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3-course interview: Charles Poirier, sugarcane farmer and syrup distiller 

On making (and drinking) cane syrup

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A mechanic by trade, Charles Poirier began making cane syrup for friends and family 14 years ago using his great-great-grandfather's method at his farm in Youngsville, Louisiana. Now, he sells his Poirier's Pure Cane Syrup (www.realcanesyrup.com) to chefs and specialty grocers all over the state. (In New Orleans, it is available at Simone's Market and Coutelier NOLA.) Poirier spoke with Gambit about syrup.

What's your method for producing cane syrup?

Poirier: It's pretty simple and straightforward. You harvest the cane and bring it to a crusher or a sugarcane mill that crushes the cane and extracts the juice. The mill was hard to find, and there is a lot of labor involved when actually harvesting the cane. From there, it goes into the kettles and I'll light them up with propane. You start skimming all of the impurities off the top as the juice heats up. First, there will be the wax that's on the surface of the cane, and then you'll get some of this black stuff, which are the spores on the cane. Last, you skim off the chlorophyll and then it clears up and the juice is almost like an emerald green color.

  Depending on the weather and the sucrose content, about five to five-and-a-half hours later it will be reduced to syrup.

  The only thing different between how I'm making it now and how my (great-great-grandfather) would make it was that he used a horse-drawn mill, where a horse would pull on a beam and the syrup-maker would have to go underneath the beam and feed the cane through the middle while it turned over his head. That and he would fire his kettles with wood. I use propane. Back in the day, I know they used to use sulfur fumes to clarify the juice.

How do different cane varieties affect the syrup's flavor profile?

P: I've experimented over the years with different types of cane, because different types produce different-flavored syrup. I tried a couple dozen of them, and I eventually narrowed it down to two or three that I thought tasted the best. I use some ribbon cane and I use POJ (Proefstation Oost Java) sugarcane from Java and some newer varieties, as well as green cane. The (POJ) was imported in the 1920s or 1930s when there was an outbreak of cane borers and that really messed things up for a while for south Louisiana.

  You have some syrups that are really strong — that's when the sucrose content is really low in (cane) juice. So you have to boil it that much longer, which makes it caramelize that much more. The ones that have higher sucrose content you don't boil as long to get the consistency of syrup that you want, so those don't caramelize as much. If you've ever chewed on a piece of fresh sugarcane, you'd have a good idea of how it tastes. Take the taste of the fresh cane juice and times it by a 100, with a touch of caramel.

What's your favorite way of using the syrup?

P: With a shot of bourbon. You take a spoonful of the syrup, put it in your mouth and you just shoot it with a bourbon. But you can use it with just about everything. I like to use it as a marinade sometimes, when you're grilling or barbecuing.

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