V. Vermont rural food systems—from milk to maple

This is the fifth and final reflective journal entry assigned for class.

Today was indeed the day that resonated most for me—for my personal interests in food and agriculture, and for my personal wellbeing.

After breakfast we headed to near-about Middlebury to visit a ‘sugar shack’ in the woods. It was not a cold day but it snowed. Karen packed snow shoes for the group she borrowed from UVM. We drove as far as we could up a snowy road then parked along the side of the road, or driveway. Our host met us there and we all snow shoed to the sugar shack. A sugar shack is a small structure in a maple wood where maple sap is gathered and boiled to make maple syrup. I’ve been to several sugar shacks, in NY, MA, and VT growing up, with my family and for class field trips. I’d never snow shoed to one before, actually, I’d never snow shoed before. Sadly, it may be another few decades before I do again. Global warming—another theme of the week—has struck NY and haven’t had weather warranting I replace my winter gear. Today, I fantasized about moving to VT to remedy the problem.

Our sugar shack daddy was, to me, the idyllic image of the bearded man in the woods making maple syrup. This was not the hard life of the eighteenth and nineteenth Vermont immigrant and pioneering farmsteader. This is the hobby of a more affluent and educated Vermonter, but a Vermonter who is keenly in tune to nature and respecting its’ limitations. He understands the importance of keeping the land in its more natural state and has put his into a preservation trust, maintaining development rights for two of his children.

Again, we returned to terroir and what effects the taste of maple syrup. The elevation, slope, rocks, dirt, minerals, moisture at the roots, sunlight. Firing the boiling sap with oil versus wood. Pan time effects on carmelization, thus on taste.

Some fascinating factoids our host shared with us: Sap tapped from the tree is from sap migrating back to the roots from the canopy, not sap migrating to the canopy (outer branches and twigs); Overtapping is unlikely as the maple tree—unless blighted by a pest or disease—will likely outlive the one who taps it; The debate continues into what makes for a Maple fit for tapping, be it tree age (40 years?), diameter of the trunk (12”?), or canopy size; Forty gallons of raw sap makes one gallon of maple syrup (I am sure I’ve heard between twelve and forty gallons on my various sugar shack visits); Fancy, Medium amber (aka grade A), and Dark amber (aka grade B) maple syrup all contain the same amount of sugar—the only difference being colour, in terms of marketing. But flavour is affected by—terroir!

After we talked and asked our questions, our host took us on a snow shoe hike up to where his maple trees are tapped. We hiked about a mile, uphill. I loved it! I just started warming up when we made it to our destination. The silence and air through the trees—it’s better than church I always say. I am for certain, from each step in the snow shoes, closer to leaving this Gotham chamber.

Lunch at Amy’s further reinforced my rural desires. She and her husband live on what was one a hobby apple orchard of a doctor. There are upwards of eighty varieties, which Amy is still investigating exactly which is which. I enjoyed the first glasses of non-pasteurized apple cidre in nearly two years. I don’t care what the apple cidre sellers at the markets say—irradiation changes the taste and mouthfeel. The orgy of late season apple varieties used to make Amy’s cidre, also made for a sweetly-tart and barely pungent taste. I haven’t sipped such good cidre in at least three years.

Our last experiential lesson for the day, and for the week was a trip to Twig Farm. I cannot help but laugh about this. Everyone fell in love with Mister and Missus Twig. For once during the week we were like giddy schoolchildren. They are adorable thirty-somethings who bought a farm and began making delicious goat cheeses. They built a beautiful home (though I am not a fan of the colours—too themepark-ish) designed by an architect friend. Mister and Missus Twig are for certain on the end of the spectrum counter to Mister and Missus Boucher at Boucher Family Farm (& Homestead). The Twigs could easily make a life for themselves in the art and publishing worlds of Gotham. But they choose to ‘rough it’ to preserve a life that is quiet, reflective, private. Again, more of what I seek in my own life. Though whether a heard of goats is in my future is unlikely. I look forward to chickens—laying and broiler, watermelons, chestnuts, filberts, stone fruits, and nasturtiums.

The reality of the idyllic Twig family farm life lay sick from diarrhea in a lamp warmed box, next to where her kin are growing and thriving. A not seven day old goat, at time of tapping this here, is likely gone to the great compost heap in the field—the circle of life rests superimposed over the systems of agriculture we sought out and discovered in Vermont. I was sad to see her suffer, but strangely I accept her fate. It’s our fate, and strangely I accept that too.

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