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What's In A Name? Local Kosher Honey for the High Holidays

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The days leading up to the Jewish New Year, which starts on Wednesday at sundown, are some of the busiest for Andrew Coté. The fourth generation beekeeper's jars of kosher Andrew's Local Honey are selling fast since honey is a key ingredient in many traditional Rosh Hashanah dishes like honey cake and apples with honey.

"A lot of people need honey for their apples to ensure a sweet new year," Coté said, who made his last round of Rosh Hashanah deliveries to customers and restaurants on Tuesday. "So we are doing very well, thank God, at the market this time of year."

Customers who keep kosher don't seem to mind that the labels on Coté's honey jars simply bear the word "Kosher," but don't have the widely-recognized Star-K or the hechsher of the Orthodox Union (denoted by a U in a circle) that prove Jewish rabbinical agencies have certified a product's manufacturing processes kosher. Coté, who is 40, Jewish and lives on the Lower East Side, said those certifications cost more than Andrew's Local Honey can afford -- usually an annual fee and a percentage of revenue.

"We're just not a big enough company to pay the tens of thousands of dollars that are required to get rabbinical certification," he said. "Also, knowing as we do that our product is kosher by law -- and I don't mean man's law -- we're quite comfortable with it, as are the people who purchase our honey."

The Norwalk, Connecticut honey room where Coté bottles his honey -- 20,000 pounds of it annually -- has been deemed kosher, but by a local Manhattan rabbi: Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis from the Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem Yeshiva on East Broadway. The Pickle Guys and Murray's Grill are among other city food establishments under his rabbinical supervision.

"Nothing else goes into that kitchen," Coté said. "The stainless steel tubs are washed with hot water. No one is allowed to bring food products into there."

The beekeeper added that raw honey was, in its natural state, kosher.

"All honey is kosher just like an apple from the tree is kosher," Coté said. "Now it could be rendered non-kosher once it is taken from the hive, depending, for example, upon the bottling facility, the bottle in which it's placed, the equipment that is used. But pure honey? Kosher."

Andrew's Honey

Rabbi Zvi Goldberg, who works as a kashrus administrator at Star-K — kashrus is Hebrew for kosher — agreed that honey is essentially kosher, although honeybees are not.

"If you take it straight from the hives, it is a kosher product," Rabbi Goldberg said. "But we're looking to make sure that nothing's added to it. They could add flavorings, they could add maybe some coloring and that would be a problem. We're also looking to make sure that it's pure honey because the honey as you take it from the hive has bee parts also that need to be filtered out."

He said consumers looking for kosher honey should look for the Star-K or make sure the jar's label says "Pure Honey."

"As long as the label is clear that it's 'Pure Honey,' we tell people that they can purchase it," he said. "It would be OK. It would be considered kosher. We don't tell our kosher consumers that they must buy honey with a [Star-K] certification. What the consumer gets when he buys it with a certification is an assurance that what's stated on the label is being checked out by us."

Jim Fischer, who is an instructor at NYC Beekeeping, a non-profit group of 1,200 beekeepers in the city, said he hadn't noticed a particular demand for kosher honey. Rather, beekeepers were selling out of local honey.

"Usually, all you have to say is, 'Local Honey,'" Fischer said. "It flies off the shelves all by itself."

Coté's honey comes from 200 hives in Fairfield and Westchester County, and from 40 hives on top of apartment buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The city's health department deemed urban bee hives legal in the city in the spring of 2010. 

Customers who want to compare and contrast Andrew's Local Honey with that of other area beekeepers can pick up jars at the Union Square farmers' market each Wednesday. Fans and customers of Coté's honey include celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and the eateries Hundred Acres, Fatty Cue and the W Hotel Restaurant.