On A Quest for White Tigray Honey in The Horn of Africa & Ethiopia
Being a honey bee farmer isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It takes patience, hard work, and the courage (and willingness!) to get stung by rambunctious bees sometimes. It comes with the territory. But in my recent exploit, the farmers there take it to another level. And I mean a way up there level, quite literally.
My quest to find the rare and distinctive white Tigray honey brought me to the Horn of Africa, that easternmost peninsula in the huge African continent consisting of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.
‘Twas a surreal and sensational experience in a rugged, rustic, and robust way! Let me just say that this side of the earth is simply rich beyond the traditional way we think of richness. Theirs are plateaus, mountains, lakes, wildlife, and a culture that reflects grit, grace, and grind in the truest sense of these words.
I mean, take their massive honey industry for example. In Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, most bee farmers walk uphill to cultivate and harvest honey. It’s a rocky climb, and the bees there do not easily let up (they seem to share the same grit as the Ethiopian people – not a place for the wimpy). It’s a painstaking process but the harvested honey is heavenly, making it absolutely worth the strenuous effort.
White Honey, Wild Wishes
Seeing the process of white honey production in Tigray was a dream come true. I’d always been fascinated by the uniqueness of the Tigray white honey- the texture, the flavor, and the evolution of the honey-making process here. White Tigray honey from Ethiopia is a highly sought-after variety and does not come cheap. Having got to where it originates, up the slopes of the Tigray mountains, it’s easy to see why.
But before I share with you the details of my White Tigray honey quest, let me first highlight the beauty of the Horn of Africa, and Ethiopia as Africa’s top honey producer. A quarter of honey made in Africa comes from Ethiopia and Ethiopian apiaries are as common as barbecue grills in American backyards. It’s a main source of livelihood for many of the locals and it has helped improve the lives of many honey producers and their families in this beautiful and unique land.
Ethiopia – A Honey Lover’s Utopia
Ethiopia is a utopia or haven for honey enthusiasts and merchants like me. Honey here comes in varieties of white, red, and yellow, thanks to the region’s rich flora. And my trip to Ethiopia peaked in many ways when I witnessed the honey production in Tigray - the tradition, evolution, and beauty of it.
Bee farming has widely been part of Ethiopian tradition and history dating as far back as the BC era. Legend has it that honey may have been part of Queen Sheba’s lavish gifts to King Solomon when she visited the famously wise and ultra-rich royal.
In the west, white Tigray honey can’t easily be found lining supermarket shelves as commonly as other honey varieties. They are rare and are even considered artisan and premium. But still, many want to have a taste of it not only because of its flavor but also because the Ethiopian white honey benefits range widely from culinary to beauty and even medicinal.
And so I traversed miles, heading to the Horn in search of this elusive honey. The icing on the cake was that it comes from a region in Africa I’ve always wished to experience. And it’s one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever had.
Here is a view of Ethiopia Tigray beekeepers in action (thanks to CNN):
Earthy Charm, Awesome Wonders
I’ve been to many parts of the world but let me just say that Africa is that unique place that lets you see and experience the world’s earthy, glorious side – from its mountain city streets to its rugged rural villages. The simplicity of the people here can have an immense impact on how you define life. Their hospitality and congenial nature, and their grit level are sure to have a profound effect on you.
Ethiopia is a large country and so a five-day itinerary would surely be packed. I started my trip in the capital city Addis Ababa. As much as I was excited to get my hands on the world-famous white Tigray honey I came here for, I knew I had to experience Ethiopia’s diverse regions and local cultures and immerse myself in its character first.
Addis Ababa is a sprawling, modern city and the capital of Ethiopia. It pulsates with bustling markets, stunning architecture, awesome cuisine, and modern facilities while still showcasing the richness of Ethiopian culture with its museums, mosques, churches, old traditions, and the inimitable Ethiopian vibe. It is altogether inspiring, exotic, endearing, religious, and diverse. This country is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic which means you need to personally experience its rich cultural identity even if it’s just for a few days.
As you know, I butter my bread at farmer's markets. Therefore, I thought you might enjoy this little market tour - Addis Ababa style (thanks to Mark Wiens):
Relics and Royalty
It’s easy to get around the city thanks to the multi-modal transport system. One of Addis Ababa’s must-see spots is the National Museum of Ethiopia where a cast of the bones of the famous little Lucy, the Australopithecus Afarensis, or one of the longest-lived and best-known early human species is on display. It also features Ethiopia’s ancient and traditional tools and textiles, tribal cultural pieces, as well the throne of the previous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. From there I took a walk through the Piassa, an Italian neighborhood of heritage buildings (Did you know Ethiopia was once a colony of Italy?) where I enjoyed some coffee and the vibrant local scene.
View From the Top
Overlooking the city is the Entoto Mountain range. A cab ride can get you to the summit and it will cost you less than Br300 (around USD8). If you’re up for it, and you have the time, you can consider hiking it up. It will take you half a day. The scenic view from here is breathtaking. You also get to see King Menelik’s Palace, Kiddus Raguel Church, the oldest one in Addis Ababa, and the Yaya Athletics Village where many Olympians from around the world train. Yes, they come all the way here! It has an amazing garden view and other recreational facilities like horseback riding, cottages and restaurants, a children’s playground, and other family leisure amenities. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Very tourist-friendly!
The Depths and the Dive
After experiencing the heights, I went the other extreme- Lake Assal, the lowest point on the African continent in Djibouti. Djibouti is a small country at the point of the Gulf of Aden. It can be reached from Addis Ababa via the Ethiopia-Djibouti Rail Link.
Just a tip, it could get very hot in Lake Assal so carry as much drinking water as you can. Here, you take in the view of salt flats surrounding the scenic lake.
Djibouti town and Djibouti as a whole are predominantly French and Arabic in terms of language, but of course, Somali and Afar are also widely spoken. Djibouti is predominantly a Muslim country and its diverse landscapes form a vivid tapestry.
From the town, a 45-minute boat ride got me to the Moucha and Maskali Islands. A refreshing transition from an arid landscape to a refreshing oasis with the islands boasting of a lovely coast and rich marine ecosystem. The diving experience here is a dream for every diving enthusiast – vast, dreamy, and rich. Looks like Africa can never run out of pleasant surprises.
My journey up to the northern part of Ethiopia began with an 8-hour flight from Djibouti to the city of Gondar. My touristy side brought me to the Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure) where old castles, churches, monasteries, and steam baths can be found in a vast, 70,000sqm enclave. It was built in the 1600s by Emperor Fasiladas (apparently, the ancient emperor got tired of the nomad lifestyle and so he decided to build a settlement here, a grandiose one at that!)
Fasil Ghebbi was the home to emperors up to the 18th century. It’s called the African Camelot and for a good reason. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a fortress-city and walled palace complex that was once the hub of Ethiopian politics and culture and designed to showcase ideals and eminence. My favorite structure here is the Enqualal Gemb, also known as the Egg Castle for its egg-shaped dome roof. From here you get 360-views of Gondar which is in itself an epic experience.
The castle transports you to medieval Europe, against the backdrop of the sub-Saharan soul. Nothing comes close to this sweet, exotic, and awe-inspiring experience when you’re in Ethiopia (except of course a sampling of the authentic white Tigray honey straight from a highland apiary).
Speaking of which, I found myself packing again for the last leg of my sojourn. Off to Tigray, yay!
I came across this visual Ethiopia tour set to music by HandZaround - thought some visuals would be appreciated.
Honey, It’s The Place To Be
Though honey production is a huge part of the various cultures and industries across different Ethiopian regions, when it comes to getting the famed white honey variety, Tigray is the way!
Aside from the locals who engage in individual or group bee farming, there are also some big manufacturers and suppliers that engage out-growers to supply them with honey. One of these is the Welela Honey Processing Plant and Beekeeping Development, a pioneer here that helps honey export from Tigray reach the local and global markets.
As I mentioned earlier, bee farming in the highlands of Tigray is quite tricky and requires serious passion and dedication. Good thing, what used to be a tedious, slow, and low yield, old-school style of bee farming has slowly transitioned into using modern technology while preserving the unique quality of their honey.
Opportunities and Challenges of Beekeeping in Ethiopia
Local biodiversity is the main reason why Ethiopia produces a wide variety of honey. The Tigray white honey reportedly gets its unique color from the flowers in Tigray presumed to belong to the labiates family (like sage), and to a lesser extent to prickly pear and Euphorbia. Beekeeping here goes back thousands of years and is deeply embedded in the culture of the locals. The art and technique have been passed on for generations, making the industry not only a means of livelihood but a heritage as well.
Through the help of cooperatives and the Ethiopian beekeepers association partnering with organizations such as Slow Food, support to the local industry has been made accessible. They provide training to small-scale farmers to help them improve their livelihood and grow from production to marketing. The organization acts as a conduit between the local farmers and the Italian Consortium of Organic Beekeepers and Farmers (CONAPI), making the transfer of knowledge and support easier, as facilitated by the government of Ethiopia which continuously looks for ways to scale their national pride. Modern beekeeping in Ethiopia presents opportunities to the local farmers to elevate their business and share a flavor of their tradition with the rest of the world.
But a lot can still be done to make the Ethiopian honey price competitive in the global market. The demand is high, even locally, but production is still relatively low, making Ethiopian honey quite expensive especially overseas. But with continuous support, environmental care, and scaling, Ethiopian honey can definitely buzz its ways right to the top.
Churches That Rock
Speaking of the top, from seeing local beekeepers harvesting honey from their apiaries in a local village in Mekele, I also got to check out Tigray’s rock-hewn churches. Going to these mind-blowing churches carved from humongous rocks’ cliffs is not for the faint-hearted. For visitors to the area, I recommend hiking to the easier ones as the rest are just too steep and dangerous even for experienced hikers. These churches hidden from view are a testament to Tigray’s mystique and awesomeness and the grit and character of the people that lived here.
A Taste of Africa
My journey ended sweetly here, in the wonderful highlands that is Tigray. Experiencing first hand the honey production in Tigray is the sweet ending to my amazing African trip. But hey, the tasty Ethiopian cuisine deserves a special highlight in this blog - the endless injera pairings with savory chicken and meat, the tej or local mead made with honey, and the Ethiopian bread were great gastronomical experiences.
Let me end by sharing with you this Ethiopian Honey Bread recipe I tried back here at home where I used the white Tigray honey as a key ingredient. I got it from an Ethiopian vlogger who shares awesome Ethiopian recipes > >
½ tsp salt
2 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp coriander powder
3 tbsp white honey
1 cup milk
4 cups warm water
1 tbsp sunflower oil
500g all-purpose flour
Start by adding the dried yeast and a little warm water in a large mixing bowl. Mix and leave for 5 mins.
Add everything into the bowl except the flour and mix well.
Now add your flour and mix well. Knead for at least 5 mins. Add more water or milk to create the right texture and form (a bit sticky and soft).
Double wrap the bowl in plastic wrap or cling film and set aside for about one hour to let it expand (double in size).
Oil or grease your tin and add the mixture. Cover with foil.
Bake in a preheated oven for 30 mins at 190F.
It’s a special bread that blends sweet, herby, and pastry goodness perfectly. I’m sure you’ll relish the unique taste of Ethiopian flavors with this African food staple!
Will catch you again next time for another honey and travel adventure.