Written by Robb Turner, founder of the acclaimed Crown Maple company of Madava Farms in Duchess County, New York, The Crown Maple Guide to Maple Syrup is a fascinating journey into the true life & times of Maple Syrup – out beyond the pancake stacks and the flavouring of ordinary sugar syrup & into the leafy depths of the forest where Maple Syrup is a pure as Maple Syrup can be.
One of the things I like a lot about this book is the way that it really does do what it says on the bottle. This really is a guide to Maple Syrup. Almost half the book is about the product’s history, the science of tapping, the grading, the techniques of cooking. It’s a serious piece of writing this opening salvo – complete with pages of reference – and the historical section in particular I thought was enthralling.
Most of all, I was interested in the early history. I was struck, for example, by the “sugar moon” of the Abenaki tribe, their sugar dance. And then, of course, the propensity for The Great Nations of Europe, as Randy Newman* would have it, to come along and destroy things. The Crown Maple Guide could have been a recipe book with a short phoned-in section about Maple Syrup and its history – spanning a couple of pages maybe – but it really isn’t. If you want to know about Maple Syrup this book is a very good place to start.
The recipes themselves are fine, clearly written and uncomplicated. It’s put together in sensible portions: Breakfasts & Breads; Meat, Poultry & Fish; Vegetables & Grains; Snacks; Beverages; Desserts. As you’d expect, virtually all call for Maple Syrup – obviously – and many jointly for Maple Sugar, which is a lot more important than I first realised. You can work with substitutes for Maple Sugar, but only so far. It’s not completely about the amber stuff – there’s no Maple Syrup in the Simmons Family Chili for example, but that’s a rarity.
So I stocked up, and it was Syrup all the way as I started making Pecan Pie, Maple Pulled Pork, Maple Teriyaki Chicken, Lydia’s Favorite Salmon …
Stocking up on Maple Syrup, however, is both the brilliance and the difficulty of the book at once.
Let’s get the difficulty out of the way first. Top grade Maple Syrup – Crown Maple in particular – is expensive in the UK. By the time I’d read through the opening sections of this book, it was also clear it would be a long time before I was inclined buy a cheap bottle again. Chances are, what I’ve been eating on my pancakes up to now has been no nearer a Maple Tree than an Arboath Smokie. Within pages, I was sold on why this purity is important & when I put my new found knowledge to the test with the real stuff, a convert.
Further, I had decided there was only one way to go: to get Crown Maple’s own syrup and to use that for the bulk of what I tested. Crown Maple can be bought on Amazon, for crazy prices, or sourced at Marks and Spencers – I couldn’t find it in my nearest, though – or from Harrods. Yep, Harrods. So that’s where I got mine, and with postage it was £22.50 a bottle. Even if I could walk into a shop and buy it in America, it looks currently like it would cost much the same. Crown Maple syrup, then, is an elite ingredient. Where a recipe calls for quite a bit – I made the Pecan Pie, for example (480ml – more than a whole bottle) – it’s clear to see where you’re going to come unsticky if you’re on a budget.
Now here’s the first thing: this will be less of a problem if you’re an accomplished cook or baker. Here at North Sea Scullery we’ve advanced past stir-in sauces, but remain fairly average home-cooky sorts of people. What this tends to mean is a sort of high-end ingredient anxiety. Fillet Steak anxiety. Whole side of Salmon anxiety. Saffron anxiety. And now, Crown Maple syrup anxiety. For amateurs, there’s a just lot that feels highwire about spending £20 on a pie. Even for very good cooks on a budget it’s still going to smart. There’s just no getting away from it – if you want to do this book justice and use the best, it’s going to be dear. And that’s even before you get to the realisation that there are different types of Crown Maple – dark, amber, golden. It’s connoisseur stuff. While it’s not quite a cookbook dedicated to Barolo, it’s heading in that direction. Other Maple Syrups are available …
But to the brilliance. When you uncork Crown Maple’s own syrup – the little stopper thlumps out like a mini top from a Laphroaig – and take a deep long noseful of their luscious amber madness, you may very well be spoiled off other brands for good. I am. The type I was mostly using, the Amber, is deep in a kind of vanilla, toffee, best roast coffee philosophy. You could drink it. You feel like just drinking it. I put it in coffee and bourbon. I did drink it, poured it on a spoon and drank it. Raw. It just tastes so natural, so pure, that it’s almost as if it has somewow missed out process altogether – that you’re just deep in a forest, sucking it right out of the bark to the glow of the Sugar Moon. Like DiCaprio in The Revenant, just in better times.
I’m a recent convert to the Old Fashioned, and there’s a recipe in here using Crown Maple that’s just magnificent. It’s the drink they hand to guests at Madava, and no wonder. From being a drink I wasn’t aware of as more than a Sinatra-style prop, this recipe is going to single-handedly double Bourbon sales in my immediate locality. There’s lots of food and drink to love in The Crown Maple Syrup Guide to Maple Syrup, but their take on this cocktail in particular is – as they do say – a doozy. It reminded me that there’s a recipe for a Whiskey + Maple Syrup Sour in Julian Turshen’s Small Victories that was crying out for Crown Maple – and yes, that was brilliant too. In fact, Crown Maple now even make Bourbon Barrel Aged Syrup – sigh. Early on, it was all I could do to employ the Syrup in anything other than drink.
Because what happens is this: you want to savour it, to keep it spare, use it lean – put it in coffee, swirl a layer on some cream, dip ice in it, and to hell with it – neck it right out the bottle. And here it’s no different from all ingredients on this level. Obviously rich folks need not apply, but for the rest of us, well, I don’t go putting coke in Lagavulin, or using Krug in fudge. This syrup is hard to waste. Use it, use it, your common sense is telling you – but the truth is you’re huddling the bottle dear to your chest in the dark, like Gollum. My preciousss.
But, needs must. Wash the sticky paws, and get cooking.
If you make some of these recipes – like Lydia’s Favorite Salmon, for example – with Crown Maple, and then again with “Another Brand” the difference is clearly noticeable. It really is. Like the difference between real vanilla and vanilla out of a cheap pot. There’s something about the delicacy of the salmon that works exceptionally well with the pure maple. Of course, there’s whiskey in this one too – which helped the preparation – and it’s just a lovely glaze for the fish. It’s one of the stand out recipes in the book for me.
But to my less expert taste systems, I felt on balance I’d prefer to save my Crown Maple from things like the Pulled Pork, which I liked a lot, despite the poor quality meat I used (Why, oh why, do I keep buying pork shoulder in supermarkets?) but truthfully maybe not enough to justify losing so much of my Maple stash. Similar to the salmon is the super Teriyaki Chicken, where the mix of the syrup and the sherry – and the sesame oil – is pretty delicious. On balance, I liked these recipes best, where the syrup was less ’embedded’.
Dishes like these, and the drinks, the coffees and that Old fashioned, for instance – all of these delights where the Syrup stays visual, bright and alive and uppermost are extraordinary. I found I liked to retain contact with the full senses of this product – I can’t help it – even, for example, a few circles on an excellent porridge, like Stoats. It’s the same with the salads in the book – the exceptional quality of the Crown Maple sings out in things like the Fennel Slaw, whereas it’s a tough call to sit your top of the range Lord of the Rings syrup in something like baked beans. That’s not to say you wouldn’t if you could afford to, or the world will end if you use a less expensive brand. I can get pretty good syrup in my local supermarket for around £6 – and many of the recipes in this book will still work.
It’s just like using any high end ingredient – the Old Fashioned being a perfect example of the dilemma. Why use Crown Maple and then any old supermarket Bourbon? So you buy better Bourbon. Yes, the price will go up with the good stuff and the combos of good stuff, but so will the quality. It’s like the Arbikie fuelled testing we did a while back for Butter & Scotch – Allison Kave & Keavy Landreth’s cocktails would be great with most vodkas, but they are sublime with something like Arbikie’s potato chieftain. It’s not to say that we don’t think twice when we buy the best olive oil we can for a salad – I do, because often I just can’t afford it – but Maple Syrup somehow seems an even more decadent thing.
But what’s important to stress is that this is a really fun cookbook, and it’s filled with really enticing recipes. With perhaps the exception of the Pulled Pork, I really enjoyed everything I tried. The issue of the cost of high end Syrup is totally separate from the obvious success of the book as an introduction to Maple Syrup and how to cook with it, and its collection of excellent recipes. In the end, I used a cheaper competitor in my Pecan Pie. I also cheated, and enlisted some outside help on the pastry. But, and here’s the thing: it was still lovely, and disappeared at haste. It’s just a good recipe. Who knows, next time I might risk the Syrup of Syrups. And this is also important to say – the review testing scenario is unusual. No one is suggesting that you’d make so many of the dishes and use so much syrup in such a concentrated time. Mind you – Christmas is on the way. If you know someone who likes cooking, loves Maple Syrup, then a really super gift would be this book, and a bottle or two of Crown Maple. Just make sure you’re around for the testing …
The Crown Maple Guide is a really interesting book, and for someone like me – a relative noob to the full, real world of Maple Syrup – it’s packed with incredible detail, and taps out an extraordinary history that rivals salt, lemons et al for intrigue and expanse. There’s another, fuller book in this for Robb Turner, I think. The recipe section is filled with very “make-able” recipes for all skillsets in the kitchen, and the collective impact of the book drips sincerity and passion for the Maple Syrup way of life.
And what a drink to end the day: that fantastic Old Fashioned. A bottle of Crown Maple will keep you safe in those beauties a while.
NSS: Something that seems to sit right at the heart of your book for me, and indeed the Crown Maple story, is your childhood upbringing on the farm in Illinois, “roaming the streams and patches of forest.” Could you say a bit about this inspiration and how it influences your work now?
RT: My happiest memories as a young boy (I have many) were summer days on one of our family farms that had a pure water stream with thick forests cutting a path through pastureland and corn fields. I would get lost for hours exploring the plants, fish and wildlife in the area. I had a fascination with all things nature. Today, I am just a big kid with the same fascination with nature. I still can get lost for hours hiking in our vast maple groves seeing all the wonders of God’s natural creations.
NSS: I was greatly struck by the ‘eureka moment’ when your neighbour plants for you the idea of becoming a maple syrup producer. A detailed six-month feasibility follows, but can you describe a little the feelings and excitement during the early times?
RT: I had 800 acres of land that I loved. But I just had an intuition there was something I should be doing with the property other than just letting it sit. Many ideas came up and nothing seemed to fit. After about 18 months, my neighbor asked me about mapling. It was perfect.
NSS: In the first sections on the book – where you detail the history and technical details of tapping syrup – it becomes clear that protecting an ecosystem and supporting a community are two driving forces for Crown Maple?
RT: 100%. Crown Maple is a fabulous way of protecting the ecosystem while producing a sustainable product and economic benefits (jobs).
NSS: I was greatly struck by your description of the antiquarian trees on your estate – 40inch diameter legends that have seen centuries come and pass. There’s really something inspiring about this; humans have given trees a generally hard life, so there must be an almost spiritual quality to owning and caring for these incredible trees?
RT: If you read the history of the native Americans who occupied the Hudson Valley prior to Europeans arriving, they actually had a “spiritual” connection to the land, forests and wildlife. They had a great respect especially for maple trees. Over the years, I feel Americans felt like they OWNED the land and it was their possession. I don’t feel that way at all. Rather I am more like the native Americans. I am simply a visitor to my forests. The trees and wildlife call it their home and they are the long-term inhabitant. There is an extremely old evergreen on the property. Tree experts tell me that tree may be over 350 years old. Imagine it was a sapling in the year 1665. That spot has been its home ever since. I call that old tree Solomon (wise man out of the Bible) and tell my daughters “if only that tree could talk, imagine the stories it could tell.”
NSS: I really like the historical section of your book, and the depth of this story, quite unknown to me – the Sugar Moon of April and May, the celebration of the syrup, the arrival of the Europeans, the role of the maple industry in abolition, wars – the development of American identity almost. It’s an incredible story, filled with ups and downs – to what extent does this strong sense of the history of this ‘blessed food’ inform the Crown Maple philosophy?
RT: Crown Maple is simply carrying on the maple syrup tradition that started 100s of years ago in North America. Consumers have generally “forgotten” this wonderful, purely natural, exceptionally delicious product. Yes, one of our missions is to awaken society to the old traditions of maple and introduce them to the many ways to enjoy maple.
NSS: It’s quite extraordinary to discover that there is only a month to six weeks in a year to tap the maple – what you call an industry of “profound luck and blessing”. Can you tell me a bit about what must be a very exciting but really very tense time for producers?
RT: Nothing impacts the maple sap season more than weather. We want a long spring with freezing nights and thawing days. However, since there is nothing we can do to influence the weather we must be prepared for whatever Mother Nature provides. Our maple sourcing team must tap the trees quickly and efficiently and ensure our systems are ready for collecting and processing the sap. Every missed day of sap season is lost production which will never be recovered. Sap season is an exciting time.
NSS: Crown Maple Syrup is pure maple. For those who haven’t read your book, and those of us here in parts of the UK where access to different grades of syrup is limited, can you say a bit about just how important the purity factor is?
RT: Maple syrup is a wonderful natural sweetener providing nutritional benefits not found in most other sweeteners. Creating quite possibly the purest maple syrup on earth® is important to preserve all of the flavors and qualities of nature. Our state-of-the-art technology and artisan craftsmanship preserves the best nature has to offer. From the tree, maple sap starts as 98% water and only 2% sugar and is then boiled (a.k.a. evaporated) to a sweet golden liquid with a wonderfully unique taste – with no other additives or ingredient. Maple syrup is pure from nature. Every barrel of Crown Maple syrup is filtered 5 times and taste-tested 4 times before ultimately being bottled as 100% pure maple syrup.
NSS: From climate change, to production and distribution – what are the challenges and opportunities waiting ahead for the maple industry?
RT: Maple trees live an average of 300 years in a wide range of climates from Virginia to Missouri to Quebec, Canada. As long as spring brings freezing nights and warm days, sap will flow and pure maple syrup will be produced for everyone’s enjoyment. Opportunities for the maple industry continue to grow as cooks and chefs recognize the many culinary applications of maple syrup as a remarkable and robust natural sweetener. As we frequently say “it’s not just for pancakes.”
NSS: If push comes to shove – do you have a favourite recipe from the book – and, for the beginner more used to simple pancakes and syrup, what are the important things to remember about cooking with maple syrup, and what are the joys?
RT: Jeez, I have too many favorites to pick one, sorry. Generally anything that calls for a sweetener can be made more special with maple. Deserts, drinks, coffee, teas, …. But also, maple can make foods and drinks special that don’t generally call for a sweetener. Children love vegetables with a slight maple coating. Keeps it healthy while making them delicious.
NSS: And finally, I have to ask – which drinks do you recommend as a partner with Crown Maple, and do you have any suggestions for using Scotch Whisky?
RT: Oh good, it must be happy hour now. Crown Maple is a premium syrup for superior mixology. Replace simple syrup with Crown Maple syrup to elevate the flavors and enjoyment in any cocktail mixology. We feature the Crown Maple Old Fashioned recipe in the book and that remains a favorite drink of mine. Premium Scotch Whiskey would be delightful creating exciting layers of flavors and enjoyment.
NSS: Thank you, Robb – and cheers!