Gisborne beekeeper John Foster loved his honey as much as he loved his bees. John specialised in tawari honey.
He sweetened his tea with it. His wife baked tawari honey into his cookies to go with his honeyed tea. Given half a chance he would have run the stuff through his hair with a honeycomb.
He even carved a honey bee, along with all kinds of native bush arcana on his honey-coloured front door.
It is still there and his son Barry Foster continues the bee keeper’s tradition under the same banner, Tawari Apiaries.
I can’t remember how I landed a summer job as John’s assistant but it was worth its weight in tawari gold.
This was back in the day when New Zealand’s honeys were mostly blended or pale clover. Single varietal honeys were largely unknown.
Tawari was an exotic in its own country. Aficionados describe the fragrance of the honey as a rich perfumed musk with notes of sandalwood and orange peel. Its flavour profile includes rosehip syrup and butterscotch.
The tawari tree too wears a perfumey cloak of mystery.
It only grows in New Zealand and is usually found deep in the dim recesses of forests in the far north. The tree can grow to almost 16 metres.
Its white flowers are mostly pollinated by birds. The flower’s structure is arranged to deposit pollen on these nectar-collectors.
But bees are big fans of the nectar too and turn it into honey in their hives.
John’s hives bubbled beneath towering tawari trees high up in the hills of Matawai.
To harvest them of their gold, John Foster and his old mate Stan Vincent and I made the high-altitude pilgrimage in the cramped cab of a flat-deck.
I had read all of Carlos Castaneda’s tales concerning an urbanite’s apprenticeship to a Yaqui brujo, an Indian shaman. It seemed to me that John and Stan could have been the books’ characters Don Juan and Don Genaro.
The two brujos didn’t wear beekeeper’s suits. Either the bees didn’t sting them or, if they did, neither of the men noticed. They used bellows to smoke the bees into a semi-somnambulistic state. The bees wandered over their wax walls like sedated inmates.
As a newcomer, I didn’t take any chances. I lumbered about in full kit . . . until a bee got inside my head-gear and crawled up the veil.
I whipped the cotton helmet off my head. Other bees swooped in to investigate. I ran away.
Who knew bees had scouts patrolling an unseen perimeter? Who knew they could relay a call for back-up to the hive? How could anyone have any idea that even the groggiest bloody bee would make a . . . a beeline straight to the cawing, flapping stranger at the edge of their otherwise bucolic and mostly smoke-free world.
How Dons Juan and Genaro laughed. Their advice seemed not only unwise but too late. If I found a bee in my bonnet, they gasped, I should crush it through the gauze. And under no circumstances, they heaved, should you run.
They were laughing still as we drove back to civilisation. I was stuck in the cab between them. I was furious, I was hot, itchy and ballooned with bee stings and I let them know all about it.
But back in town, my belly-aching was silenced with the gift of a frame of fresh, golden, tawari honeycomb.
I turned down the offer of a ride back to my place though.
I ate most of the honeycomb as I walked home.