Crisp, clear autumn days like these find people in their cars eager to explore the bright foliage of the countryside. At least half the pleasure of such excursions is the chance to bring home the bounties of the season -- apples, cider, pumpkins and honey.
A scenic winding drive southwest of Fredericksburg on Virginia Rte. 20 South (the Constitution Route) brings the weekend traveler to the historic hills of Orange County, Va. Cruising further down through the town of Orange to Barboursville and turning east on Virginia Rte. 33 to Gordonsville, the alert driver is reminded by various markers, museums and signs that three U.S. presidents -- Jefferson, Madison and Taylor -- left their marks on this county.
Clover honey is one local treat that surely graced the tables of these founding fathers and sons. Today, from a stand in front of his white brick house on North Main Street in Gordonsville, Wilson W. Chiles sells a sweet clover honey gathered by hand from hives throughout the county.
Chiles, born in nearby Fluvanna County 70 years ago, has been in the honey business since his retirement. But beekeeping has always been in the family; Chiles remembers watching his father and uncle care for the hives on the farm where he grew up. Forty years ago, when he and his wife started their own family, it seemed only natural to have a few hives around "to provide sweets for the children."
His children have grown, but Chiles, now a widower, considers the business a family project. Everyone helps with loading the truck for deliveries throughout central Virginia, bottling and labeling jars with "The Sweetest Thing in Gordonsville."
"Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby," said Chiles, standing in the large airy workroom at the back of his house where the honey is processed. "It can be rewarding--depends on what you put into it."
The bees put a lot into it. A single large hive, containing about 75,000 bees, can yield from 100 to 200 pounds of honey a year. The hackneyed phrase, "as busy as a bee," takes on a renewed vitality when the industrious habits of the bee are examined: In one spring/summer season a single worker bee will produce one-half of a teaspoon of honey and, together with the other worker bees in the hive, will travel his share of a distance equal to approximately 11 round trips between New York and San Francisco.
Honey is a seasonal product, essentially allied with regional blossoming flowers. According to Chiles, the honeybee is "not too particular." It will go to anything that blooms except honeysuckle, which has a flower too deep for the bees to reach, or red clover, red being a color bees cannot "see."
The flavor and scent of honey can vary depending on the blossoms available to the bees. Clover is profuse in Orange County and Chiles' honey has a scent of the wild white clover blossoms that spread like lace over the untilled fields.
As a beekeeper, Chiles tailors his keeping to the time of the year. During a moist blossom-rich summer the bees unceasingly deposit nectar in the rows of detachable wax combs suspended inside the hive. Each week Chiles drives his truck to the various sites and puts on a white mechanic's jumpsuit, a bee veil and a pair of soft leather gloves with tight elastic cuffs. He then removes, one by one, the honey-laden frames and takes them back to his house in town for extracting and processing.
Honey made after the first of August is winter food for the bees. To remove it would be "doing the bees a disservice," said Chiles. "I'd be killing them off."
The honey season is definitely over now. The weather has been turning cooler and Chiles is waiting for "Old Man Winter to run me in." Meanwhile, he sells the fruit of the bee's summer labor as well as items like new comb honey and blackstrap molasses to people who come from near and far on autumn weekends.
"Working with bees grows on you," said Chiles, sitting at a table in the middle of his big farmhouse-style kitchen in Gordonsville. "There's always something new. I believe we could learn to predict the weather from the bees: When there's a storm approaching the bees get fractious -- it's a very bad time to open a hive."
One of the few times you can find the bees relatively placid is when they form part of a swarm leaving an overcrowded hive in search of a new home. Slow and heavy from the extra honey they are carrying as food for the new colony, they mass together in a big buzzing cloud. That is when Chiles gets one of his biggest satisfactions as a beekeeper.
"Getting a swarm of bees into a new hive you feel you're really accomplishing something," said Chiles with a smile. " . . . To see how readily they will go into a hive -- they almost come out and thank you." HONEY APPLE CRISP (6 servings) 6 cups sliced apples (about 2 pounds) 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 cup honey 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 2/3 cup rolled oats 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup butter
Arrange apples in greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish and sprinkle with lemon juice. Spread honey over apples. Mix dry ingredients. Cut in butter into dry mixture until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Sprinkle over apples. Bake at 375 degrees until apples are tender and crust is browned (about 30 minutes). From "My Favorite Honey Recipes," by Mrs. Walter T. (Ida) Kelley HONEY RAISIN COOKIES (2 dozen) 1/2 cup shortening 1/3 cup liquid honey 2 eggs 1 1/4 cups sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup seedless raisins 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Cream shortening and honey thoroughly. Add the eggs, beat until well mixed. Sift together the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, soda and salt. Add to the creamed mixture, stir until mixed. Add raisins and vanilla. Drop batter by tablespoons on a greased cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden brown. From "My Favorite Honey Recipes," by Mrs. Walter T. (Ida) Kelley WHOLE HONEY GLAZED HAM (12 to 14 servings) 10-pound ham, fully cooked 2 cups cider 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice 1 1/2 sticks cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon cracked ginger 1 teaspoon whole cloves 1 cup honey
Arrange the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a shallow pan. Heat the cider and spices, and boil for 5 minutes in a covered saucepan. Bake the ham in a 325-degree oven, 15 to 18 minutes per pound. Baste with the cider sauce about every 15 minutes until 1 hour before the ham is done. When basting is done, drizzle half of the honey over the ham. Bake another 1/2 hour and then drizzle the remaining honey. Bake 30 minutes longer, or until ham is brown and glistening. If you are using a meat thermometer, it should register 160 degrees. Remove the ham from the oven, let it cool for 20 minutes, score the fat, and stud with cloves. Garnish as desired. From "Cooking with Honey," by Hazel Berto