Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mountainside Maple Sugaring

     My father-in-law is a retired engineer who spends the majority of his time at his mountain retreat, hunting, fishing, and working hard to prepare for sugaring season. I wish I could tell you more about how hard he works repairing lines, fighting with the weather, and chopping wood. A better kid would know and might even offer to help. Somehow he still smiles when we he gives us our yearly gallon, and black fly season aside, I think he enjoys his time alone in the woods.

Dave's design/build sugar house

     You must've heard by now that mountain living is bit different from your standard country living. Loretta Lynn still gets airtime, right? Well, there's no electricity here, although some people have wind turbines and solar panels, as well as gas lights. We're talking outhouse life. Roads turn into trails that are only accessible with snowmobiles or skis in the wintertime, and everything becomes impassible as the  mud takes over in the springtime. School bus deer camps, cooking kettles hanging from chains, huge deer fences around gardens, and the steady hum of buckshot. Paradise or Hell, depending.

Beaver dams abound up here

A house down the mountain; I think I want to live here. Those black dots make up a sweet little container garden that got blown over in the high winds. Notice the covered bridge over the creek bed. Perfect place to sleep.

     This was my second trip up to camp this season. The first time the sap wasn't running because the nighttime temperatures were too high (sap runs best when the nights are cold and the days are warm.) This time around we had a different issue; a recent cold snap froze all of the sap in the tank, and although we were expecting the weather to warm up, the wind really kept things in check. We had to thaw the sap with boiling water so that the boiler would fill before dark.

   A web of sap lines work their way down the sugar bush to the mainline that fills this outdoor tank. From the inside of the sugar house, the quantity of sap in the tank can be read right through a window. My father in law keeps excellent records of the sap flow, sugar content, weather conditions and overall quantity and quality of syrup. Mostly he writes it on the walls inside the sugar house. The building is designed with a vent that opens via a hand crank, allowing the steam to escape. (My mother used to boil sap in our kitchen, until she ruined the walls - all for about 1/2 cup of syrup...)

     As soon as the sap began flowing freely from the outdoor tank into the boiler, it was time to fire up the stove. Maple syrup is 66 % sugar, and this sap was about 2.5 %. At 2 %, it takes 43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. The higher sugar content meant that less sap would be needed - about 34 gallons per one of syrup.
     On a cold day like this one, it's really nice to be in the sugar house as it turns into a sweet smelling sauna.

     For all of that water to boil off takes a really long time. You're supposed to drink beer, I think. Personally, I could take pictures all day long without ever getting bored, but my nephew was losing his ten year old mind. My mother -in-law had told me that years ago everyone would boil hotdogs in the sap for lunch as well as eggs, which I brought along. Jack would've killed for a hotdog as he has no use for eggs. But he did peel one. There's a pond right outside the door that we were able to cool the eggs in, and then we stored them in the snow so that they couldn't float away. I thought they might have a hint of maple sweetness to them, but no such luck, they were pretty ordinary.

     The egg trick did not take much time. Severe boredom began to set in. Even the dog was bored. Jack and Georgia shared 2 cups of snow to pass the time.

     And then, it all happened. And by this I mean very slowly, and after a really long time. The sap began to thicken, and we all tried to stay out of the way while Dave made a draw. If you've ever made jelly or candy, you'll know about that visible moment when the liquid has evaporated enough water to change the sugar content and begin to congeal. You really have to master instinct and timing to recognize when to act, or else you'll get it all wrong. If you overdo it you can taste a smokiness in the syrup, aka: Bean Syrup. Only good for making baked beans.

     You may know that syrup is graded, and often times it continues to darken in color and gain a stronger maple flavor over the course of a season. This is usually weather related and is not set in stone. This year, for the first time ever, my father-in-law's total take was comprised of more than half 'Fancy' or Grade A Light Amber. I don't even remember the last time I tried Fancy, and I don't know anyone who buys it. But we have a whole entire gallon, and it is wicked, wicked good.

Fancy on the left, then medium amber and dark amber

     All of the syrup passes through a filter before being graded and packaged. This particular batch was Grade C, and therefore went into a 5 gallon bulk container for cooking. Most likely, whatever is left of the season up here will also produce Grade C, and after this container is full, Dave will call it quits.

     We finally made it to the good part. Sugar on Snow. Followed by shots of syrup. And then a long, bumpy car ride home.

    Here are our favorite things to do with maple syrup:
  • slushy spoonful out of jar from freezer 
  • drizzled over spoonful of peanut butter
  • mixed with cocoa powder on the stovetop to dip fruit in
  • pan fry tempeh in oil, then add a glug of syrup and a dash of soy sauce at the end to make a glaze
  • toss with carrots, salt, and a little oil before roasting
  • maple baked beans, good feta cheese, homemade bread, and salad = my favorite dinner
  • maple apple butter, maple pumpkin butter, maple sweet potato butter
  • thinned syrup with cardamom/ginger over fresh berries 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ode to Green Smoothies

In college I wrote an assigned speech about Vinny Barbarino, which was (if you'll please pardon my bragging,) a smash hit. You'd think this would encourage me to boldly continue on proclaiming my adoration for whatever I want, whenever I feel, but truthfully I'm much more inclined to the Haiku. Not so much skilled as inclined. My favorite traditional Japanese Haiku is by Matsuo Basho c.1689:

Not knowing
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.

That one gets me a bit weak in the knees, in a romance for nature kind of way. Moving on to human nature and modern  Haiku, Jack Kerouac wrote in 1959:

All day long
wearing a hat
that wasn't on my head.

Who can't relate to that? But now, thanks to my assuming post title, I'll share something with you that tells you everything I feel about Green Smoothies, in 17 syllables or less:

heart of a monkey
gas station shopper
blends best guess.

Several years back I randomly began reading this raw vegan blog - I think I was looking for a salad dressing recipe. It was my first blog and I still read it, as somehow it's evolved into this can't-put-down novel for me. Quirky cast of characters and all. Regardless, I became really interested in Raw Foods and began experimenting. For the sake of making an enormously long story short - I cannot be a raw foodist; my throat itches all of the time, and the majority of the recipes involve foods that come from nowhere near where I live, which interests me zero. But I did come away with some valuable ideas and recipes. 

Green smoothies are fruit smoothies which include greens, hidden deep down in a landslide of fruity taste. Kale, spinach, chard, purslane, beet greens, lambsquarters - and all you'll ever taste is fruity goodness. Victoria Boutenko, a well known raw foodist, wrote a fantastic book called Green for Life complete with theory, data, recipes, and all things green smoothie related. The premise here is that we need to eat a motherlode of greens - but we don't. We've evolved to enjoy other tastes, and sitting down to bowl after bowl of greens is not manageable for most people. So, she's devised a way to sneak them in - like how mom's grate apples and sweet potatoes into those Mickey Mouse pancakes. Although totally undetectable, eventually you might start to crave the taste of the greens, advancing on to recipes that feature them more than hide them.

My go to green smoothie recipe includes strawberries and blueberries from my freezer (still frozen,) a handful of any kind of greens, and apple cider. If there's any bitterness, I add maple syrup. I also like romaine lettuce mixed with melon and ice. And I'm not opposed to throwing in a banana now and again, but usually my taste buds equate bananas to baby food, especially when they're pureed. I use a Vitamix Super 3600 which I bought off Ebay and have grown to love. I feel similarly emotional about the Vitamix as I do my pets; our time together is bound to be shorter than I can stomach. Later, I found the same model fortuitously underpriced in a Florida thrift store and bought it for back up. Vitamix blenders have high powered motors and the ability to reverse the blade motion, but no matter what you use it's really important to macerate the greens to smithereens, as hiding the taste is only so good if the texture remains chewy. Plus, greens in your teeth is not what we're going for here...

I'm embarrassingly behind on planting for Spring. I normally would've planted the hoop house in February, but instead I went on a road trip for 2 weeks. Of course, life is always changing, and I have to go away again before I can plant. So, for now, I'll buy my green smoothie greens, but I assure you that they are the sweetest when they are home grown.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Sad Day for Bees....

   I have been on the road for 2 weeks, visiting family and friends and taking lots of photos. My brain is about to explode from everything that I've experienced - which was entirely the point. Although I'm thrilled to share my new ideas and images, I'm also way behind on the home front. A broody hen, taxes, a hoop house to plant, propaganda to design...everything awaits.
   While I was away I got word that my bees were flying over at the Blue Heron Farm. This news was hugely relieving as last year 2 of my hives were split in half, with the new hives being comprised of brand new equipment. This means that partway into the season I had 2 hives facing a lot of work, just to make it through the winter. With new equipment, bees are responsible for drawing out enough wax (imagine honeycomb) to raise brood and store food. To make things worse, it started raining a lot, and that prevents bees from obtaining the calories and supplies they need to 'make it all happen.' In the fall I was definitely concerned about the strength of certain hives and began feeding them sugar syrup until it got too cold. {If any of you are interested in keeping bees, I recommend that you explore Beekeeper Linda's blog, and consider reading Ross Conrad's book Natural Beekeeping.}

   I was unsure if the bees would really be ready for food, but last year when the sun starting coming out more often, the farmers noticed ravished bees in their chicken feed. I decided to make a big batch for my 6 hives, so that I would have lots to take me through the warming weather. I mix sugar and water 1:1 and cook it on the stovetop until the mixture is clear. I then allow it to cool and pour it in a 5 gallon bucket with a honey gate (the yellow plastic mechanism has wingnuts that allow you to control the speed in which the spout opens and closes. I've found that it works pretty spectacularly when canning things like ketchup, too.) I happen to have a lot of food service jelly jars from my waitressing days to use as feeders for the bees; after filling with sugar syrup, I screw on lids with holes drilled out in a pattern that mimics the shape of the hole in a hive's inner cover. The jars get turned upside down and sit atop slats of wood positioned over the inner cover, inside a medium super. This allows space for the bees to come up and get the food, and gravity controls the flow. I covered the jar lids with duct tape for the ride over to the farm.

   I was greeted at the farm by Adam and Christine's chickens aka 'the Pretty Girls.' Because mud season is upon us, I brought a sled to pull all my stuff to the bee yard, instead of trying to drive back there. On a side note, we don't have a rooster at our house, and today I saw my first chicken love. Chicken porn? Call it what you will, but yikes either way...

    I used to differentiate my hives just by color, but that soon went by the wayside. Eventually they became all mixed up because my schedule means that everybody 'gets what they get'; be they bee, chicken, niece, nephew, or husband. I thought about numbers, letters, or stencils, but then I found these Wizard of Oz stickers for 99 cents. Sold. There are 8 different images, making them within my price range (bees can get expensive if you don't keep your head.) I unsuccessfully set out a hive last summer to try and catch a swarm, and that one is labeled with the Wicked Witch. Heh, heh...

When I got to the bee yard, I was disappointed to find that only one of the hives seemed to be active. Strangely, this was the hive I had written off as the weakest of the bunch last Fall - I was so sure it would fail. I lifted the covers on the rest and didn't hear any buzzing. I've never lost a hive before, which is completely out of the norm, but I feel distraught nonetheless. I'm unwilling to take things apart and investigate until the weather is much warmer, just in case there is a small population still hanging on, tightly clustered in the center of the hive. This is wishful thinking, I assure you. But when I do go back to clean out the hives, I'll be able to see what happened to the bees - I suspect that they starved. Their death is undoubtedly a regular result of keeping bees in northern climates; Vermont has not seen Colony Collapse Disorder, or at least that is the position of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. This seems to make sense as we don't have a lot CCD stress factors, such as monoculture, overused pesticides, and hives that are trucked great distances (as you'll find at California almond groves, for example.)

   So, a sunny, depressing day. And I have about 35 pounds of sugar syrup! That's a lot of lemonade to make...
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