Ribbon cane, first molasses, Blackstrap, all come with fall

By JEFF NORTH,

What comes to mind when you notice leaves filtering to the ground covering our streets and sidewalks with a hue of orange, yellow, and purple? If you add pristine blue skies overhead with perhaps a faint calling of migrating geese does the picture become apparent? Ok, I’ll help you out a bit more. When you add jackets, football, and pumpkin and cornstalk décor, what resonates through your mind? Well, for me I think of fall! The sights that are so welcome after a grueling, hot summer indicate a welcome change with good times ahead. Watching the leaves swirl and dance from blustery gusts is quite the treat as summer makes her exit. We notice these events through our eyesight, but another of our senses is just as profound when it comes to detecting the arrival of fall. See if you agree.

Years ago, I was soil sampling after harvest around mid-October. This particular farm was made up of many small fields winding along a serpentine creek bottom. I had parked my truck and set out on foot pulling samples as I went. Along my route I picked up an aroma drifting toward me. I was far from town, so I knew there weren’t any bakeries close by. Maybe I was working my way to some country home where apple pies were resting on the windowsill. I continued sampling and the heavy sweetness became more and more pungent. I crossed a gravel bedded stream and when I climbed the bank on the other side I found where the inviting odor was coming from.

Two elderly gentlemen had set up shop on the edge of the soybean field. Their mule was making steady, methodical circles as they fed fresh cut sorghum cane into a grinder. Thick juices were dripping from a crude pipe into a vat with a hot fire beneath. The thick cloud of steam carried with it the most wonderful aroma imaginable. Molasses were in the making.

I introduced myself to them and they invited me to have a seat on an oak stump they had placed close to the fire. Then and there I received an education on what is involved with creating what many of us drag our biscuits through each fall. I fell behind in my endeavors, but the experience was well worth the delay in work. I didn’t have much cash in my pocket, but what I had I left with them and along with my samples, I carried two jars of the dark roux with me. I’ll never forget that smell and it makes me a little sad that I don’t get to see that operation much anymore.

There is confusion among many on what molasses is made from. There are two forms of this natural sweetener that are made in basically the same way. One is from what I have just described and the other is produced from sugarcane. Some refer to the syrup produced from sugarcane as molasses while others refer to the sugarcane product as ribbon cane. For me, I like to think true molasses is made from the sorghum plant, Sorghum bicolor, and sugarcane syrup from the plant Saccharum officinarum. Regardless, they are made in much the same way.

Molasses made from the sugarcane plant can vary in color, sweetness, and texture depending on how many “boilings” it goes through. The first product from the first cooking is called, “first molasses.” This is the sweetest form of molasses. The second boiling produces a darker product and not quite as sweet. There is a product produced from a third cooking known as “Blackstrap.” This dark, thick product is almost bittersweet only the diehards and old timers prefer this syrup.

I remember my grandfather creating his mixture to bathe his biscuits in each fall morning. He would pour his molasses into the middle of his plate and then “whisk” butter into it with his fork. It resembled tar and I really didn’t have the affinity for this taste. Maybe the molasses he had back in the day was the “Blackstrap” and more bitter. Additionally, he would take red rind hoop cheese and place slivers into his coffee to soften it. As the cheese melted, he would place it on his biscuit and cover them both with his concoction of molasses and butter. I know it sounds appalling, but the cheese in the coffee trick is pretty darn good. Just overlook the mild film floating in your cup, I assure you it adds to the flavor.

There are several brands of molasses available for us to choose from. I still see the tin can with the lid you have to pry from the top with a knife or fork. This only adds to the experience of enjoying molasses. I used to love twirling the fork or spoon to prevent the dripping then move the delicacy over my plate and allow it to cover my biscuit. If I remember correctly, this was the ribbon cane product but there may be others packaged like this. One of my favorite brands is “Steen’s” pure cane syrup. It is dark and hearty, but not too bitter. It’s sometimes hard to find, so stock up if you find some. Do you have a favorite brand? If so, I wish you would share.

As many quality products as there are to choose from, it’s hard to beat the molasses I found in that little creek bottom long ago. Each time I think of that day, memories of my grandfather, farming, quail hunting, and frosty fall mornings come to mind. I encourage you to find a source of this tasty syrup. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon someone making it in the field, all the better. Don’t forget the cheese melting trick either, you might be surprised how much you’ll enjoy not only the taste but the memories you may recall as well of fall days and crisp mornings.

Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.

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