Sticky situation
Shagbark hickory provides zing of a taste experience

February 25, 2004

When Gordon Jones and Sherrie Yarling decided to leave their home in southern Florida in search of falling leaves and four authentic seasons, they did a kind of reverse Beverly Hillbillies, hitching their Cadillac to a trailer and moving to Yarling family property in the far reaches of Brown County. Once there they spent several years in the shiitake mushroom-growing business, happily selling dinner-plate-sized mushrooms to upscale local restaurants.

Fate intervened, however, as fate is wont to do, in this case disguised as an elderly stranger who appeared on their property one day looking for firewood. Recalling how his great-great-grandmother had made syrup from the bark of Brown County shagbark hickory trees, he inspired Gordon and Sherrie to give it a try. Through trial and error, they perfected a recipe for the syrup, and gradually gave up mushrooms altogether to focus on the new venture.

These days the production and marketing of shagbark hickory syrup (as well as poplar syrup and a luscious barbeque sauce) keep them busy on a full time basis. When they aren't making syrup itself they are on the road, selling their wares. I first met them at the end of January at the Traders Point Creamery market in Zionsville, where they plied me with syrupy samples and crunchy hickory candied corn puffs (absolutely dangerous!), showed me a New York Times article that had just been written about them, and said sure, I could come out sometime and see how it was all done.

We picked a gray, sleet-filled afternoon to visit, getting ourselves lost on slick roads, amid glittering trees and fields glassy with ice. We were thankful to be welcomed into their cozy home, redolent of wood fire and pungent cigarette smoke. Their standard poodle was as ecstatic as we were that we had finally made it, and Gordon and Sherrie greeted us with almost as much enthusiasm, laughingly showing off the electric neon pink flamingo in their entry way, offering us a choice of hot coffee or cold vodka, and ushering us to comfortable chairs by the fire.

Gordon is the kind of guy whose personality fills whatever room he's in. Equal parts bon vivant, entrepreneur, and inventor, he looks like he enjoys every minute of his life. With a shake of his leonine head and his craggy face creased with enjoyment, he settles back to tell us his story. Sherrie, bird-thin, sitting on a couch surrounded by scattered files and notes, is poised to supply facts and details as needed.

As soon as we sit, they are off and running, trading reminiscences, finishing each other's sentences, and happily following each other down conversational trails that may or may not find their way back to the destination they were aiming for. They glance off many subjects—the well-known chefs who use their syrup; how they got the New York store, Dean and Deluca, to carry their products; when the Food Network might air the already-taped segment on their syrup; and what happens when Gourmet magazine or Midwest Living unexpectedly runs a story about you and you find yourself with 3,500 orders to fill and there are only the two of you on hand to do it.

They tell their life story as a glorious, quirky adventure full of surprises and successes and interesting people and they want their listeners to enjoy it as much as they do. I do enjoy it – I am laughing almost the whole time I am with them. These folks are truly a hoot.

Amid stories and laughter we get a tour of the production facility. Shagbark syrup is not made from tree sap but is rather extracted from the bark itself. The place where it all happens is spotless and cleverly improvised. Gordon has rigged the machinery himself, making use of hair driers and other household appliances where necessary. There is more than a touch of Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory in the whole business, but it all comes together like clockwork in the end.

In a corner, over a gas fireplace, a box fan is suspended from the ceiling by a cable, turning slowly to circulate warm air through the room. We see the huge containers where the bark is washed thoroughly by hand, the 125-gallon commercial coffee maker where the extraction process takes place, and the vats where the hickory extract is aged, and sugared, and then gravity-fed back to a tank where it is cooked down to syrup. It is pumped into the bottling area where the bottles are filled and capped, and finally it is ready to eat.

Ah yes, the eating. When I first tasted this syrup, I had my doubts. Although Ronni Lundy, writing in Gourmet, was thrilled to find the syrup that had become legend in her childhood, she described it as having a bit of a "whang." I don't know what that is, but shagbark hickory syrup certainly has it. No mellow golden maple syrup here. Sipped from a spoon, it has an edge. You take a bite and it bites you back.

But that is the syrup in a spoon, straight up. Add it to the right food, and it is transformed into an unimaginable gustatory pleasure. Lundy suggests corncakes and with her recipe at hand, one night we gave it a try. Not fluffy, air-filled pancakes, these were thin and dense and corny. With sweet butter and hickory syrup they were homey and delicious.

Scrolling through the recipes that are lavishly supplied on Hickoryworks' web site I found more exotic fields to explore. Shagbark hickory glazed salmon, crispy hickory spareribs, hickory and ginger ice cream — the list is long and mouthwatering. We tried a simple one — sweet potato French fries with shagbark hickory syrup — just to round out our high-carb pancake dinner with some more carbs.

Good heavens, they were great. Hand cut potatoes, twice fried, sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper and with that "whangy" syrup drizzled on top. Crispy, sweet, spicy — they were absolutely drop-dead sensational. When I finished writing the first draft of this column, I read it to my husband. He liked it, all except that last sentence. "Yeah, they were so much better than that, though," he said wistfully. And he's right, they were.

Hickoryworks is not open to the public, but you can order Hickoryworks Shagbark Hickory Syrup directly from their Web site, www.hickoryworks.com, where a 16-ounce jug costs $16 including shipping, from Dean and Deluca (though that's pricier), or buy it at one of the central Indiana markets they attend. In the winter they are at Traders Point on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. See www.tpforganics.com for the schedule and directions. It can occasionally be found as an ingredient in the evening specials menu at Restaurant Tallent and the Limestone Grille.

Christine is eager to hear from you about food. She's also still collecting stories about favorite eating spots that are no longer on the scene. E-mail her at cbarbour@heraldt.com.
 

Deep Fried Sweet Potatoes with Shagbark Hickory Syrup
February 25, 2004

Peel sweet potatoes and cut as for thin french fries. Heat several inches of oil in a deep skillet. If you are using a deep fryer, follow appliance instructions.

Blanch potatoes in hot (300 degree) oil for about 5-6 minutes, until limp but not changed in color. Drain on paper towel and let cool. Increase oil temperature to 350 degrees. Fry potatoes a second time for 2-3 minutes, until crispy. Drain again, sprinkling with salt and pepper immediately. Transfer to a plate and drizzle with syrup to taste.

Ronni Lundy's Corn Cakes with Hickoryworks Shagbark Hickory Syrup
February 25, 2004

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal (preferably white and stone-ground; not coarse)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt.
1 large egg
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil plus additional for brushing
Accompaniments: butter and shagbark hickory syrup

Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Whisk in egg, milk, and 1/2 tablespoon oil until combined.

Brush a griddle or a 12-inch (nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron) skillet with oil and heat over moderate heat until hot.

Using a scant 1/8 cup batter for each cake, cook corn cakes in batches of four until bubbles appear on surface and undersides are golden, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Turn over with a spatula and cook until undersides are golden, about 45 seconds more. Corn cakes will be thin.

Transfer to a plate and keep warm, covered.

Stir batter and brush griddle or skillet with oil between batches.

Makes about 16 3-inch pancakes.

From Gourmet magazine, November 2001.