Scoring Corsica’s (and perhaps the world’s) best honey

by Tom Fiorina on October 15, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJean Orsatti audaciously claims that he makes “The best honey in the world.” Certainly, it’s made in one of the most striking and beautiful landscapes imaginable—in the shadow of south-central Corsica’s Bavella massif, where jagged “needle” peaks (“Les Aiguilles de Bavella”) rise 1,600 meters (5,429 feet) in altitude.

Before becoming a beekeeper, Orsatti was a croupier, or dealer, in a Bordeaux casino. He started making honey in 1976 when his brother purchased 20 hives, and he took half of them.

Orsatti explains that he doesn’t “keep” bees; he “serves” them. The analogy that “good” wine” requires “good grapes” holds true for honey, as well: “good honey,” he says, requires “good pollen.” Corsica’s exceptional climate makes it a vegetative paradise. More than 2,800 varieties of plants and flowers grow here, with 127 of them unique to the island. But having the vegetative material is only part of the honey-making process. Orsatti serves his honey bees by knowing when and where to place his beehives close to the wild flowers, lemon thyme, heather, lavender, and fruit, eucalyptus, mimosa, oak and chestnut trees that provide the pollen needed to produce honey with a wide range of aromas and tastes.

Six AOCS define the origin, quality and taste of Corsican honey. They range from a light-colored, sweetly-flavored, floral Miel de Printemps (“Spring honey”) that comes from the coastal plains and lower valleys to a richer, darker Miel de Châtaigneraie (“Chestnut honey), made in the mountains beginning in June, that is more tannic, with forest-floor and woody aromas, and that leaves a pleasant aftertaste in your mouth.

Bee-server" Jean Orsatti with some of his customers.

“Bee-server” Jean Orsatti with some of his customers.

He may no longer work around a card or roulette table, but the whippet-thin Orsatti, in his matching white loafers and jaunty white cap, and bumblebee-inspired Pierre Cardin pullover, looks like he still knows the odds—and the odds are that his claim of making the “best honey in the world” is more than just hot air. A steady stream of French celebrities from the political, sporting, culinary and television spectrum stop during their summer holidays to visit Orsatti’s small village of Quenza. His bungalow office is filled, along with framed articles about him in French publications, with celebrity photos, including one of Meryl Streep.

Although he does sell some honey in glass jars and attractive glazed, clay pots, Orsatti’s honey mostly comes in a simple, waxed carton container that wouldn’t look out of place on a supermarket shelf of Ramen noodle soup. But that didn’t keep it from almost making it to the top of Mount Everest, where a French explorer took it on a climbing expedition, and it sells, by the spoonful in a certain Tokyo hotel, for the price of a cut-glass, luxury-packaged jar of honey in a gourmet shop.

Is it the best honey in the world? You’d have to be the judge of that, but buying it is not easy. Even if you make it to the village of Quenza, you still have to convince Orsatti that you merit being one of his customers. Like the “Soup Nazi” in one of the most famous episodes from the 1990s American television comedy series Seinfeld, Orsatti takes a draconian approach when selling his honey.

Photographic proof that Orsatti's honey made it to Everest.

Photographic proof that Orsatti’s honey made it to Everest.

You say to yourself, upon arrival, that it’s best to buy three or four containers because the trip is long and expensive and you may not get back for at least another year. While I was there this summer, a man, who said he was the son of someone from the village, came to pick up ten containers that he had ordered six months previously. The Order book apparently is kept in Orsatti’s memory–and dependent on his current mood, and the man left with just three jars of honey.

“You can have one,” he tells you, after you’ve made it to the front of the line.

“Hit me,” you tell the former card dealer, walking away like you just made “21” at the Blackjack table.

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