Family is Sweeter Than Honey

I came to the monastery for the honey.

Well, ok, I came for many different reasons. But the prospect of fresh, sticky honey sweetened and sealed the deal.

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The oldest, most established monasteries in Romania are hundreds of years old and can house up to 500 nuns and monks. They spend most of their time preparing celebrations, hosting guests, and playing large public roles.

However, the younger monasteries, established after the communist era in the last 25 years, function differently. These monasteries are smaller; for example, only 14 nuns live at Fardea Monastery. In addition, because new monasteries do not have ancient, cultivated land and established property and resources, they need to provide more for themselves. To do so, many of these young monasteries in Romania start small businesses.

When I ask for some examples of these businesses, I am surprised at the diversity- there are monasteries that make vinegar, rugs, herbal products, traditional clothes, soap, candles, and numerous food products, to name a few. Many monasteries function like workshops, producing a craft, in addition to all religious activities.

Here in the Fardea Monastery, besides manufacturing religious icons and clothes, they produce another beautiful product: buzzing bees.

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One day, while picking tomatoes in the greenhouse, a bee gets trapped under my skirt and stings me. The lunch bell rings soon after, and when I sit on the bench, I wince.

“Maica Siluana, a bee stung me on the butt today.”

“Ah! You are lucky. It’s good for the health.” She tries to keep her smile under wraps but soon cracks into laughter. Later, I am offered sweet honey on fresh bread, to ease the pain.

The nuns keep over 250 hives of bees. They harvest different types of honey over the season, like linden, acacia, and forest honey, as well as pollen, propolis, royal jelly, honeycomb caps, bee bread, and other bee products. I’ve been lucky enough to taste many of their products, and they are extraordinary.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. The monastery had a contact in England, who distributed these products to different natural food stores. But after the acacia and forest honey won major awards at the Great Taste awards, other stores started to be interested in selling- notably, Harrods of London, one of England’s upscale department stores. While I am at the monastery, we send off the first shipment of product samples.

Thanks to a wonderfully talented Hungarian graphic designer who is also a volunteer here, the honey has been elegantly branded and packaged. Every time I eat some of this honey, slathered on bread or in my morning coffee, I think: Londoners don’t know what they’re in for.

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Working with the bees is overseen by two nuns, and they do almost all of the specialized work themselves, keeping a close eye on the bees. Watching over 250 hives is an enormous task, and they are busy year round. There is no honey harvest while I am here, but I do stay busy helping package the final product.

While sticking labels onto jars one afternoon, I tell Father Moses how much I’ve enjoyed eating the honey here. I ask him if I can buy some to take home.

He’s incredulous. “Corinne, do you have brothers or sisters?”

“What?” I ask, “umm… yes, I do.”

“And if you came to their house and ate something, would they ask you to pay?!” Father breaks into a smile. “Of course you can have honey. But don’t ask to pay for it- it is our gift to you.”

I smile back, and accept their gift of sweet, sticky gold. I came for the honey, and I found family amongst the bees.

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