In the Canary Islands, Daredevil Climbers Tap Trees for 'Honey'

No 102

Humans have commandeered the palm tree as a religious symbol and a sun shelter, woven its fibers into mats and chairs, and eaten and drunk from its coconuts. A native plant in many an early civilization, it has been providing for millennia. On La Gomera, part of Spain’s Canary archipelago, this tree furnishes something else: a sweet, golden-brown liquid called miel de palma.

This florid term translates as “palm honey.” The liquid extract from which the “honey” comes is in fact a sap called guarapo, and flows from the base of young leaves at the top of the Gomeran Date Palm. The practice of tapping may have arrived with the African Berber tribe who settled this volcanic island in 5000 BC. Or perhaps the discovery came when some ancient Gomeran tree climber found a novel way to please his sweet tooth. Like another unique token of this island’s culture—el silbo, the whistling language by which Gomeran shepherds communicate across the hills—miel de palma has murky origins.

This much is known, however: that Gomeran harvesters, known as guaraperos, have for centuries foregone the apiaries and equipment required to make bee honey, instead shimmying up trees and carefully spearing the crowns with a wooden tap. This they do at dusk; then, early in the morning, they return and collect buckets full of sap. Raw guarapo is light and refreshing, reminiscent of coconut water; cooked down to a thick syrup, it evokes anything from fruit to toffee, depending on the climate and palm trees’ location. Locals say the best honey is found in trees closest to the ocean in areas where temperatures fluctuate from hot to chilly rapidly and often. Factories in La Gomera’s “Honey Triangle” (an area where coastal conditions are conducive for the best guarapo) produce and ship the sweet stuff around the world.

The modern export and applications of miel de palma have distanced the product from its roots. Gomerans a century ago typically made honey from their own trees, not to sell but to consume themselves, or at most use for barter with fellow islanders. Traditionally, the “honey” was used as medicine for sore throats; locals would down a glass of guarapo every morning for wellbeing. Incorporating the sweet salve in food or cocktails, as inventive chefs and bar owners are doing nowadays, would have struck them as absurd, a bit like sprinkling cough syrup onto your fried potatoes.

Many of the old guaraperos have found higher-paying jobs in recent decades, or left the island entirely. The Canarian government dictates that to be authentic, palm honey must be made on La Gomera. Its official designation remains “syrup.” In 2016, a special commission lobbied the EU to allow the product to be called “palm honey” throughout Europe. The effort failed, with regulators claiming that such a designation suggested it was a bee product. They may have had a point. But for producers interested in keeping this tradition alive, some leeway with language would surely sweeten the deal. 

Credits

  • Director & Cinematographer - Angello Faccini
  • Editors - Angello Faccini and Pablo Paloma
  • Production Manager - Carmen Triana
  • Color - Angello Faccini
  • Sound Recording - Oriol Bonais
  • Sound Design - Claudia Ballester
  • Executive Producers - Darrell & Oliver Hartman
  • Text - Greg von Portz

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