• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Tapping for Taste

Maple syrup producers discover a range of flavors—and “a taste of place”

John Elder
John Elder

Written By

Helen Labun

Written on

March 01 , 2011

There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

The one thing that can be universally said is that we in Vermont take our maple flavor seriously. And yet, how much do we really know about that flavor? Maple enthusiasts are moving beyond the basics to explore nuances in taste that can help bring even more appreciation to our state’s famous export.

Let’s start with the basics. The first goal is to prevent “off flavors.” Off flavors can develop for any number of reasons, from production problems to changes in the trees themselves (for example, if sap is taken while the trees are budding). Maple researchers in Quebec publish a flavoring wheel that categorizes tastes we don’t want, including “soiled mop,” “rancid grease,” “mushroom,” and “plastic wrapping.” In Vermont, stringent producer-set standards for quality management are supported by inspection by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which keeps any hint of “silage” off our pancakes. Still, syrup picks up off flavors very quickly. Try storing some in a jar that once held pickles or peanut butter and after a week you will easily detect the lingering taste of that former ingredient.

Maple flavors also need to match their syrup grade. Grading containers that sort syrup by color are a common sight, but color is just one part of the criteria, which also include clarity, density and taste. Henry Marckres, chief maple inspector for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, explains that flavor should parallel color: the lightest colored syrup, Fancy, should have the lightest maple flavor, moving through to “robust” and then “pronounced” maple flavor for the darkest Grade B. There are infinite and subtle taste variations, and practice is the only way to pick up on them. Henry, who may have tasted more syrup than anyone in Vermont, once sipped 932 samples (approximately half a gallon of syrup) in a single unpleasant day on the job.

Just as all producers taste carefully for any deviation from maple standards, some are now beginning to taste for nuances that we do want. While it’s bad to have a hint of “cardboard,” what about a hint of “caramel”? Quebec’s flavor wheel also includes a range of positive variations that sugar maples create naturally: shades of vanilla, toffee, chicory, hazelnut, and baked apple. Maple producers and food enthusiasts are finding that distinct sugar bushes often yield distinct syrups—and you don’t have to be a syrup sommelier to detect the differences. Amy Trubek, who teaches in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, specializes in the “taste of place”—or flavors that reflect the unique regions where an item is produced, such as the Champagne region of France. During the past several years she has been considering the distinct flavors of Vermont’s maple syrup and encouraging others to explore the complexity of maple taste that goes far beyond differences in grade.

“You don’t know what you don’t know…you can start fantastic new conversations with your customers by introducing them to the vanilla, floral, and earthy notes in your syrup,” is what Amy tells producers.

Starksboro sugarmaker and nature writer John Elder, author of a book on sugaring in Vermont called The Frog Run, is an enthusiastic syrup taster who has been inspired by Amy’s work. He says his syrup is “…a rich, creamy flavor, marked with vanilla…sometimes the Fancy has a more floral quality to it.” He encourages visitors to his own sugarhouse to make comparisons of two syrups side by side and to describe what they’re tasting. By naming what makes a producer’s syrup distinctive, visitors are stating a reason to be loyal customers of his products year after year.

Sometimes differences in sugar bushes on a single property can create different product lines for a sugarmaker. Each spring, Tig Tillinghast ofTillinghast Maple in Thetford takes full advantage of differences his land can create: he separates out the sap from a particular stand of trees on an eastern ridge that gives a red-colored syrup with a vanilla taste. He gets a scant 50 gallons from that sap, but it all goes into glass bottles to retail as a premium product. (The “premium” comes from being different, not necessarily superior; distinctions in taste aren’t meant to pit one quality Vermont syrup against another, but to point out the nuances within a high quality-product.) Tig particularly enjoys syrup from a producer a few miles away that is “put-hair-on-your-chest maple…not a subtle maple.”

Vermont is already adept at making the connection between maple syrup and tourism. Marketing different syrups from different regions builds on this connection, giving people a reason to explore more locations and to buy more syrup from more producers. For his part, John Elder imagines how theVermont Maple Open House Weekend can become like the tours of Scotch distilleries in Scotland, during which visitors learn the distinctions between each brand. Discovering differences in flavor also gives new reason for Vermonters to get out and re-explore the syrups of their own region.

Of course, while we may taste for comparisons, most of us don’t treat maple syrup as a sipping drink but as a recipe ingredient. Will we be able to taste the subtleties once the bottles get home? John is adamant that exploring the distinctive tastes of maple is key to recognizing its best uses in cooking. In his house, maple syrup isn’t only poured on pancakes, “it’s [also] a seasoning you add…to activate or release the flavors of a dish.” Adding strong ingredients to “finish” a dish is a common trick of kitchen cooks, who may keep vinegars or cream on hand to brighten sauces, soups, or dressings. Maple syrup acts in the same way as those common flavor-enhancing ingredients.

Using the language of wine country to talk about a syrup’s bouquet or the influences of different growing regions on flavor sounds odd to many of us who stand by the simple equation of “Vermont = maple.” But in reality, Vermonters are already used to making distinctions in flavor. We use Grade B’s pronounced qualities for strongly flavored dishes such as baked beans, and a light grade for drizzling syrup over vanilla ice cream. We know that the taste of a maple creemee is not as complex as the unadorned syrup, and we can spot fake syrup at 50 yards. It may not be such a great leap to now taste for shades of anise, peach, or cloves in our neighbors’ syrups. In the heart of maple country, we are still distinguishing new tastes in our most distinguished product.

Helen Labun Jordan lives in Montpelier and works for the
Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Photo of John Elder by Angela Evancie

About the Author

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun is the Executive Director of Vermont Fresh Network, a farmer-chef collaborative organization. After many years as a Local Banquet writer, she is also currently Local Banquet's publisher from her home in Montpelier. 

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