Last night I heard crickets for the first time this spring, and it struck me how fast the seasons shift in this part of the planet. It was just a few weeks ago we were waiting for the last of the snow to melt. Next came the spring peepers, harvesting some ramps, the willows blossoming and buzzing with pollinators, watching the forest canopy explode into green in a few days, the wild plums blooming, the wet spots drying up, the new shoots of grass dazzling your eyes with greenness, the inevitable barrage of blackflies, the tree and barn swallows returning to their familiar nests to dine on all those blackflies, then the relief of thousands of dragonflies patrolling the air for any stragglers. This is the time of year when nature slams her foot on the accelerator and we hurtle through almost daily changes, which might be unsettling in their rapidity if they were not so comforting in their repetition. They are the milestones by which we mark our year. Christmas, birthdays, back to school? Sure, these are important yearly markers too, but nothing compared to the first sighting of fireflies.
The weather, as usual these days, was unusual. An early warm-up, then a protracted cool spring, almost no rain, then summer suddenly hitting with a sweltering wallop. I know a farmer who was almost hoping for floods, so he could say it was “the coldest, driest, hottest, and wettest” spring ever.
Because we rely on a lot of wild and deep-rooted perennials, we usually have a pretty good buffer when it comes to extreme weather. But one of the few more conventional crops we grow, asparagus, had its worst year in the five or so seasons we’ve grown it. We got maybe a little more than half the usual harvest from it, resulting in a lot of disappointed customers, who can sometimes (understandably) have an almost rabid hunger for pesticide free local asparagus. I think it was the lack of water. Next year we may install some irrigation. In farming, there is always “next year”.
One thing thankfully independent of meteorological ups and downs is the food processing we do on the farm. It’s become increasingly apparent to me that we are not just farmers, with everything that entails (accounting, mechanics, construction, soil chemistry, etc.), nor just direct marketers (entailing web design, customer relations, packaging, distribution, etc.), but we are also a food processing business. We make maple pies and tarts, maple butter, sumac juice, cider, garlic scape pesto, toum (Lebanese garlic sauce), and wild herbal teas. Granola is our second largest enterprise, and our largest, maple syrup, is mostly about processing the raw maple sap. Each of these products come with their own equipment, packaging, and labelling requirements, not to mention the intellectual capital needed to hopefully elevate a bunch of already quality ingredients into something even more desirable.
My latest attempt at this alchemy is maple fudge. You boil maple syrup to 219°F, and maple butter to 234°F. You take maple fudge to around 240°F – and you add heavy cream and butter. It’s like someone thought, “How could we make this already jaw-droppingly delicious thing even better? In know, let’s concentrate it even more and add in a bunch of dairy fat!”
Trust me, it does get even better. When it works, that is, which for me so far is about 50% of the time. While the failures are frustrating (but still pretty edible), the successes make it all worth it. The first time I had a regular supply of real maple fudge in the fridge, I thought: “This has changed my life. There was Before Maple Fudge, and After Maple Fudge. I’ll never be the same.” A small piece of it in the mouth (for dessert at lunch only – I’m quite disciplined about sweets intake, I used to make my Halloween candy last half a year) is a daily, visceral reminder of how good life can be. It inspires me to try to make more of my life live up to that blissful moment of sweet dissolution.
On the surface of it, making maple fudge looks quite simple. You just boil some maple syrup and cream until it reaches the aforementioned magic number of 240°F, add a bit of butter, let it cool to around 110°F (why is everything in maple in Fahrenheit, the most illogical and difficult to spell temperature scale?), and then beat it until it magically transforms into fudge.
But oh, it is a deceptive simplicity. I tried for several years to make it, with many of gooey non-fudge result, which I would grudgingly spoon into my sulking mouth, before I finally had my breakthrough. It took a deep and abiding determination to make real maple fudge to see me through the years of bitter heartbreaks. There are so many subtle wrong steps the aspiring fudge maker can make. He can blunder into traps he never knew were there. Something as innocent as stirring the proto-fudge at the wrong time can spell disaster. Here is a picture of two batches of fudge I made, side by side, at the same time, doing what I thought was the same things to each one, and yet one (on the left) was a success, and the other (on the right) was not. I still have so much to learn about the mysteries of maple fudge.
This got me thinking: if maple is so good in the mouth, maybe it would be good in the soil. Let me back up a bit. I planted about 500 strawberry plants this spring. I planted them into ground that had been covered with a large tarp for a year to kill the grass, then tilled. I assumed that this soil was pretty dead after a year of this treatment, so with each strawberry crown I planted, I gave a little dose of beneficial microorganism inoculants. But then I thought that these little critters I was adding to the soil wouldn’t have anything to eat. Normally, in a field with plants growing, their roots are sending sugars down to the soil microorganisms, who in turn are trading back minerals and other harder to find nutrients for the plant. But in this field with nothing growing, how could there be any sugars for my pets to eat?
I had heard of molasses being used as an organic fertilizer. Molasses, in addition to having sugars to feed the bacteria, has a lot of iron and other useful elements for plant growth. As you might imagine, it didn’t take a maple syrup producer too long to make the leap to, “I wonder what effect maple syrup would have on jumpstarting these little strawberry seedlings?” A quick Google search revealed nothing more enlightening than a few cannabis chat groups discussing the merits of fertilizing with maple syrup. What the hell, I thought, we had a bountiful maple season, and I grabbed a litre, diluted it into a 5 gallon bucket of water, and watered about 60 plants with it. I’ll let you know in a future blog post if there was any noticeable result.
Interestingly, milk has also been used as an all natural fertilizer, which brings me back to fudge. Cream + maple syrup might = the ultimate fertilizer for all life on Earth.