Old Florida in a Honey Jar

0

Tropical Blossom Honey pours Florida’s elixirs—and their hearts—into bottles, jars and jugs

by Marta Madigan / photos by Michael Flores

flag-icon

If you don’t get stopped by the traffic lights, an old-school straw beehive facade may well flash unnoticed in front of your eyes. In days gone by, the corner of Ridgewood and Park avenues in Edgewater used to be a lively spot where a colorful fruit stand attracted vacationers cruising up and down U.S. Route 1 to break for a bag of juicy citrus and local honey, perfect Sunshine State souvenirs.

Though the fruit stand is gone, honey is still bottled here, 3 to 4 million pounds a year. There is a story behind each jar. You want Old Florida? It’s in the honey.

“We’ve been in the same location for over half a century,” says Doug McGinnis, the owner of Tropical Blossom Honey, whose parents founded the company in 1940. With help from his great-uncle—a citrus grower, beekeeper and moonshine maker who moved to Florida in the late 1800s—McGinnis’s father learned the fundamentals of beekeeping.

By the time McGinnis took his first steps, his father had given him hands-on beehive experience, stinging included. “The children of beekeepers are usually enlisted to put beeswax foundation in hive frames, nail frames together and help extract honey,” explains McGinnis. When he was very young, he didn’t particularly like those tasks. But starting a new colony was always fun, especially receiving queen bees buzzing in packages delivered by mail.

McGinnis bought his first 10 hives when he went to the University of Florida in Gainesville, and the honey money sweetened his graduation. Then, instead of following his journalistic path, in 1976 he rejoined his parents’ growing business of packing Florida’s finest honey.

Around that time, the newly built I-95 redirected the traffic from U.S.1. This, in turn, closed most of the nearby fruit stands, including the one owned by the McGinnis family. They survived the impact of the new highway by expanding their sales far beyond Volusia County. Adding honey to their citrus “deluxe” gift baskets created an international buzz when McGinnis’s father came up with the idea of an orange-size globe jar filled with orange blossom honey, and since 1959, Tropical Blossom Honey has been showcasing this and other Florida honeys at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

That led to doing business nationally and globally, with customers as far as Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “We continue to sell orange blossom honey to Japan, a valued relationship since the early 1970s,” says McGinnis.

honeycombs

jars-drawing

Fresh honeycomb, top, waits in trays for packing into Tropical Blossom’s signature globe jars filled with wildflower honey, bottom left. Caricature of David McGinnis, bottom right, Doug’s father and founder of the company, was once used as a label for “Big Dave’s Select” honey.

Before European Union regulations slowed down the honey flow from Florida, Tropical Blossom Honey shipped most of their specialty honey with gallberry honeycomb to the Old Continent. In the mid-’60s, when people in France and Italy started to fall in love with the distinctive flavor of Floridian honey, most Americans didn’t get it, says McGinnis.

“We are non–grocery store honey,” says McGinnis. His unfiltered, uncooked artisanal elixirs have a shelf-life of 3,000 years and will naturally granulate. This process affects the honey’s color and texture, but not its edibility. “It’s a matter of perception,” he says.

hive

One of Doug McGinnis’s beehives, top, buzzes at The Atlantic Centre for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach. Honeycomb is harvested from movable frames.

At the Tropical Blossom Honey’s factory store, McGinnis curates local honey varietals he buys from 36 beekeepers from all over Florida. He usually carries pollen-rich palmetto honey for his customers seeking allergy relief. Dark, molasses-like “tropical blossom” made of avocado, lychee, longan and bottlebrush is for more adventurous epicureans. Recently, he added a new varietal of honey to his Tropic Bee label. It comes from the bees that gather nectar from seagrape on Pine Island on the Gulf Coast.

Considered an aristocrat among honeys, tupelo from the Panhandle is the one that won’t solidify nor spike blood sugar. With a short, labor-intensive harvest season and a small area where it’s made, this unique honey gets a bit pricy. Gallberry, another rare honey from Florida’s shrinking swamps, is valued for its honeycomb. In a production line behind the store, employees cut fresh gallberry comb and put it in jars filled with wildflower (gallberry-palmetto) honey and ship it to Hispanic specialty food stores in California. Both tupelo and gallberry are considered true delicacies, honored on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste list of “delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.”

As some plants and old ways of producing food fade away, others undergo revival. Next to a little Muth glass jar of palmetto honey labeled “Yaupon,” there is a local product that’s both new and old: In the pre-Columbian era, Native Floridians drank Yaupon (see sidebar). This revival is produced by brothers Bryon and Kyle White, who rent the corner building, right where the old fruit stand used to be. It’s springtime for Yaupon Asi Tea and full bloom for Doug McGinnis and his Tropic Bee.

Tropical Blossom Honey, 106 North Ridgewood Ave., Edgewater; (386) 428-9027; 8 a.m.–4.30 p.m. weekdays; tropicbeehoney.com. Also at Hollieanna Groves, 540 South Orlando Ave., Maitland, hollieanna.com; White’s Red Hill Groves, 3725 South Conway Road, redhillgroves.com; Florida Citrus Center off I-95 and I-75 (all locations).

yaupon

Yaupon: The Next-Door Tea

Just as yaupon holly and saw palmetto plants grow side by side in Volusia County’s maritime forests, yaupon tea and palmetto honey make a fine pairing. Bryon and Kyle White, the young men behind Yaupon Asi Tea, are on a quest to reintroduce the original beverage of native tribes.

Naturally caffeinated, yaupon leaves are hand-picked a stone’s throw from where the White brothers de-stem, wash, air-dry, sift and pack their certified wild-crop organic tea. “Besides being caffeinated, yaupon is extremely rich in antioxidants, and it tastes good, too,” says Bryon.

The tea comes in six blends. Traditional Timucua and roasted Osceola have nothing added. Flavored blends entice with beautiful aromas of lavender-coconut, cinnamon-apricot, chamomile-mint and chocolate chai. A spoonful of yaupon infused for a few minutes in hot water (195º) makes a delightful brew. It can be served hot or iced, and with palmetto honey from the neighboring Tropical Blossom Honey production line.

To learn more, visit Yaupon Asi Tea. Local Roots at East End Market carries “Yaupon Asi Tea” labeled palmetto honey and yaupon teas.

Share.