Peaches canned in homemade maple syrup: a north-south, east-west delicacy.
My peach tree nearly toppled over with the weight of its fruit this weekend. Which was a big surprise, as I recall my disbelief at the point of its purchase three years ago that one could even grow peaches in Vermont.
Peaches have a special place in my heart. I spent part of my childhood in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My brothers and I had a babysitter named Linda. She had a homestead way out in Harper's Ferry, where she raised a gaggle of kind, wild boys. Linda kept to the house unless someone needed her but us kids had free reign of the farm. And the peaches. The kind you can barely eat for juiciness. The kind that gets all over your face no matter how tidy you're trying to be. We had peaches many ways at Linda's. But one of the best, on a hot day, was frozen and blended with a little water. Linda called it the peach freeze. It was the taste of summer.
And then there were Grandma Jeanette’s canned peaches. Served for dessert whenever we were in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Perfect halves, flawlessly skinned, in heavy syrup, preserved in half-gallon mason jars. Grandpa Stan fetched them from the cellar slowly and carefully while we anticipated. Brought the prairie summer to any time of the year, over the years, first for my husband, then for us both, and then for our children.
So I picked my peaches this weekend – every last one of them – eating some while still warm from the sun. They weren’t quite the West Virginia peaches or South Dakota peaches of my youth. Nor are they Pennsylvania or Georgia peaches, I’d imagine. But they are fresh. And, this weekend, I canned them in my own homemade maple syrup. Bringing a little Vermont to the peach. Expressing solidarity with peach country. Sending a bit of sweetness south and west, into the past, and into the future.
Here's to hoping someone remembers my peaches fondly someday and passes on the love.
One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
Wash your peaches and freeze for at least one hour on a jelly-roll pan or other sheet pan with a lip. Run under cold water and slip off the skins. Half and pit the peaches, placing them directly into clean jars. Boil a mixture of four-parts water to one-part homemade maple syrup. Pour boiling mixture over peaches to 1/2" of top. Affix lids. Can in a hot water bath for 20 minutes, cool, and store.
A very young red maple seedling rescued from the garden and waiting to be planted in our sugar woods. Cultivating red maples in your sugar woods can help diffuse the virulence of pests, such as tent caterpillars, that would otherwise wreak havoc on your sugar stand.
In this blog, we have identified three simple steps backyard sugar makers can take to care for their sugar woods in a changing climate. We've covered the first part of step 1: eradicating invasive species (mapping invasive species on your property) and will cover the second part, removal, in its appropriate season (which is fall, thank goodness - it's been so dang HOT!) That leaves (2) cultivating an ideal suite of tree species, and (3) protecting riparian areas and other habitat to support diversity of non-tree species. Today we are going to cover step two.
Cultivating an ideal suite of tree species sounds a bit intimidating - and it certainly can be as complicated as you'd like to make it, says Nancy Patch, County Forester for the Vermont counties of Franklin and Grand Isle. But it doesn't have to be that way. Remain calm and read on.
First, some background. It may come as news to you (as it did to me) that there are different types of forests, even here in sugar country. (Psst. Do you know how big sugar country is? See the map below to find out.) Well, there are. And the kind that has sugar maples in it is called northern hardwood forest. Chances are, you are in a northern hardwood forest if you see sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech and white ash. Eastern hemlocks and white pine are also commonly found there. The northern hardwood forest has sub-types; all of these sub-types contain basically the same suite of eight tree species with a couple of additions and/or subtractions. Five or six of these sub-types contain sugar maple. And the best site conditions for sugar maple occur in what is known as the rich northern hardwood forest.
A forest community is rooted (no pun) in its soil. And the rich northern hardwood forest, as its name suggests, has nutrient-rich soil that supports a highly-productive forest dominated by sugar maple, but also including white ash, basswood, sweet birch, bitternut hickory, black cherry, yellow birch, hophornbeam, butternut, and sometimes American beech. The rich northern hardwood forest supports a wide variety of non-tree species as well, including the easily-identifiable "indicator species" of blue cohosh, maidenhair fern, wild leek and duchman's breeches.
Left to its own devices, as in any other ecosystem, the flora in the rich northern hardwood forest balance in to a supportive companionship - a co-beneficial relationship - that, in part through its support of fauna, helps it resist pests and disease. Think companion planting in your garden - same concept. In other words, when the rich northern hardwoods forest contains its ideal suite of trees, it operates at its healthiest and most resilient level. When one or more species are selectively cut, or selectively planted, it doesn't. Health is good, obviously. And resiliency is what any living system needs to cope with change - including forests and climate change.
So, this means that your job as custodian of your forest is to figure out which sub-type of northern hardwood forest you live in, figure out if you have the ideal proportion of the ideal species of trees on your forest, and, if not, selectively cut, plant and/or cultivate so that you do. Easy, right?
Not, really. No. Finding out what sub-type you have will take some research, and the true answer lies in analysis of the soil, notes Nancy. And do you know how to take a statistically significant survey of the number of each tree species you have? Because I don't. Not to mention that foresters tend to work on the 250-acre level, so goodness knows whether a five, ten, or twenty-five acre plot of land can even be analyzed this way. I didn't even want to ask.
This is when it is good to know a forester like Nancy. "Homeowners can make an impact by just focusing on variability," she says. According to Nancy, it is enough to simply walk in your woods and catalog all of the species of trees you find there - including the understory (young trees). If what you find there is reasonably diverse - say around eight species - that's great. You can care for your woods by just not cutting all or most of any species down. If what you find is not monocultural (sugar maple only) but is non-diverse (only a few species of trees) "consider planting an oak or two," suggests Nancy. Oaks are great companion plants in northern hardwood forest; they are great habitat for moths, butterflies and song birds and provide a food source for bear, turkey and deer. They are also projected to do well in a warming climate (or a "climate-change winner" as Nancy says). If you do have a sugar maple monoculture, according to Nancy, "planting hemlocks and red maples can help diminish the virulence of tent caterpillar invasions." Just take a couple of hours to look around, find out how diverse your woods are, and act accordingly. I can DO that!
So, the other day, when I should have been typing (I had planned to be typing. I needed to be typing!), I just couldn't type. So I took the dog outside with The Sibley Guide to Trees. (What I wanted to have was Forest Trees of Vermont, but, alas, not in our local public library. It is now on my Christmas list.) And we ambled for a couple of hours. We saw mature red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, paper birch, eastern hemlock and American beech throughout our ten acres, and some white ash and northern red oak in the understory. Near the house, there were also big white pine and little quaking aspen, staghorn sumac, striped maple and smooth alder. With eight or more species of trees, I'm solidly in the "already have diversity" camp, which is great, even though I don't boast a piece of the rich northern hardwood forest. So I can help my woods stay resilient by just staying the course. Whew. Love it when that happens.
So if you should be typing, had planned to be typing, and need to be typing, but just can't, get out there in the woods and look around for a while to see what you can see - you'll probably be glad you did!
Sugar country is bigger than you think. People make maple syrup in their backyards in twenty U.S. states and most of Canada!
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing is an extensively researched, interesting, and surprisingly funny history of maple sugar making.
In true grass-is-always-greener fashion, summer is sometimes a time for dreaming about when it isn’t so hot out. (Guilty.) In addition to keeping the garden weed-free, moving the chickens to their late-summer quarters (away from the garden) and slowly ticking off the rest of the homestead to-dos, we've also started reading up in preparation for our next sugaring season.
“The Maple Sugar Book” by Helen and Scott Nearing, with its treatment of the history and practice of maple sugaring, is our pick for this summer’s maple beach read. It’s extensively researched, interesting, surprisingly funny, and, in and of itself, a fascinating slice of history.
Like so many to follow in the intervening decades, the Nearings left the urban life for an old Vermont homestead and, (like so many to follow in the intervening decades!) with the benefit of an inheritance, connections and some off-the-land income, struck out to make a living on the farm. For them, the journey back to the land started in 1932, at the apex of the Great Depression, spanned the tumult of the last-half of the twentieth century, and continues by way of "The Good Life Center," a nonprofit Helen created on the coast of Maine before her death in 1995.
The book is separated into three sections; the longest and of most practical use to the hobby sugar maker being the second, a 135-page chronicle of exactly how the Nearings and their peers made maple products around 1950. With chapters for identifying and cultivating prime sugar bushes, choosing the proper equipment, understanding how, why and when sap runs, tapping, storing and processing sap, and making syrup and sugar, this section - despite some obvious anachronisms (a certain tolerance for monoculture and wooden buckets, for example) - is full of practical information and is excellent company for today's backyard maple syrup maker.
While a reader should feel free to skim or skip chapter 9, regarding marketing maple products in the 1950s (What? No Instagram farms?) and the book's third section, an extended opinion piece about maple's place in making country life superior to city life (tending to be preachy, out-of-date and narrow), one should not miss the authoritative history of maple syrup that is contained in section one. Along with detail about how native North Americans obtained and processed sap and stored and served maple sugar, the Nearings throw in precious historical tidbits about how American mothers pacified restless children by feeding them maple sweets (they did it too!) how European settlers experienced maple (it was almost universally love-at-first-taste), took to its cultivation (quickly) and sometimes claimed to have discovered it first (a claim the Nearings skillfully debunk). Finally, don't forget to take a look at the maple recipes contained at the end of the book, including for maple sugar french toast, maple fudge and a method for making maple icing.
While the book was not popular at the outset, it is now. The 50th Anniversary addition of this gem is widely available and a must-not-miss for any hobby sugar maker with an appetite for learning. So pull up a beach chair or picnic blanket, grab a cold beverage, dig your heels into the sand or grass, and grab a copy from your local library, bookstore, or internet. Happy reading!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.