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Research

Tasting the Bedrock

  • John Elder

Corps de l’article

On a July morning a dozen years ago I found myself on an abandoned logging road in the hills of Starksboro, Vermont, walking up to take a second look at a woodlot that was for sale. My wife Rita and I, who were searching for a sugarbush near our home in the adjacent town of Bristol, had really liked the looks of this one. Accompanying me for a return visit was David Brynn, Forester for Addison County, who had agreed to help evaluate the suitability of this property for sugaring. I had expected him to be gazing into the canopy, wrapping his tape measure around the trunks of prime specimens of sugar maples, or perhaps carrying out calculations to estimate stand-density. To my surprise, though, he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the ground as we split off from the road and forged uphill along a little seasonal brook.

David was looking for a specific group of plants that would indicate calcium-rich soil, and he quickly began to spot them in abundance. Blue cohosh raised its pale, mitteny leaves and dark-blue berries right from the beginning of our foray. On higher ranges of the path we also saw clumps of plantain-leaved sedge, its broad blades crinkled like ribbon that had been drawn across the edge of scissors. Where the ground was especially limey, with crumbly limbs of quartzite pressing up through the soil, we also came upon maidenhair ferns, with their broad horseshoes of fronds rising on stems like shiny black wire. David knew that the same richness of the soil accounting for these three herbaceous species would also promote hardwood growth, and indeed we found tall, healthy groves of maples and ash already established on the sites of 60-year-old clear-cuts. If we took steps to mitigate erosion on the abandoned skidder trails and thinned the woods in order to open up the canopy, David assured me, we would soon see even more impressive growth in this young woodlot. Reader, we bought it.

It’s been satisfying to know that the cohosh are here because of their affinity with woods that so appeal to Rita and me, too. We love how the afternoon light of this northwest-facing slope dapples the grand glacial erratics with shadows, and are fascinated by the multitude of narrow plateaus rippling the rising terrain like a leaf of plantain-leaved sedge. And then there are the wildflowers. Each May, in addition to lovely species like spring beauty, Canada Mayflower, red and white trillium, and Vermont’s ubiquitous violets, this little patch of forest also displays such soil-specific flowers as Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, and jack-in-the-pulpit. It’s a suite of plants closely associated with the same rich soil that nourishes our sugar maples. As Rita and I began to operate a sugarhouse and to make maple syrup here beside Maggie Brook, the flowers of May became an annual reminder, as well as a foretaste, of the fragrant maple syrup produced from the surrounding trees each March and April.

As we began to produce and sell syrup, such values of affiliation and community became even more central to our experience. We found that many of the same people bought their syrup from us every year. Loyalty to particular local producers in fact seems quite widespread in Vermont. In part, this is obviously because these customers prize a given syrup’s distinctive taste. But in talking with people about this common pattern, I have also heard many of them say they find the syrup even more satisfying because of their growing familiarity over the years with the landscape where it originates and the people who make it. Such an orientation toward small, local producers made me wonder whether celebrating the local differences within Vermont’s annual maple crop might also be a way to help conserve our forests.

All the way up the Appalachian chain from Georgia to Maine, forest fragmentation has damaged forest health and destroyed habitat for wildlife at an accelerating pace over the past quarter-century. Much of this eastern woodland is privately held, and hard to protect by legislation. But in the middle elevations of the Green Mountains (generally up to about 2,200 feet), hundreds of families operate sugarbushes of 20 to 300 acres. Such woodlots are thus both shielded from subdivision and buffered from many other environmental impacts. Vermonters already take considerable pride in the quality of our maple syrup and host numerous annual sugarhouse tours. But it struck me that focusing even more on the many distinctive tastes of this excellent syrup might further reinforce the traditional practice of sugarmaking. Just as a growing appreciation of the variety of single-malt Scotches had brought customers, visitors, and much-needed income to crofters and island-dwellers in the west of Scotland, so too might attention to the underestimated range of maple syrup’s flavour benefit the forests and inhabitants of the Green Mountains.

While pondering such possibilities in the summer of 2005, I fell into conversation with a couple of Middlebury residents who were approaching the same questions from their own angles. Amy Trubek has professional training both as an anthropologist and as a chef. Before joining the Nutrition and Food Science faculty at the University of Vermont (UVM) she had taught at the New England Culinary Institute and run a network of farmers and restaurants called the Vermont Fresh Network. She is also a writer, whose most recent book The Taste of Place explores the possibility of applying the French concept of goût du terroir to American agriculture and foodways. After one of our conversations, Amy and her husband Brad Koehler (also a professional chef) invited Rita and me over for an informal syrup tasting on the back porch of their house in Cornwall, Vermont. It wasn’t a scientific or blindfolded tasting, but we did all feel we could tell the difference between syrups from different regions. It was hard to come up with terminology suitable to describing differences in syrup, though, and we knew that we’d need to find a more systematic way to move forward with this experiment.

Just about this time a Middlebury College colleague of mine who is in the Geology Department sought me out to ask whether I thought there might be any correlation between the taste of maple syrup and the specific bedrock underlying a sugarbush. Jeff Munroe had come to Middlebury with his wife Diane, who works in the Environmental Studies Program, after they finished their graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. Like many geologists moving to new academic homes, he found himself wanting to complement his long-term field-sites in the West with study projects closer at hand. He and Diane had also recently purchased a home with six mature maple trees surrounding it, and had begun to produce their own syrup on a small scale. I was excited by the prospect of bringing Jeff’s scientific expertise into Amy’s and my conversation, as was she. The three of us decided that we would proceed on two fronts. We would collect sap and syrup from a series of sugarbushes distributed across Vermont, including representatives of the three main bedrock types—schist, granite, and limestone.

With the generous help of David Marvin of Butternut Mountain Farms, one of the leading sugarmakers in the state, we were able to contact enough operators around Vermont to proceed with this plan. Their cooperation would allow us to analyze sap and syrup from samples taken at regular intervals through the 2006 sugaring season. We began simultaneously to develop a more objective and refined approach to tasting, working with Montserrat Almena-Aliste, a colleague of Amy’s at University of Vermont. Montse was from Spain, and had trained as a “sensory analyst,” or scientific taster, both in that country and in France. Her specialties were cheese, coffee, and chocolate, but she felt confident that her lab techniques and statistical frameworks for analyzing tastings would also be relevant to our investigation of syrup.

The final member of our new team was to be Lee Corbett. She was a junior Geology major at Middlebury who was interested in taking on our geological analysis as an independent project under Jeff’s supervision. Lee was thus responsible both for collecting samples and for assessing whether there was a correlation between bedrock and chemical composition by running them through a mass-spectrometer in the college’s science centre. This was a formidable-looking apparatus that, though somewhat smaller, reminded me of the machine Jeff Goldblum ran afoul of in the remake of The Fly. Lee, a highly competent and matter-of-fact student from southern Vermont, casually informed me at one point that the central vapour-chamber of this machine could become as hot as the sun.

While Lee and Jeff were pursuing the geological and chemical aspects of our project, all five of us, under Montse and Amy’s leadership, were trying to learn how to taste more systematically. Although our initial goal was to distinguish the flavours from different bedrocks, we were also well aware that there were many other influences on the taste of syrup—with one particularly important one being the sugarmakers’ equipment and technique. So we began with modest expectations, wanting simply to determine if we could agree on differences of any kind among a small selection of syrups and with absolutely no interest in grading them from best to worst.

On several occasions we met in a small lab near Amy’s and Montse’s UVM offices and tried to refine our tasting technique. Montse poured out the samples for each day before we other tasters arrived, so that the blindfold aspect of our reactions would be preserved. At first we used little paper cups, then moved to plastic glasses to avoid the slight papery taste. Finally we settled on opaque little plastic vials with covers, so that we wouldn’t be influenced by the colour of the samples to assume before tasting that one was more delicate or robust than the others. Montse wrote a three-digit number on the outside of each vial, and we did triangular tastings—evaluating three samples at a time. In fact, though the numbers were all different, two of the three syrups in a given set were the same; our task was to decide which sample was the odd one out. As simple as this process was, it was fundamental to our goal of demonstrating that there were in fact differences of flavour among good syrups on which careful tasters could agree.

One special challenge in tasting syrup is that it is so much sweeter and thicker than wine. One quickly becomes overwhelmed by the intensity of the taste, even when disciplined enough to spit a sample out afterwards rather than swallowing it. As we continued to experiment with various procedures, Montse began referring more often to a “Flavour Wheel” published by the Centre Acer—Quebec’s leading maple-research centre. This comprehensive diagram of the flavours present in syrup provided a highly useful framework for our tastings, although we chose to concentrate on the positive categories of flavor from the right side of the wheel. We already felt pretty confident about eliminating off-flavours, largely shown on the left side. But the many fine distinctions within Centre Acer’s categories of “maple,” “confectionary,” “vanilla,” “milky,” “empyrheumatic” (toasty), “floral,” “fruity,” and “spicy” helped us begin to put words to other differences we were discovering for ourselves.

The culmination of our 2006 investigations came on October 17th, at a dinner and tasting co-sponsored by Shelburne Farms and the Vermont Convivium of Slow Food. The Inn at Shelburne Farms provided the 60 people taking part in this event with an elegant spread of local foods, several of which featured maple. During dessert, the members of our team reported on various aspects of the project. Amy introduced the concept of terroir, I spoke about the potential of local foods for the conservation of Vermont’s forests and farmland, Jeff and Lee explained the concept of bedrock and presented their preliminary results, and then Montse took over to get everyone tasting. Several people expressed a lack of confidence beforehand about being able to discriminate between samples of anything so sweet. In fact, though, the level of agreement among responses at the different tables was quite impressive. We were also heartened by people’s high level of excitement about both the tasting and the discussion afterward (though we knew that might have been the sugar-high talking).

A food writer for The New York Times had heard about our earlier experiments and tastings and done an informal tasting with us on a previous trip to Vermont. Jane Black had now returned to Vermont for the tasting at Shelburne Farms, and we were excited to learn that her story about it might appear in the Times before Christmas. Our team took a break from tasting after October, though, and didn’t give much more thought to the article until it appeared on December 20th. We were all pleased with this humourous, perceptive, and sympathetic account of our experiment, and got congratulatory messages from friends around the country.

Soon thereafter, though, we also received a few more acerbic reactions from representatives of statewide sugaring organizations. It’s never altogether surprising when established experts hurl a brush-back pitch past newcomers on their diamond. But there was also something more specific and substantial at work here. A lightning rod for this issue was the comment by one participant at the tasting, whom Jane Black’s New York Times editor had contacted after the event, praising some of the syrups in ways that disparaged others. This was a minor part of a very positive piece, and we had taken pains in our own comments at Shelburne Farms to say that we were not interested in ranking syrups but rather in celebrating their diversity of excellent flavors. Even so, when we pointed out these facts out to critics of our endeavour, they were not mollified. This was when we realized that the mere fact of attempting finer discriminations than the standard Vermont categories of Grade A Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B had felt to some like an implied criticism of the syrup coming out of the handful of large operations that account for 80 percent of Vermont’s annual production.

It was definitely time for our playful little group to pursue serious dialogue with the larger community of sugarmakers. We needed both to explain our goals more directly and to cultivate a perspective that took their situation and outlook more fully into account.

Three leading organizations—the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers’ Association (of which I’m a member), the Vermont Maple Foundation, and the Northeast Maple Industry Council—took the lead by inviting our group to meet with them. Being on sabbatical leave in the winter and spring of 2007, I represented our team at gatherings of the first two of those groups and was joined by Amy at the third. There were times, especially at the Association and the Foundation, when I wished I had the scraper from my car to remove some of the ice building up on my forehead and nose. But a couple of important points of agreement also emerged. One was that, while the variations of syrup by smallholders are delightful, this does not necessarily diminish the blended syrups of larger operators. As with the blending of many premier Scotches and most fine wines, syrup blending can be an art practiced by experts with a high degree of awareness of the various flavours they are combining. The second thing important for a terroir-oriented team like ours to affirm regularly is that smalltime sugarmakers, and especially relative neophytes like my own family, are highly dependent on the support and infrastructure of larger operators. Without Sam Cutting’s kind mentoring, David Marvin’s seasoned and sophisticated overview (not to mention his help contacting individual sugarmakers for the team’s experiments), Peter Purinton’s constant advice at the counter of his shop—where I buy my containers, tubing, and other supplies—and David Folino’s technological savvy, our own family would never have been able to improve my operation to its present level.

The benefits flowing toward Vermont’s largest syrup producers from single-batch operators in the hills are equally important. Without the smallholders persisting in every corner of our state, there would be far less to separate the picture of sugaring in Vermont from the vast operations preponderant in Quebec. High-quality, family-scale sugarworks add texture to sugaring in Vermont, as family farms continue to do for our state’s agriculture in general. Local sugarmakers like Kurt Kling, Paul Limberty, Jennifer Esser, Gil Livingston, and Steve Libby offer an authentic bridge to the traditional practices and iconic imagery of sugaring in the Green Mountains. The value of smallholders’ authenticating examples was especially appreciated by the Industry Council, which Amy and I visited together. These representatives of the largest producers in New England entirely understood the ways in which the multitude of family operations supports and ratifies their own enterprises.

Not only did those three meetings with industry groups lead to an enhanced dialogue between our team and the larger sugaring community in Vermont, it also brought a much wider range of talent and experience to bear on our endeavor. One form of contact we have especially appreciated has been with the Proctor Maple Research Institute in Jericho, Vermont. Several friendly exchanges have allowed us to learn more about the high-level experimentation going on at that centre, focused on such matters as sap-flow and on the impact of new technology on the character of syrup. Another has been the active participation in our project of Henry Marckres, the chief maple-taster of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture regulatory program. Henry brings a level of credibility in dealing with the full range of producers that we could never have matched otherwise. As the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Roger Allbee, has become increasingly oriented to terroir as a framework for marketing Vermont’s agricultural products, we’ve welcomed the opportunity for conversation with him, too. He and the Agency co-sponsored a small conference on local food and local culture in Vermont, Quebec, and France, which Amy and I organized at Middlebury and UVM in November of 2008; syrup and terroir was one topic discussed on that occasion. Finally, Molly Costanza-Robinson, who teaches Environmental Studies and Chemistry at Middlebury, has brought the perspective of an organic chemist to our assessment of sap and syrups. She is introducing a valuable new range of experiments that build upon Jeff and Lee’s analysis of mineral composition.

In August of 2009, Amy, Molly, Amy’s new graduate assistant Abby Greenbaum, and I took an excursion up to Quebec to visit with the folks at Centre Acer. This was our first trip up, and it proved to be both useful and delightful. The tour of their labs was impressive, especially our introduction to their sophisticated and inviting tasting facilities. A candid exchange about our attempt to adapt their “Flavour Wheel” felt like a fortunate one in its avoidance of a collision of perspectives similar to our initial tension with some of the big Vermont producers. We Vermonters came away realizing that we should refer to their Wheel without revising it; it was important to acknowledge how far ahead they were in developing a systematic methodology and to avoid any sense of competition. To put it another way, the Quebec specialists have been focused on codifying a range of flavours and training and certifying judges. Our Vermont team’s more general intention is, in Amy’s words, “helping people pay attention.” And our experiments also call attention to the value of many separate producers in a way that complements the more centralized Quebec perspective. When our hosts described the Provincial mandate to blend a small amount of off-syrup into larger batches this fact was borne in on all of us.

The path toward a meaningful and productive sense of syrup’s terroir winds on through the maple woods and out of sight. Already, our team and its emphasis have begun to shift. Another highly able Middlebury student, Carolyn Osborne, replaced the graduating Lee Corbett as the contact person for sugarmakers and the collector of sap and syrup samples. Molly Costanza-Robinson has taken over from Jeff Munroe as the lead scientist in our team, as Munroe’s research has taken him in new directions. Amy Trubek, Montse Almena-Aliste, and Abby Greenbaum will run the future tastings without so much involvement from the rest of us, and will integrate them further into the Nutrition and Food Science program at UVM.

But as the conversation continues to evolve, several fundamental truths have already been established. Foremost among them is that, to a significant though not exclusive extent, sap and syrup express the character of the place where they originate. Another is that the potential for natural and cultural conservation arising from this awareness will be enhanced if we take special care to affirm the larger landscape of agriculture, and to recognize the potential for mutual benefit between innovative smallholders and larger producers. The most desirable outcome for sugaring, as for Vermont farming in general, will be neither a uniform drift toward ever-larger scale nor secession by smallholders. Rather, it will be a textured and diverse landscape of tastes, techniques, and foodways—like the spiralling and mutually beneficial expressions of life on a glaciated slope in the Green Mountains.

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