Not all of our travel bursts with adventure. There are days of long drives, laundry baskets, local planning. And unexpected, small pleasures—like a honey festival in Spain’s Picos de Europa.
You won’t read about this event in guidebooks; it doesn’t even show up in local brochures. But every year on a Saturday in late September, the mountain town of La Vega de Liébana (population 745) holds a honey festival.
As Magellan can attest, honey is one of my favourite travel purchases. To me, a spoonful of honey expresses the essence of a terroir, a sensual memory of a specific place. From my hometown in Saskatchewan, flavours of canola and clover. From the Peloponnese in Greece, tastes of thyme and chestnut. From Sicily’s black bees, delicacies of orange blossom and wildflowers. From New Zealand’s North Island, the dominance of rainforest and tea tree. And you don’t need to be born with a silver spoon to savour honey’s pleasures. So when we saw a poster advertising the honey festival and discovered La Vega is only ten kilometres from the cottage we were renting, we decided to be there when the doors opened.
What an ambrosial experience. I sampled honey from every one of the ten or so vendors, returning to my favourites for second tastings and makeshift conversations about particular flavours and colours of the multiple varieties on display. Once you have a taste, you know why the Liébana region is famous for its honey production—as it has been since the tenth century. It has been awarded the Declaration of Protected Designation of Origin Miel de Liébana (D.O.P.), which vendors whose labels featured this insignia proudly pointed out to me.
Held in a large tent, the festival was already buzzing when we arrived. There were about forty tables set up. In addition to honey, vendors were selling an assortment of foods: wheels of cheese, chunky sausages, homemade wine and farm-fresh peppers, sun-ripened tomatoes and red onions. Other tables held beeswax candles, crafts, soaps and textiles. We didn’t stay for the dessert contest (all made with honey I’m guessing?) or for the musical entertainment.
Also for sale were albarcas, rustic wooden clogs worn by farmers and villagers in Cantabria. Albarcas are carved from a single piece of wood, usually beech, walnut or birch. On the bottom of the albarcas are mini stilts (tarugos). The tarugos and pointed toes elevate the wearer above the mud and snow—and the poo of cows, sheep and goats in their fields.
Honey holds the distinction of being the only food in the world that will last forever. A spoonful remains in my jar of Sierra Del Escudo Miel de Brezo, although I see it says “Lote y Consumir prefèrenetemente antes AQ7 SEP 2018.”
I can’t bear to open my last jar of dark, rich nectar from El colmenar a Las Doňas, my favourite. This family has been producing honey for generations. Here’s the translation from their website: “We remember with longing the old beehive of dujos (hollow trunks of oak) that the grandfather had Ceto in the wall of the orchard of house, where he spent the hours seeing the coming and going of his bees while he loaded of tobacco sting his threadbare pipe.”
The full quote of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s, “I’m on the pollen path,” goes like this: “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path.’’
I feel a little like Pooh bear about our remaining spoonfuls of honey from La Vega.
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”