For honey connoisseurs, North York Moors’ heather honey is simply the best honey in the world, and arguably no-one makes it better than Chris Smailes.
Chris started making honey when he was just nine years old, helping his father with the family beehives. ‘Everyone made honey in those days,’ says Chris, who grew up in Gilling East in the shadow of the North York Moors, the vast sweep of heather moorland so beloved of beekeepers.
Everyone may have kept bees but not everyone becomes an award-winning beekeeper like Chris. The awards are not difficult to spot. Dozens of rosettes are pinned up in the front porch where the Smailes operate a micro-shop selling jars of heather, mixed flower honey and honeycomb alongside his wife Linda’s honey fudge sauce, wax candles and beeswax polish.
Sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by jars of honey and his homemade mead, Chris reels off his awards: 2016 Great Yorkshire Show, Supreme Champion; 2015 Countryside Live, Supreme Champion; first prize at the National Honey Show every year (except 2015) since 2013.
He picks up a square box of honeycomb: ‘This is the pinnacle of the beekeeper’s craft. Bees don’t take their honey into corners but, look, this comb goes right into the corners.’ While the beauty of the octagonal combs produced by bees always amazes, few know as much as Chris about the arcane points of honeycomb production. There’s no dispute that his interest in bees is bordering on an obsession.
The lesson continues. How perfectly good honey was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and honey was smeared onto burns during World War One to protect them from infection. Honey combats hay fever and eczema and the wax can be made into candles, polish and cosmetics. Embroiders use a block of wax to lubricate their thread and an entertainer called Dr Diablo has ordered Chris’s beeswax to wax his moustache.
For a time the Smailes’ regularly supplied kosher honey to a rabbi in Gateshead and were subsequently telephoned by the Chief Rabbi to check if it really was kosher. Chris assured him it was.
Sir Marcus Worsley from nearby Hovingham Hall used to buy Westfield honey. ‘He was such a gentleman.’ says Chris. ‘I used to pull his leg. I once told him that we’d received an EU directive: we couldn’t call it heather honey any more, but honey from the ericaceous uplands.’
While he enjoys a honey joke, Chris takes his production very seriously. Now he’s retired, he describes his honey production as ‘not quite a business and more than a hobby.’ So each summer he takes his hives up onto the North York Moors where the bees can feast on 554 square miles of purple ling and bell heather.
In September when the hives are heavy with honey, they are taken off the moorland to his ‘honey kitchen’ where Chris extracts the honey from the comb then filters and jars it. The mixed flower honey has the more subtle flavour, while the heather honey is richer, more floral. Either way, it’s the real thing.