Rum definitely tops my list of souvenirs from the Caribbean, especially when the bottles are as distinctive as this one, or this one, but on my last trip to Martinique earlier this year I picked up another sweet, bottled island creation that came as a bit of a surprise to me.
You don’t really think of honey as being a big product of the Caribbean. At least I never did, but maybe that’s because while growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands we had the same Sue Bee and Bee Maid brands that prevail along grocery shelves in the mainland U.S. today.
With their sparse populations and vast tracts of wild vegetation, many Caribbean islands are actually ideally suited for beekeeping, probably nowhere more so than Martinique. The island’s nickname is The Isle of Flowers, after all, so you’d expect it to be a popular haven for bees. What you wouldn’t expect, though, is that the island’s leading beekeeper is a former professor of philosophy.
His name is Andre Mangatal and it’s no stretch to say he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met on my travels. I mean, it’s not every day that you meet someone who’d give up a nice, cushy (and clean) teaching job to take on the dirty and dangerous job of raising bees in the rainforest, but that’s exactly what Andre did. Even more remarkable, he had no idea what he was doing when he started.
When you visit him today, up at his home deep in the thickly rainforested hills near the village of Mont-Vert in northern Martinique, you see a master beekeeper, expertly taming his buzzing minions without the aid of one of those imposing Hazmat-like suits. The man doesn’t even wear shoes! Surely he must’ve apprenticed under some legendary bee-whisperer, right?
Actually, Andre learned everything he knows about beekeeping from books. He also learned how to build his own house and raise crayfish (he raised the ones I ate at Le Petibonum), from books. Yeah, he’s smart… real smart (I did mention that he was a professor, right?), but the question remains: why would he, in essence, give up his career to raise bees in the rainforest?
“Even when I was studying philosophy in Paris, I knew I would become a farmer.” To him, it’s that simple. He describes his love of nature as an obsession, one that leads him to sit alone, night and day, observing and getting in tune with his natural surroundings. This doesn’t render him immune from bee stings – he’s continues to net his fair share – but in some way, I think it makes his honey taste all the more sweeter.
You can find Andre’s honey for sale in local markets across Martinique. To hook up with the man himself and experience what it’s like to raise bees in the middle of the rainforest, contact the Tak-Tak Network. One of the newest and most innovative ground operators in the Caribbean, Tak-Tak specializes in introducing the Martinican heritage through interactive excursions covering the island’s native dance and music traditions, farming, storytelling, gastronomy and more. Even beekeeping.
To talk-talk to Tak-Tak, call ’em at Tel: 011-596-596-691369.