Sweet Sorghum Syrup is another name for molasses, but it’s a far cry from the acrid stuff you may know as Black Strap. Grown from organic seed, harvested by hand and fed through a century old steel press, this is sugar that comes on like a funky blues tune, the smoky bad ass cousin to honey. The world's fifth most important cereal crop, sorghum is second only to corn for feeding dairy cattle and a big player in the ever expanding demand for ethanol, but as a sweetener it doesn’t rate a place in your local supermarket where burgeoning shelves for sugars and sugar alternatives run the gamut from Agave to Xylito. Shelton's, our favorite little market here in Healdsburg, sells four grades of brown sugar alongside coconut nectar, rice syrup and barley malt. But when I looked the other day, no Sorghum to be found.
Which is interesting. Before things that sweeten our lives started being sourced from every corner of the world or synthesized in laboratories, hand-pressed molasses from corn and sorghum cane comprised most of the sugar in America. Labor intensive, its decline in popularity was assured with more delicious and cost effective alternatives you could pluck off the shelves. But beware the words “simply" and “pluck” next to each other in the same sentence. Which brings me to Sophia.
The first time I laid eyes on Sophia Bates she was seven, dressed head to foot as an Indian princess in a hand stitched soft leather skirt, beaded vest, and knee high moccasins. A single elegantly placed feather was braided into a lock of very blond hair. Mike Langley, our builder, had dropped her at the front gate before he tore off up to the house, an hour late as usual. She and her brother Joe stood looking around for a minute before Joe ran off with Jesse, my youngest, but Lukka and I stood rooted to the road, taking in her full visage. I finally managed, “What a lovely outfit, where ever did your mother buy it,” to which she gave me the steely look I’ve since seen many times - Sophia even at seven did not suffer fools - before replying, “I made it. You shouldn’t buy things you can make.”
Since that day I would have followed her anywhere just to see where she was going, such has been my admiration and curiosity watching her journey, so when she wrote to say everyone at the Philo Apple Farm had fled to Mexico for the holidays, while she still had a crop of sorghum cane in the fields with a small window to harvest and press before the first frost - did Team Barndiva want to have a go - Daniel and I immediately wrote back “yes!” It was an opportunity to hang out with Soph, and to see what it would be like to make our own sugar.
Before you get to the point of reducing sorghum cane to syrup though, you need to get the juice out of it, which is where our learning curve started. By mid afternoon we had only harvested and filled one pick-up truck full of cane. Time had been expended cutting down only those canes with popped ventricles, avoiding those still tight with seed, which Sophia hoped to sell to The Sustainable Seed Company. More time still had been spent slipping, quipping and sliding around the waterlogged field in one of the apple farm's lower orchards, where the cane had been sown. Which was fine. The towering old forest of Hendy Woods runs just the other side of the Navarro River along the Apple Farm's south property line, framing the orchards, which were blanketed with grass from the recent rainstorms. The air was crisp but the sun warm on our backs.
The next step was to inch the truck up the hill and park it near the press, unload, sort and top the ventricles before stripping the leaves, taking care because caught the wrong way they are sharp as knives. Then the real fun began: feeding the washed cane into the press, where three calibrated wheels with serrated teeth crush the cane as it's pushed through, extracting the juice which free flows into a bucket with a cheesecloth over it to catch any random cane fibers (and keep the bugs out). Feeding the cane in three at a time at just the right angle so the wheels don't clog or sweet juice hits you smack in the eyes proved a bit tricky, but even when you get the hang of it you can only feed cane as fast as the wheels turn. Which is where the role of beast of burden comes in. The effort here doesn't involve skill - just strength, and it is monotonous or, as we found, peaceful, depending on the temperament of your ox. Isabel quickly grew frustrated, Evan, a friend from Germany we'd roped into "a day at the farm," held out a bit longer, but it was Daniel who carried the day, pacing the circle with a soporific grin, like he'd just discovered a new religion.
The Chattanooga Sorghum Press we used had been making its rounds in the Anderson Valley - anyone willing to pass it on in good condition (which basically means washing the wheels thoroughly to break down the corrosive effects of the sugar) could get in line to borrow it. I’ve since learned from blogs like “My Home Among the Hills,” that there appears to be a small sorghum revival going on in a number of sustainable communities across the country.
The press was antique, a beautiful piece of machinery with an incredibly cool font spelling out the words Chattanooga Plow Compy (the word company compressed to fit). Originally from Tennessee, Chattanooga made their name forging horse driven single foot plows in the late 1800’s, expanding into cane presses in the 1920’s, about the time rum from the Caribbean was becoming a popular libation in America.
Even if we'd been more adept, the ratio of juice to cane with sorghum is not considerable for the work involved; we ended up with five gallons of juice, which Sophia thought would probably only cook down to one. While a gallon of syrup goes a long way if you are only planning on using it sparingly in cocktails, as we were, this might seem a ridiculous amount of work for a gallon of anything.
Should you find yourself on some sparkling fall day working alongside people you love at something new, providing you don’t run out of mule jokes, you’re way ahead of the game.
We drank fresh green sorghum juice straight from the press, marveling at its light grassy notes and lack of cloying sweetness. I’ve tried fresh cane juice in Jamaica and Cuba; a few sips and your palate dulls from the heavy sweetness. While my plan for the syrup had been focused on creating a variety of bourbon cocktails for the studio, the idea of experimenting with fresh juice and gin was a no brainer. Exhausted and sticky, we headed up the hill to make dinner, jug in hand.
Many a great Barndiva cocktail has started life with St. George artisanal gin as the base spirit; I keep all three on hand at the farm. At first I went in the wrong direction, trying to use their fragrant Botanivore; its delicacy was overwhelmed by the sorghum, which had already begun to deepen in color and flavor. The stronger aromatics of Terrior along with a wedge of lime and a sprig of crushed mint from the garden was a perfect match, fragrant and bright, with a sweet roundness in the mouth, just like the day we'd just had.
Tommy, Sophia’s beau, finished his work at Acorn Ranch and made it up to the ridge just in time for a last round around the fire; Lukka arrived with delicious patés; I heated up a pork stew. The fog rolled in, we switched to wine and our favorite subject - why it's so damn hard to survive at sustainable farming - but we called the night pretty early. Team Barndiva had aching muscles; Tommy and Sophia had to check on their animals.
All day long, trudging through muck and dodging sugary sprays with my camera, my thoughts kept returning to the generations of farming families who had used that old press to provide a little sweetness in what must have been pretty hard lives. Then Evan sent me an image he'd taken of Geoff, sitting in the little cut we’d left in the grass which suddenly felt as enigmatic as a crop circle. It brought me back to the present.
Turning dirt into soil, every farmer's mantra, is a long slow process with many setbacks and seemingly more hardships than rewards, especially of the financial kind. But if there was even a ghost of a chance our labor that day around the old sorghum press had channeled a better understanding of farming in a like-minded community, in any way which could be played forward, the experience we'd just had couldn't be measured in gallons and pints. At the very least it was a great way to end one year and head into another, learning new ways to connect farm to table.