For this recipe, chef-restaurateur Stevie Parle uses honey from his own bees, which he keeps near his restaurant Craft in Greenwich, south east London. Michael Raffael reports
Whether it's New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Copenhagen, Hong Kong or Tokyo, nearly every major global city has urban beekeepers, from whom chefs can source honey.
However, London-based chef-restaurateur Stevie Parle has gone one step further by introducing his own hives. He keeps four in Greenwich Peninsula's Waterman Gardens, near his restaurant, Craft, which overlooks the O2 arena. His bees supply 150kg of honey a year, costing a fraction of what it would to buy it in.
It takes 12 bees a life's work to make one teaspoon of honey. But he isn't keeping the hives just to save money. Craft's underlying theme is to follow food processes from the raw material to the customers' tables.
In the ground floor café, the honey is used in biscuits, madeleines and the daily changing pastries, and it replaces the sugar syrups in the cocktails. It's used in the main restaurant as a seasoning, in the homemade mead (part of the mise en place for sauces) and as a focus for dishes, such as the clay-baked duck.
Different uniflora honeys have different flavours. Acacia is light and pale; chestnut is dark and has a powerful taste; wheat honey has almond notes; colza or rapeseed honey may be oily; and conifer-based honeys are viscous.
However, city bees have to fend for themselves and forage for nectar from a wide variety of plants, both wild and cultivated. And they are very good at it - at this Year's Great Taste Awards, judges praised east London's Bermondsey Street honey, whose clients include chefs Tom Aikens, Jose Pizzaro and Daniel Clifford, for its "refreshing taste of lime, mint, fennel and liquorice".
Craft has 80 seats and the burnt red cabbage with mead sauce may be one of five starters as well as appearing on the tasting menu. On busy evenings during O2 events the restaurant may serve 200 pre-show covers before 7pm.
The recipe is easy to scale up. The mead sauce base can be made ahead of service and butter beaten in to finish it. Other vegetables or combinations of vegetables can be served instead of cabbage, such as the Catalan scallion calÁ§ot.
Craft charges £9 for the cabbage dish. In a kitchen where the honey, anchovy, butter and mead are sourced from outside, it would cost about £2 per portion, using prime ingredients. Parle probably saves over 30% on food costs.
Burnt red cabbage with mead sauce
Craft buys the Kalibos variety of red cabbage, which are relatively looseleafed and pointed, similar to Hispi. Their size can vary, so the cooking times and portioning are approximate. A standard round, tightly packed red
cabbage would not be suitable.
1 medium-sized Kalibos cabbage
3-6 heritage carrots (multicoloured)
4-5 peeled garlic cloves, depending on size
25g cured anchovy fillets (Craft uses its home-cured ones, but Cantabrian
80g unsalted butter
Fresh fennel seeds
Lemon juice (optional)
At Craft, chefs grill over an open wood fire, similar to the parillas used in Argentina and Uruguay. Its heat can vary and the grilling bars are raised or lowered accordingly. Don't remove any outer leaves on the cabbage. Put it on the grill and allow the outside to char slowly. Turn the cabbage over from time to time so it cooks evenly. The cooking time can take about 25 minutes, so it can be
part-cooked ahead of service. The cabbage is ready when the inner leaves have softened. (The process is similar to the preparation of aubergine for baba ganoush) (1).
Scrub, but don't peel the carrots and boil them in salted water until tender. To make the sauce, pour the mead into a sauteuse and add the garlic cloves (2). Reduce the liquid slowly to a glaze. By the time it's ready, the garlic will have softened. Roughly mash it with a whisk or spoon (3-4).
Add the anchovies and a splash of water if the sauce is too sticky.
Crush the fillets in the liquid (5).
Divide the softened butter into walnut-sized pieces (6). Beat it into the mead reduction to emulsify the sauce (7).
Remove all the charred outer leaves from the cabbage (8). Split it into four or six lengthwise (9).
Arrange the cabbage on the plate. Sprinkle with salt. Halve or quarter the carrots and arrange three or four segments on the plate. Taste the sauce and add a squeeze of lemon juice if needed to give a hint of acidity.
Spoon the sauce over the cabbage and the carrots and finish with a few fennel seeds (10).
Cooking with honey
With small variations, honey contains 80% sugar, 17% water and 3% other elements. The main sugars are fructose 38%) and glucose (32%) with other sugars making up the other 10%.
Honey is a natural prototype of invert sugar. It has about 30% more sweetening power than saccharose (caster/granulated sugar) and the glucose it contains helps prevent crystallisation in sorbets and ice-creams.
These basic facts give a clue as to how to use honey in recipes. It is especially useful as a flavour enhancer in recipes containing fruit. The individual flavours of uniflora honeys (apple blossom, lime, etc) may give them personality, but in most recipes a more balanced blend works better.
Stevie Parle likes to use honey as a last-minute seasoning. It's a way of perking up a recipe with sweetness in the same way that a squeeze of lemon juice can add acidity.
Makes 1 litre
Put 200g unpasteurised liquid honey in a large kilner jar (or similar) and fit the lid. Add 800g water to the honey and whisk together. Keep in a warm place and stir every day until it ferments. Once fermentation has taken place, keep the jar sealed and use as needed.
Stevie Parle used Barnes & Webb to set up his hives and suggests Thorne (thorne.co.uk) as a good source for equipment.
"Look around for established colonies or over-wintered nucs [small honey bee colonies] and establish a new hive in spring," says Parle. "It's also worth joining your local beekeepers' association."
Barnes & Webb is a London-based beehive rental company, set up in 2013 by passionate urban beekeepers Chris Barnes and Paul Webb. The company has placed hives across the capital, giving people local honey and pollinated gardens and "a unique way to reconnect with nature". It is certified by the British Beekeepers Association and registered with DEFRA.
Craft cocktail: More Please
Honey is an integral part of several cocktails served in the top-floor bar.
15ml apricot and chamomile infusion
20ml lemon juice
15ml honey syrup
50ml Beefeater gin
20ml egg white
To make the honey syrup, bring equal quantities of honey and water to simmering point. Dry shake the ingredients, then shake over ice. Garnish with chamomile petals.
Stevie Parle admits to being hesitant before opening his third restaurant, Craft, as he'd been looking for something more central. The location, by the O2 in the Greenwich Peninsula, was still at an early stage of its development.
But when he weighed up the risks, he realised that the space would free him from "the constraints of working in a basement kitchen in Soho."
His proposal for the project included a butchery, a coffee roaster, a smoke house and beehives in the gardens abutting the restaurant: "I wanted to have more control over the raw materials rather than depend on suppliers who were making their margins without understanding fully the products we wanted to use," he says.
With each element taken separately, he feels his plan was not unique to London, but the idea as a whole did offer something special: "We've been able to produce excellence in many realms. We can offer great coffee and great cured meat. It's difficult to bring all the knowledge and skill into one place."
By focusing on the processes associated with the raw material, he's shifted the emphasis away from complex kitchen skills: "There's loads and loads of technique involved in the products we make, but the dishes themselves are simple because the production is sometimes so complex."
As examples he cites the cultured butter the kitchen makes from raw Jersey milk or the Cornish anchovies (used in the mead sauce) that he cures, or the walnuts pickled to go with charcuterie prepared in-house. Butter, coffee, salumi, smoked eel and cods' roes go to his other restaurants.
Beekeeping goes back at least four generations in his family: "I used to do it as a kid with my grandfather, who learned from his father," says Parle. At Craft, honey is a basic seasoning: "If we're tweaking something, if we want to add a touch of sweetness, in a broth, say, we may add a little as a low-key ingredient. We substitute it for sugar in desserts and ice-creams. It's in almost anything and we don't buy much white sugar at all."
It can also have a higher profile, as in a duck dish that's poached, grilled, baked in clay and finished with a broad bean miso and honey glaze.
Parle, 31, started his career at the River Café and now has two other restaurants to his name - Dock Kitchen and Rotorino - plus a new opening, Palatino, due in 2017. He successfully juggles a television career with a job as a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph for the past five years.
But despite these overlapping demands he still thinks of himself as a chef: "The reality may be different, but so far as my identity goes and my day to day priorities, cooking is really important to me," he says. "Most days I'll be in a kitchen doing something. What I enjoy most is the process of editing other peoples' creativity. My involvement in their ideas helps make them better."