Cane Syrup: Sweet Taste of the South

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Photo by Regina Charboneau


To try pork roast with turnips in cane gravy, click here for the recipe.

There are few places I go where I do not feel compelled to cook for my friends, Paris included. Many people ask why I do this, but it's simple--I love my friends. So, when I was in Paris over the summer I wanted to prepare a dinner for my friends with a true taste of the South. I picked up a jar of cane syrup at the more than fabulous food hall at Bon Marche department store.

With that one ingredient I knew I could create something foreign to them and very familiar to me. Mireille Romand (owner of Galerie Documents in Paris) took me to her favorite butcher shop and found a beautiful pork butt roast that was boned and tied to perfection. For the finale of our Paris grocery shopping we went to her local farmer's market. I was able to find my father's favorite accompaniment to pork--turnips--and an array of other vegetables.

I roasted the pork roast with garlic, sea salt, cracked pepper, and rosemary. I rolled the roast in cane syrup then roasted the vegetables in the pork drippings to make cane syrup gravy. To me the key to good meat is the way you roast it or braise it. It all goes back to the fact that caramelization gives a natural richness. The cane syrup enhances that process tenfold. I have a new-found love of cane syrup.

In syrup-making you can take thermometers, hydrometers, motors, or mules, but Judge Bramlette said a good syrup-maker just knows.

There are more than food questions I wish I had asked my father while I still had him. I wish he were here to tell me stories about the cane fields of Louisiana, and I have no doubt he would have much to say on the subject. But since he's not here, when I decided to share my recipe for pork and turnips in cane gravy and write about cane syrup, one person came right to mind: a friend of my family, Federal Judge David Bramlette.

When I moved back to Natchez he had invited me several years in a row to an annual event in his hometown of Woodville, Mississippi--a full day of making cane syrup from the "press" to the "strike" and the roasting of wild Russian Hogs. I missed every year and have regretted it each year so I made sure to have it on my calendar for this November. Yesterday, I sat down with Judge Bramlette and was able to hear firsthand how he started this tradition 25 years ago, and I have a feeling I will not miss this event as long as I have an invitation. He is the epitome of a Southern gentleman, and within a short time you cannot help but be enthralled.

It began with a fall hunt 26 years ago when Judge Bramlette stumbled upon an abandoned Chattanooga syrup mill. I think the mill found him. He was a natural to take this project on. His father ran several sugar cane plantations. There also was the Stuart side of his family, owning one of the 11 existing sugar mills in Louisiana since 1859, Alma Plantation, now producing raw sugar. This project quickly turned into a passion.

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Photo by Zeetz Jones/Flickr CC

The science of making syrup is not all that simple. I think his Princeton education probably helped. He laughed when he shared his first attempt at making syrup. It was an ambitious one. He drove up with a pickup truck loaded down with just cut sugar cane, thinking he would be making about 100 gallons of syrup. He quickly discovered a lot about sugar cane. The pressing of the cane is a process in itself, with the speed of a mule, and if the rains had cooperated to produce adequate liquid and the gods had cooperated enough to produce the proper sucrose levels you might be lucky to get one gallon of syrup from 8 to 10 gallons of sugar cane juice.

A truckload of cane does not equal much syrup. Mules don't move that fast so when his mule died he opted for a tractor. He and his friends learned as they went, and he even started growing his own sugar cane. He has two acres; one acre can produce 15 to 30 tons of cane. Although there are 25 to 30 varieties that do well in this part of the country he prefers Ribbon Cane. Then there is the cooking, where you can get it just right, or within no time your syrup will turn to sugar, or within two weeks you can have the tops popping off.

Making syrup has to be more than a hobby. As he was talking about the science of syrup-making it made me think, how many variables are there in cooking sugar? When making pralines, I can use a thermometer and use all the science, but if it's raining outside or cooler than usual I have to just know. Because I have made pralines so many times and have had my share of failures, I can take one look and I can feel the amount of resistance when I turn my wooden spoon and know whether I have it right. In syrup-making you can take thermometers, hydrometers, motors, or mules, but Judge Bramlette said a good syrup-maker just knows.

After a delightful visit with Judge Bramlette I left with a pint of his syrup and a feeling I learned a great deal, but anxious to learn so much more. Later I read the label and found written at the bottom "Manufactured for our friends and in memory of Swanson Anderson and Tom Netterville." These were friends who helped build this tradition and are no longer here. Sadly he added another to that list, Nolan McCraine, a friend and a syrup maker who "just knew". After visiting with Judge Bramlette it was evident that the history of his quest for sugar-making was just as much about loving his friends.

Note: Cane syrup is made from evaporating cane juice to a concentrate. This requires a continuous boiling process from three to four hours at about 210 degrees Fahrenheit. The juice must be skimmed and clarified throughout the procedure.

Recipe: Pork Roast with Turnips in Cane Gravy

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Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of Regina's Table at Twin Oaks. More

Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of two cookbooks: A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina's Kitchen and Regina's Table at Twin Oaks.
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