We’ve been making forays into Vermont’s pastoral countryside and have been thrilled to find wild “organic” apple trees growing along many a roadside.
In less than four miles from our home we have collected a sampling of very edible fruit in colors ranging from red to green to yellow or a mix of all three. The most beautiful apple we have found so far is a tiny and fawn-colored with a lipstick-pink blush.
In the past before we sampled apples from the wild, we would wipe off fly speck, tiny black dots – and no, the dots do not arise from flies but are the result of fungal disease especially prevalent in Vermont’s apple orchards as our summers and falls become more humid and wet.
Most orchards spray fungicide multiple times to prevent things like fly speck and sooty blotch – but we don’t have to worry about eating chemicals with our wild finds in hand and we don’t even bother to wipe off the spots and dots, instead biting into the apples to determine if they are tart, sweet, spicy, or too sour to eat.
One of the tastiest apples we have discovered so far is in a meadow adjoining ours. The apples are gnarly from the pecks and bites of piercing, sucking insects but all they need is a trim around the insect-damaged flesh and they are a delight to eat. We wonder if they are possibly an heirloom apple variety as they have many attributes for home use – the flesh is sweet, tart – firm but juicy. They are yellow overlaid with crimson stripes and were ripe some weeks ago.
The “meadow” apples have held up well in cooking and have found their way into a rabbit stew made rich by the addition of butter, good olive oil, a cider reduction we made and put up last year, lots of vermouth, good white wine, carrots and tomatoes picked from our garden and roasted before being added to the stew. There was an ample amount of the excellent fragrant sauce left over from the rabbit and it was reincarnated as a base for a veal stew.
The organically-grown veal came from Winsome Farm in Haverhill, NH just across the Connecticut River from our Newbury, VT home. The tender bits of newly-harvested meat were caramelized in a super hot oven and were added to the sauce as were more “meadow” apples, our own heirloom tomatoes and slowly sauteed onions, little red potatoes from one of our favorite local farms, Peaked Moon in Piermont, NH, and as more liquid was needed to keep everything moist the last half of a bottle of red wine.
As the stew was put to a simmer and the aroma filled our home, I wondered what else I could cook with wild apples and rummaged about in the freezer pulling to the front items of goodness needing to be cooked before the freezer put the burn to them. A goodly-sized package marked “stew” put a smile on my face as I silently thanked our friend Tom Kuralt who generously shared venison he had taken during a hunt last year. After thawing the rich, wild meat it was browned, like the veal, in a hot, hot oven then added to a base of homegrown tomatoes, onions, lovage, peppers, and garlic with the addition of carrots from Newbury’s own 4 Corners Farm and cut up chunks of wild apple. Cumin and dried chiles from Oaxaca — Pasilla and Chilcosle — added heat and hints of clove, anise, cinnamon and smoke. Homemade corn tortillas completed the meal!
All of this yumminess has us giving thanks to the early settlers of Vermont and New Hampshire – the apple trees they planted years ago produced a mixed blessing of progeny to inherit the wild.
A sweet heavenly fog permeates the sugarhouse. Scent memories conjure up cotton candy and caramel apples – but I am smelling something more earthy, spicy, an aromatic sweetness that makes me hungry – not for pancakes (as it must for others) but for roasted pork tenderloin and winter squash and butter and drizzles of caramelized maple syrup.
There is a roar and a blast of heat as Steve Glabach, a second generation sugar maker, opens the fire doors on the evaporator, a huge compartmentalized maple sugaring pan where just collected sap boils and bubbles. I’ve entered a scene from Macbeth – “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
And toil doth the sugarmaker while the fire burns and the sap bubbles! Maple sugaring season is short and harried. Sap begins an annual dance in maple sugar trees, Acer saccharum (think sucrose), in late winter when days begin to warm while nights still turn to freezing. You can be assured that folks from hereabouts in northern New England will claim “it’s sugaring time!
Stately maple trees lining back roads and town greens will suddenly sport buckets.
Groves of maple trees, called a sugarbush in maple sugaring terms, will be traditionally tapped with spiles (spouts) and buckets or with a modern system of tubing (pipeline) running from tree to tree and a vacuum pulling sap to a central collection point.
Steve Glabach and his wife, Maria, of Dummerston, Vermont use both systems and their children, Ted and Theresa, work alongside them during the short season as do other family members, friends, and volunteers.
I spent part of a day following the frenzy and was exhausted watching a young volunteer crew rushing through the sugarbush gathering sap from buckets and sloshing off to fill a storage tank pulled by a tractor.
The tractor took off down the road and pulled behind the sugarhouse where a gravity fed line brought in all the watery goodness.
The Glabachs, like many other sugar makers, use a reverse osmosis machine to assist in making maple syrup – it concentrates the sap for processing in a evaporator set over a heat source – an arch, or combustion chamber. The Glabachs use wood to fire their arch and it is the combination of wood smoke and steam escaping from the sap that smells so delicious.
Days are long and nights are longer during this short sweet season. The fire must be stoked to continue the boil drawing water from the sap and as the sap turns to syrup a constant vigilance must be kept to keep the syrup from burning and to draw off the syrup as it finishes.
Vermont’s forests are filled with maple trees, approximately 1:4. The higher sugar content in the sap, the less sap needed to make syrup – the rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Maple syrup is good for you: calcium, manganese, potassium, and magnesium and full of antioxidants too!