Hickory Syrup – Keeping Appalachian Traditions Alive while Making Your Home Smell AMAZING!

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This  is the second year I made Hickory syrup.  Before last year, I had never even heard of it, and had no idea such a thing existed.

In late winter, 2013, I contacted our local forester and asked if he would come to our place and help me identify our sugar maple trees, as we are in the southernmost part of the range where it is possible to tap the trees to make maple syrup – one of my favorite things in the world.  He agreed to come out, and we discussed a range of possible dates, when as we were ending our conversation he mentioned as an aside that his favorite had always been hickory syrup, which he preferred over maple.  I figured no problem – we’d simply tap the trees when we were tapping the maples.

Wrong.  First I learned that hickory sap starts running just as maple sap is stopping, which I guessed would be perfect – we would simply sterilize the taps and move them over to the hickory trees.

Wrong again.  As it turns out, hickory syrup is nothing like maple syrup, and does not involve tapping the trees at all.  It is, in fact, made from the bark of primarily shagbark hickory trees, though the bark of shellbark hickories is also sometimes used, along with the shells of the nuts themselves.  According to some sources, the nut husks can also be used, though other sources advise against using them, so some experimentation is currently underway on our farmstead.

In my initial online research, along with a couple of basic recipes, I discovered that there are currently two commercial companies selling hickory syrup online, although more seem to be in the start-up phase, including a guy who successfully funded his start-up through a Kickstarter campaign.  There even used to be a local company based in Cookeville, Tennessee, twenty miles and about half an hour north of us, which made and distributed hickory syrup on a regional basis, though it folded years before we moved here.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that the hickory syrup currently being sold was commanding as much or more as good maple syrup, given that it is far easier to make, and takes a fraction of the time, expense and equipment.  Then again, according to the laws of supply and demand, traditional hickory syrup is far rarer these days, thus the reason for the high prices.  I suspect that this may change in the coming years.

In previous generations, Hickory syrup was an important cottage industry throughout the Appalachian Mountains, and to a lesser extent throughout the range of the shagbark hickory, becoming far more economically important as the chestnut blight took hold and started killing off the old growth American chestnut trees upon which many of the local economies – along with the entire network of ecosystems – had long depended.  Hickory syrup remained an Appalachian staple throughout the Depression and the Second World War, but seems to have fallen out of favor in the 1950s with the advent of a more national food supply, the supermarket, and cheap, readily available commercially packaged foods.

Most mature hickory trees are naturally occurring native trees, neither sprayed nor genetically engineered in any way, and left, as nature intended, to their own devices.  We were fortunate when we found our place that there were already a large number of mature shagbark and shellbark hickory, native persimmon and black walnut trees on the property, along with many other species in our mixed deciduous hardwood forest.  We are now endeavoring to reintroduce blight-resistant American chestnut trees into the mix, in order to restore our woods to at least a semblance of what they were prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

It is high time to bring back this American original.  The basic instructions for hickory bark syrup are simple, and require nothing you don’t already likely have in your kitchen.

First, you need enough hickory bark to almost fill a good-sized pot, such as a stock pot.  The recipe I started with specified half a pound, or 8 ounces, of shagbark hickory bark.  When collecting the bark, while you can collect shed bark from the ground, make sure that it is relatively fresh and hasn’t started to decay.  You can also collect the bark from the trees, but take care to only break off the part that has pulled back naturally from the tree trunk, as if you expose too much new bark, you can expose the tree to pathogens and possibly weaken or kill it.  Better to err on the side of caution to ensure that the trees stay around for a long time.  😉

Once you have collected your bark, break it up into pieces small enough to fit easily into the pot, say 6- to 8-inches long, and scrub it well under running water to remove any dirt, debris, lichens or insects.

Place the bark in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 25 minutes, in order to lightly brown the wood, and bring out its full flavor.  It is important that the bark not be allowed to char or burn, as this can spoil the flavor of the resulting syrup.  By the time you finish this step, your house will smell wonderful.

Next, place the bark in the pot and add enough filtered water to cover.  Bring the water to a simmer, and keep simmering for at least thirty to forty-five minutes to extract the flavor.  It is very important that you do not allow the water to come to a full boil, as that can turn the resulting extract bitter, by extracting too many of the tannins in the bark.  As you should simmer the bark while uncovered, please note that this will add a lot of moisture into your air from the steam, making this a perfect pursuit for cold nights during the fall or winter.

Strain out the bark, returning the extract to the pan, and continue simmering until the volume is reduced by roughly 25%, which will give you a more strongly flavored syrup.  Measure the resulting extract and add twice that amount of sugar: for example, if you wind up with four cups of extract, you will add eight cups of sugar, and so on.  In other words, you are making a simple syrup with the extract.

Bring back to a simmer and continue simmering, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft ball stage, which is typically from 215 degrees – 235 degrees.  Word of advice – if you break down and start stirring while it is simmering, please note that your syrup has a MUCH higher probability of crystallizing, as my first batch did last year.  I no longer stir – AT ALL – I have not had that problem again, and the resulting syrup is perfectly mixed by the simple action of the long simmering.

Allow the syrup to cool somewhat before pouring into hot, sterilized canning jars.  Cover and tighten the lids, then process in a hot water bath for at least fifteen minutes, label and enjoy!  I like to turn my jars upside-down on several layers of towel when I take them out of the hot water bath, as shown in the photo.  I have had much better luck with all the jars sealing properly since I started doing so.

I use exclusively non-GMO cane sugar, certified organic when I can find it, as there is no genetically engineered sugar cane on the market in the U.S. – so far.  Otherwise, you can pretty much guarantee that, unless your sugar says 100% cane sugar, it is made from genetically engineered beets.  No thanks.

If all this sounds like too much trouble, you can contact me via email for prices and availability, as I started my own cottage industry making hickory syrup last year.  I sell most of mine locally, through the local farmer’s markets, but I also sell some online.  As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m most a fly by the seat of my pants sort of cook, so while the first batch was according to the above instructions, I’ve continued to tweak and improve it ever since.

I also make a hickory nut syrup that is out of this world  and entirely different from the hickory bark syrup.  This process was originally passed to the white settlers from the indigenous Cherokee tribe, among others.  As it is made from the nut meats and shells, rather than the bark, it is in much shorter supply, and typically available only in the fall and winter.

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Spiced Apple Cider, Apple Butter and Fermented Heavy Cream – YUM!!!

While I await the dawning of this New Year’s Eve, I am enjoying some of the fruits of my holiday labor, in the form of some of my wonderfully spicy hot apple cider, which I have had going more or less continually for the past two weeks.  There’s simply nothing like it when it is really cold outside – warm, tasty, health-giving and soul-satisfying.

Although both our Stayman Winesap and Fuji apple trees bore fruit for the first time this year, as did our Chicago Hardy fig and a number of our pears, peaches and nectarines, despite a late April frost that ki9lled most of the blooms and small fruit,, a hail storm in mid-May knocked off every single developing fruit that was left.  Aaaarrrgggghhhh.

So, this year’s apple cider was made from purchased unfiltered apple cider, just as this year’s apple butter was made from Winesap apples purchased from Crooked Stick Feed Store, here in Doyle, Tennessee.*

The apples were a tad past their prime, and so I was given two ample half-boxes of heirloom Winesap apples for a mere $6, one of my favorite varieties, from which I made over six pints of absolutely fabulous apple butter.

The first batch I wound up simmering for three full days, using a stick blender to smooth it out, resulting in a richly dark brown and extremely fragrant apple butter.  I had originally intended to add a small amount of pure Vermont maple syrup at the end, but when I tasted it, it was already so sweet that any added sweetener would have detracted from the flavor.  In addition to the usual Ceylon (aka:REAL) cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves, both the spiced apple cider and the apple butter included ample amounts of turmeric and ginger, and small amounts of cayenne, chipotle pepper and black pepper, for better nutritional value, nutrient absorption, antimicrobial properties and immune system boost, along with a bite of heat and a lot of flavor.

For my second batch, I simmered the apple butter for a mere twelve hours, and blended it just a tad less smoothly, resulting in an apple butter that was as rich in flavor, but a tad more rustic, and every bit as good as the first batch.

In the future, I will simmer for twelve to fourteen hours and blend until smooth – the best of both worlds, at least to me.  Both batches were finished by canning in a boiling water batch, for a full 30 minutes, since I had added no sugar.  I want them to last long enough to be enjoyed.

Although I’ve made spiced apple cider and mulled wine for decades, this was my first try at apple butter, though it will definitely not be the last – both qualify as vegan and vegetarian, and although the spices may be a tad questionable, by most accounts they qualify as Paleo as well, particularly as there is no added sweetener of any kind.

With the addition of the non-GMO heavy cream I fermented with some of our milk kefir grains, they will be staples in our fall and winter kitchen from here on out.  The apple butter and the fermented cream, in fact, are even better in combination than they are alone – we enjoyed them on toast, on Paleo banana bread, and on Polish naleśniki, which are crepe-like pancakes, and can be made either thick or thin depending upon their intended use.  Great stuff.

I’ll do my best to post the basic recipes in the next few days.  I tend to be a “little of this and a little of that” sort of cook, so I don’t always use precise measurements, but I can give you the measurements I started with as a guideline.

Love and Peace to All and to All a GOOD NIGHT!

Happy New Year and a Better 2015 for ALL!!!

If ever there was proof that we are living the Chinese Curse, 2014 was that proof.  We are indeed living in interesting times.

2014 has been one of those years – for nearly everyone I know.  It has been a year of highs and lows, of triumphs and frustrations, of deaths and of new beginnings.  It has not been easy, but in the end, it has been worthwhile.

Our 2014 came in with a bang – although the previous October started off with an earler-than-usual hard frost, our weather leading up through the holidays led to vibrant new growth on my favorite Granada rose bush, which I photographed with some disbelief on Christmas Eve.

Then, in the first week of January, we had back to back lows of 8 and 7 degrees respectively, the lowest I have personally experienced in my life, which resulted in a burst water pipe in the studio, along with the death of all that vibrant new growth on the Granada rose.  What can I say?  I’m a Sun Belt baby.  I remembered to leave the water dripping in the main house, but although I remembered to crank up the heat in the studio, I forgot all about leaving the water dripping.  Oops.

I thought it might be the death of the rose itself, but it wound up coming back strong in the spring, and today – New Year’s Eve 2014 – it has vibrant new growth again, despite several hard freezes so far, including back to back lows of 19 degrees and 17 degrees respectively in early November.  Quite a rose – especially considering that I fell in love with it during my childhood in suburban Los Angeles, both from the rose bush my mother planted in our back yard, and for the many more from which Granada Park in Monterey Park took its name.

Tonight we are expecting a low of 27 degrees, with the same again tomorrow night.  Tomorrow, I will be taking cuttings from the rose to root over the winter.  I am pretty confident that I can get them to root, but if not, cutting the rose bush back at this point will only help it, as it will then put all its efforts into its root system.  And, if they do root, I’ll have that many more Granada roses to enjoy.

Most sources cite the Granada rose, and heirloom variety also known as Donatella, as being hardy from Zones 6 through 9, though a couple of sources state that it is hardy to Zone 5a, which is exceptionally hardy for a hybrid tea rose.  My mother’s Granada that I loved so much as a child was huge and spectacular by the time we moved across town, gorgeous in its nearly year-long bloom, and the sweet, spicy scent was always what I really loved about it – it was completely in its element in Southern California.

After leaving my native California, I tried several times to grow it in my adopted home in the Tampa Bay area, but the rose was less than pleased wth the high humidity and low soil fertility, and did only okay, never living beyond a few years.  Our water table was too high, and although it would do okay for a year or two, eventually it would drown during a period of flooding.  Roses like water, but not THAT much water – and the high sulphur content in the local groundwater was probably not helpful.  C’est la vie.

Our current Granada rose abides beneath our bedroom window, our only south-facing window, and was covered in blooms up until the beginning of October.  Interestingly, for the second year in a row, it has shot up a huge vertical cane over six feet tall, although it is not typically a climber.  Apparently it forgot to read that part in its description.  Last year’s cane died in our ridiculously hard pipe-bursting freezes, and this year’s cane will be drastically shortened tomorrow, leading I hope to more vigorous growth in the spring.