American Terroir, Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields

This past fall’s food festival of the Slow Food movement in Turin, Italy showcased 910 small-scale food producers from around the world.  The only products from the U.S.A. on exhibit were beers at the American Craft Brewers Association exhibit.  Disappointment over the lack of participation by small-scale food producers from the U.S.A. at the festival is somewhat ameliorated by Rowan Jacobsen’s erudite, yet humorous, American Terroir Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields (Bloomsbury USA, New York, New York, 2010) which celebrates great American foods “that are what they are because of where they come from.”

Terroir or “the taste of place,” usually associated with wines, has taken on a much deeper meaning, which is demonstrated by the record attendance, estimated at over 200,000, at this October’s Slow Food festival.  Mr. Jacobsen loves food that is real and distinctive and he makes a strong case that “The amazing fruits and fish, cheeses and wine profiled in this book make obvious that places are not interchangeable.”  He persuades the reader that the Americas (North, South and Central) have their share of foods “that are what they are because of where they come from” and presents some shining examples of great foods, including Geisha coffee grown in Panama’s lush Jaramillo region,  apples from Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, orange blossom honey from Florida, Totten Inlet oysters from Washington’s Puget Sound, slow ripened avocados from Michoacan, Mexico,  raw milk, mold ripened cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill creamery, and chocolate ( “our most complex food with more than 600 different aromatic molecules”) from Mexico’s Chiapas province. Still, it was no surprise for me, as an upstate New Yorker, that Mr. Jacobsen leads off American Terroir with his discovery of a maple syrup which is “rich, creamy and sweet but not cloying” as if “somebody had melted a pad of sweet butter in it,”  since maple syrup is so uniquely American.

According to Mr. Jacobsen, the only suitable terroir in the world for maple syrup is the Greater Northeast, described as a triangle running from Michigan to New Brunwick (Canada) to West Virginia.  He explains in fascinating detail how only sugar maples have flowing sap with a “miraculous formula of high sugar content, a few flavor compounds and nothing nasty.”  Besides explaining in readable and poetic prose how maple syrup is produced, Mr. Jacobsen sketches the history of maple syrup production.  Until the Civil War, most maple sap was boiled down all the way to maple sugar in this early era in U.S. history when cane sugar from Florida and the Caribbean was not commonplace and “when the market wanted maple sugar” as a main sweetener.  The writer finds poetry even in the modern innovation for maple syrup makers,  who instead of hanging a bucket beneath each tap, now run the tap straight into a 5/16-inch tube of blue plastic:  “A tubed sugar bush has an incongruous spider-webby look to it, with electric-blue lines zigzagging through the snowy woods, but it can feel pretty miraculous to stand near the collection tank and listen to an entire hillside’s worth of sap thundering into it.”

The extraordinary maple syrup, which Mr. Jacobsen discovers, is produced by Paul Limberty.  His Happy Hollow, a one-man operation in Huntington (Chittenden County), Vermont, has 2000 taps in his maple grove, which constitutes “one of the highest sugar bushes in the world at 2100 feet.”  Mr. Limberty tastes every single barrel of syrup that comes off his evaporator, jots down a few tasting notes in his log, and when he hits a batch especially excellent it becomes his certified organic Private Reserve line.  In Mr. Jacobsen’s eloquent words, a bottle of this maple syrup, called Dragonfly Sugarworks’ Private Reserve, “contains the essence of the life force of a single day in a high mountain maple grove”  [www.dragonflysugarworks.com].

The pleasure of reading about this Vermont maple syrup prompted a visit to the local supermarket, which confirmed my fears that the aggressive work of marketers have co-opted the world of pancake syrups.   As a child growing up in the 1950’s, the bottle of  Log Cabin syrup, represented a happy sight, and its distinctive, old-fashioned logo was still there on the supermarket shelves of pancake syrup: the folksy log cabin, with a brightly lit interior, snow covered roof, standing starkly on a snow covered hill with a scattering of pine trees.  My dreamy reverie turned sour with a close examination of the bottle.  The front label displayed a marketer’s understanding of the American consumers’ growing unease over edible food-like substances.  In capitalized words, the label announced: “LOG CABIN ORIGINAL SYRUP NO HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP.”   The back label provided the details on the actual ingredients: “corn syrup, liquid sugar (Natural sugar, water), water, salt, natural and artificial flavors (lactic acid), cellulose gum, preservatives (sorbic acid, sodium benzoate), sodium hexametaphosphates, caramel color, phosphoric acid.”

I then eyed on the grocery shelf an old-fashioned, heavy plastic jug of  Log Cabin syrup that looked just like the plastic jugs that maple syrup is often sold in.  Its front label noted “A Family Tradition Since 1887” and the words “All Natural Syrup.”  This pancake syrup did appear to have a better list of ingredients: “syrup (brown rice, sugar maple [4%]), water, natural flavor, xanthan gum (natural thickener), caramel color, citric acid.”  Touting “no artificial flavor or colors” as well as “No high fructose corn-syrup or preservative,” the marketers felt confident to note “We use only the finest All Natural ingredients in this authentic syrup.”  The lesser quality Log Cabin syrup was priced at $5.05 per quart compared to the “All Natural Syrup” at $7.99 per quart.  This trip to the supermarket made me wonder what exactly was in the Log Cabin syrup of the 1950’s that I poured on my pancakes.  As a footnote, Vermont Maid Syrup, with its distinctive green label of a pig-tailed red haired lass with rosy cheeks, and offering “The Taste New England Loves”, although a “bargain” at a sale price of $1.99 per pound (or $3.98 per quart), was clearly not a better choice than the Log Cabin syrup.  A chemist would be needed to translate the ingredients label: “high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, natural and artificial maple flavor, natural and artificial flavors (contains: propylene glycol, water, corn syrup, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, caramel color, sulfites), cellulose gum, caramel color (sulfites), sodium benzoate, and sorbic acid (to preserve freshness)”.

I didn’t want to end my focus on maple syrup by this close examination of the concoctions marketed on the supermarket shelves, so a visit to The Honest Weight Food Co-op in my hometown of Albany, New York was next [www.hwfc.com].  The food co-op sells 3 types of maple syrup in its bulk department, and with Mr. Jacobsen’s chapter on maple syrup still in mind, I decided to compare the taste of the three on hand, all produced by Bruce Roblee Adirondack Maple Farm of Fonda (Montgomery County), New York.  The dark grade A organic maple syrup I decided to purchase was delicious- nutty, salty, and sweet at the same time.   Priced at $6.69 per pound, there is no doubt it was substantially pricier than the supermarket pancake syrups.  But my solution was easy: I’ll use less syrup on my pancakes and enjoy a real American food from an upstate New York local producer.

As a closing note, might Paul Limberty, the maple syrup maker profiled by Mr. Jacobsen, be persuaded to participate in the next Slow Food’s festival of local foods?  Kudos to Rowan Jacobsen for spotlighting the positive in American agriculture as well as his detailed histories of the origins of maple syrup, coffee and chocolate in his memorable American Terroir (FWB 12/13/10).

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