themselves of their honey also quit the bystanders with loud and disrespectful laughter. “They love to say that, but in fact they know that they will never get the quality of Rira honey,” says Mako, laughing as he pampers a flatbread with a taste of honey.
It is creamy and dark amber color, in the taste unique fruity and floral, with intense notes of malt and caramel. It would be interesting, of course, to taste for comparison the local honey wine that the biblical kings drank. Again, everyone laughs out loud. “They will not find it with us, because we all belong to the Muslim minority, and the fairy tale of the kings and bees does not believe here,” says Mr. Mako and says goodbye to everyone in the best of moods for a midday prayer in the Withdraw mosque. (Georges Desrues, RONDO, 18.5.2018) photo: georges desrues Bees are said to have helped Emperor Lalibela build the famous rock churches in northern Ethiopia. photo: georges desrues In the south of the country, beekeepers like Ahmad Mako produce beehives made of eucalyptus wood, in which taste-intensive jungle honey is produced. photo: georges desrues “The bees in the Harenna forest pollinate up to twenty different plant species,” says beekeeper Ahmad Mako.