Next to the rocky and unpredictable coastline of the south, the east coast of England is flat and unassuming, the perfect location to grow sea lavender;a name derivative of its ability to blossom along coastal environments within salty soil. A land that is simply inhabitable for many other plant species. Despite its name, the plant bears no relation to lavender, and against the popularity of its namesake, is widely unknown. Instead, it belongs to the Plumbaginaceae species, the first honey of which dates back as far as the 1930’s, but due to the rarity of production and finite positioning for growth, it’s a history that is threatened today. Much can be said with regards to the attributes of sea lavender honey, from the complexity of its flavour to its relatively late blooming, it is a product that combines both the consummate skill of the beekeeper with the often, unpredictable forces of nature. It is a process that preserves this variety of honey within our eco-system. The preservation of traditions such as these, lies in the bio-diversity of our planet, and so it was important to meet Leigh Goodsell and observe his pursuit of safeguarding this heritage for future generations.
Beekeeper Leigh Goodsell has lived in Brancaster, Norfolk, for many years, a place close to the tidal marshes that provide optimum growth for flowering. ‘It is rare as there are very few places in the United Kingdom where Sea Lavender can thrive,’ Leigh tells me. With limited locations available to maintain the conditions required for it to prosper, the practice has become incredibly rare. ‘A good crop from sea lavender is an exception rather than the norm,’ he explains, ‘only adding to its rarity.’ When sourcing the right location, geography is an important part of the process and this comes from a series of mud flats and sea walls that protect the environment against erosion. These safeguards enhance the plants ability to prosper. ‘Topography, soil type and distribution of flora play a huge part in finding the right site,’ Leigh replies, when I ask if the flavour of the honey is impacted by the geography of the landscape. ‘Two ostensibly similar areas may have very different outcomes in terms of honey production. Often it will take several years of trying to work out whether an apiary site will work in the long term.’ It is this skill, as well as the produce, that needs to be protected if eco-systems of the future are to thrive. In the same way historical artworks or a valuable artefact are preserved with care, food heritage too is built upon the wisdom of those who have gone before us. With their expertise and experience, skilled practitioners like Leigh are able to direct society towards future innovation.
Leigh’s apiary takes the form of several dark green boxes, dotted along the landscape like small sheds. The process is hard work, and something which builds up over a long period of experience and learning. I was interested to find out just what led Leigh to dedicate his time to this preservation. ‘My previous careers included relatively long-term periods as a photographer and a horseman, interspersed with time as a lumberjack and an inshore fisherman. Keeping bees professionally has been the hardest work, the most stressful and the most damaging on my body yet ultimately the most mentally rewarding and wholesome of all my pursuits.’ Compared with previous careers, his average day is now changeable, dictated entirely by the temperament of the bees. ‘Let’s take a day between mid-April to mid-June,’ he says. ‘This is the part of the season where strong colonies will often wish to swarm. This is their way of reproduction, and the old queen will leave the hive with about half of the worker bees. With luck, they will establish a new home in a tree or some other space but the likelihood of their long-term survival is very slim. Most will die out within 3 years or so due to the Varroa mite, which is now endemic in the United Kingdom.’ The varroa mite is the main killer of bees, although other diseases are becoming increasingly common. Due to inexperienced people buying a hive or two with good intention, it is actually this practice that has become a conduit for spreading the disease in the locality. The term ‘swarming’ whereby a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies, raises the risk of this spreading. ‘If they are found to be in this state,’ Leigh says, ‘then various procedures are put to work to ensure that the bees urges are managed.’ The control of the bees is paramount, the skill of managing them in their natural state is the very thing that this heritage rests on. ‘In a good day,’ Leigh tells me, ‘I’ll inspect and manage around 40-60 colonies of bees. The work continues until dusk.’
It’s been hard to avoid the fact that in recent years we have experienced a loss in diversity within a variety of food groups, and unfortunately honey is no exception. ‘What many people perceive to be “honey” found in the local supermarket, is often pasteurised, heavily filtered, blended and often gloop adulterated with synthetic fructose syrup,’ Leigh informs me. ‘Whereas honey from each of my apiaries is kept separate, so every site will yield a different flavour of honey at various times of the year.’ With regards to mass-consumption as reflected on supermarket shelves, it soon becomes clear that the commercial scales have tipped towards uniformity. The very concept of production in terms of taste often lies around regularity. It is assumed that the consumer wants a product to taste the same, each and every time. However the thought that each batch could taste different from one another is an attribute to be celebrated. ‘When first bottled,’ Leigh explains, ‘sea lavender honey has a rich deep yellow colour with a hint of green when it is poured. The aroma is strong, pleasing, impossible to describe but never forgotten.’ As with all tastes, it is the memory of the product that retains its popularity with consumers and with increased demand lies the opportunity for the product to flourish. ‘The flavour is intense,’ Leigh continues, ‘with a wide range of sweet notes, followed by a slight counterbalance of bitterness on the edge of the tongue. When set, it takes on a rich yellow hue, with a fairly coarse grain.’ As I scoop a spoonful from a jar and taste it, the result of the arduous process is felt clearly. Sea lavender honey has a rather dense and indulgent texture. In a world of excess, perhaps its rarity only adds to the luxury. However if this rare nature is to threaten the very survival of this product, then surely there is a responsibility to invest in its protection, so it can be handed down to future generations.
As we reach the end of our conversation, I cannot help but think about the careful balance, the challenges the food industry might face in the future if we allow marginalised varieties such as this one to become extinct. Our diets may become simpler, to the detriment of complexity. Yet the yield is a reflection of the knowledge and skill required to obtain it. I wonder how one might help the cause and Leigh’s answer is simple. ‘The best thing anyone can do to help bees in the United Kingdom is to plant suitable flowers,’ he says. ‘Support the beekeepers, and expect to pay slightly more to mitigate the financial risk that beekeepers take in order to provide sea lavender honey.’ This process has existed for over ninety years and I cannot help but feel it would be a travesty should it be forgotten. The skills honed by experts such as Leigh might fall to the shelves of a historical food archive, rather than exist on the palates of those who wish to taste them. The idea of uniformity pales in comparison to the diversity of taste, expanding our produce with as much variety and as many layers as possible. The thought of extinction as a result of a failing in this preservation is profound, but supporting the battle against uniformity might just save us from it.
Leigh’s website is https://www.leighsbees.co.uk
Louise Leverett is a writer and novelist currently living in London. She has recently completed a diploma in ‘Advanced Gastronomy’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Follow her on Instagram @louiseleverett