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A taste of honey
The 21st international honey festival is already in full swing at Tsaritsyno. This is the third time the market has been held here - it used to be at Kolomenskoye - and the venue is working out well. Just five minutes on foot from Tsaritsyno metro station, the festival grounds are right outside the main gate to the old imperial park which means visitors can also stroll past the musical fountains when they come to buy their honey.
Moscow's mayor, Yury Luzhkov, is known to be a great honey fan, apiarist and active supporter of the bi-annual market. He was also a major proponent of the controversial over-restoration of Catherine the Great's unfinished palaces in the park at Tsaritsyno. While the finished palaces are now more Disney-dukedom than romantic ruin, the combination of fairyland and festival is an unbeatable one for thousands of Muscovites. This year there are 600 quality-approved apiarists from 58 regions, selling 60 varieties of honey.
Beekeepers from all over Russia come to sell their wares at the Honey Fair: from the flower-filled meadows in the foothills of the Caucasus to the far eastern provinces. North Ossetia and Chechnya are also represented. Apiarist Nikolai Korovin proudly says that his is "mountain honey", while Alexander Tolmachev and his wife insist that it is the fields full of herbs in the Stavropol area that are responsible for their superior product. Their claims are illustrated by photographs tacked onto the stalls showing themselves, their grandchildren and beehives surrounded by acres of blooms. These records of a rural way of life are one of the most delightful features of the festival. The stallholders are all members of the Russian National Union of Apiarists and many also display their beekeeping diplomas next to the photos.
Each stall displays numerous varieties of honey, ranging from white to dark brown, from clear liquids to viscous gum. This variety comes from a bewildering range of different flowers, some of the most common being lime tree (linden) and acacia. The Korovin family favour the dark chestnut honey that they grew up with, calling it " the taste of childhood", while Irina Ivatsenko, also from the Krasnodar region, prefers the lighter acacia with its "tender taste".
The blooms of coriander, pumpkin, apple blossom and raspberry flowers are all also used to produce honey. Everyone has their own favourite. Long-term Moscow resident Jane Birch said: "I put some linden honey in my peppermint tea and it was to die for!"
In general, the rarer honeys are more expensive with discounts for pensioners and war veterans. They are all sold by the kilogram with prices ranging from 150 roubles up to 10 times that for honey with added bee-bread. Products at this end of the range are more medicine than foodstuff. You can taste the honey straight from a row of jars at the front of each stand, using plastic coffee stirrers, but the stallholders will often proffer fresh honey from the tubs at the back.
Beeswax candles are also on sale by the bucketload, both the long, thin kind used in churches and moulded candles in different shapes. There are wax cakes for cosmetic purposes. Looking almost edible, these yellow discs are apparently useful for mixing into complexion-smoothing facemasks. Many stalls sell "chak-chak", a deliciously sticky-sweet snack, along with several types of mead. There is also royal jelly, and propolis, the resinous "bee glue" that bees use to fix honeycombs in place. You can of course also buy sections of the honey comb itself. Perga or bee-bread is another medicinal product popular among visitors to the fair. You can even buy crushed dead bees and venom for their supposed health benefits.
There is an almost mystical reverence afforded to honey and its by-products in Russia. Honey has a long history in this country.
It is said to be able to cure almost anything. It's just a matter of finding out which type of honey to use. Yevgeny Kovergin from the Tambov region says his buckwheat honey with propolis mixed into it acts as a "natural antibiotic" and "boosts the immune system". Yekaterina Kuzmetsova from Kuban, one of the relatively few women apiarists, stands proudly behind a large tub of bee-bread. In her immaculate white overalls, she looks more like a doctor than a farmer; she is eager to explain how it can cure all kinds of illnesses: cardio-vascular, gastric or bronchial. According to her, it can raise your blood pressure (if taken after meals) or lower it (if taken before), while smearing it on the skin can heal wounds or cure eczema, herpes and psoriasis. Many sellers stress the vitamin content of their honey, the amino acids, beneficial minerals and natural anti-bacterial agents.'
Kids can enjoy the Honey Fair too. Eleven-year-old George Lodge from England, who was visiting the festival for the first time this year, was hugely enthusiastic. "If you can get over the wasp-infested honey and the crowds, it's really good.
We bought four different kinds: chestnut, lime, acacia and a dessert honey". The best thing was "the different personalities of the people selling ... they were all very helpful, talkative and sociable".
Honey Fair (Yarmarka Myoda):
Until October 12, just outside the Tsaritsyno museum estate, 1 Dolskaya Ul., m. Tsaritsyno.
Open daily 9 am-8 pm. Entry is free.