Sugar cane is a tropical perennial grass that has three main varieties – chewing, crystal and syrup. In Central Florida, the sugar cane crop is planted in January and harvested in November. Cane syrup has been a part of the Nature Coast region for generations, with pioneer families in the 1800s and early 1900s traditionally using it as their main, and often their only sweetener.
Steve and Sandra Melton invited me to their farm in Dade City to participate in a cane cooking on October 31. There were 20-30 people there throughout the day and it was such a joy to be a part of that I want to share it with you.
Steve Melton calls himself, “the Cowboy Poet,” and he is a true Southern gentleman, raising crops and livestock on 1,500 acres with his three brothers and their parents who are well into their 80s and early 90s. Steve’s passion to share agricultural heritage with others shows in everything he does. His “Melton Machinery Museum,” where he restores and collects the machinery that made farming so much easier in the early 1900s, is on his property, but it is not open for public tours.
His wife Sandy truly has the gift of hospitality, providing refreshments and geniality for us all.
Arriving at 8:30 am, we were introduced to the Petter family; Debbie, Tim, and their son Nicholas; who had donated their grandfather’s Columbus No. 90 Sugar Mill a few months earlier. This machine sat on the Petter property since the early 1900s. Tim’s grandfather had used the mill and it was attached to a serious slab of concrete that was buried in the ground.
Debbie and Tim hadn’t thought too much about the rusting mill; in fact it was covered with vegetation, looking like quite a project to get to the scrapyard. Fortunately, one of the local Cane Grinders, Charlie Kinsey, noticed it and brought its purpose and value to the Petters’ attention through a series of people who knew people who knew people…
The mill’s gears were so rusted that the Petters couldn’t move them, but Steve Melton wanted to have a “go” at restoring the antique device, so they let him come to their property with heavy farm machinery and some strong hands. They loaded it onto a tractor and drove to the Melton’s farm. Ninety days later – voila – we are having a christening! (You can see the video of this here.)
A huge belt ran from the Columbus No. 90 Sugar Mill to an antique McCormick Farmall tractor. Steve hopped up on the tractor and it jumped to life. The mill began turning as four or five people were removing old leaves from the sugar cane stalks piled on a wagon behind it. The old leaves have impurities in them that will come off in the syrup. They also soak up the juice as it’s being squeezed, which limits the harvest. They began handing them to Charlie Kinsey and he fed one into the machine.
Multiple stalks were put through at a time and the mill processed them flawlessly. I was encouraged to join in, peeling old leaves and loading stalks. On the other side of the cane mill was another of the Cane Cookers, diligently ensuring that all the stalks came out of the mill’s rollers before new ones were inserted. The spent stalks were piled on the other end of the machine where they fell. Later, these will be fed to the Meltons’ cattle.
This is a community event and I am welcome to join in.
The Columbus No. 90 took that stalk and ran it right through very close rollers. The juice was extracted through pressure and ran into a tank where it was pumped over to a 60 gallon cast iron kettle.
“This is where we cook the juice until it becomes tasty syrup,” Steve shared with us excitedly.
Next to the Columbus No. 90 is the previous cane mill that these folks used to process their cane stalks. It is about 2/3 the size, and the new machine is quite a bit quicker at getting the juice out Charlie tells us. Twenty feet from the engine-powered mills is the real old fashioned mill which uses a horse or donkey to turn the rollers, grinding the cane.
Historically, farmers grow sugar cane on their farm, planting it in January and bringing it to the mill for processing into syrup to sweeten their family’s food throughout the year. Steve Melton explains, “The best time to cut sugarcane for cooking is between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Usually, the longer the cane stays planted, the sweeter it is. Cool weather makes it sweeter also.”
As the cast iron kettle filled with sugar cane juice, a wood fire of Oak and Pine Lighterwood is built in the box. By now there were twenty-five to thirty people at the Melton’s farm for this event. The feeling is reminiscent of a family reunion or church potluck where friends and family are catching up while giving a hand in the process whenever opportunity arises. The fire gets very hot with a lot of BTUs to regulate the temperature of the syrup as it is boiling.
As the cane juice reached 190 degrees, the impurities rise to the top and we took turns skimming them from the crust which has formed on the top of the juice. We are guided in technique, learning to “chase” the crust across the kettle to ensure removing as many impurities as possible with each dip. Two people are continuously skimming for an hour. In the center of the kettle, a box with a fine screen bottom is placed to catch impurities that are atop bubbles cresting the sides.
Next as the sugarcane juice begins to boil white foam, we put linen cloth around the kettle where it scams the impurities at the edge of the cattle and purifies the juice. We replace and clean the linens and screens several times before it is time to move on.
“Some colorful terms are used while cooking,” Steve explains, “One being a black speck of old sugar that comes up with the foam and floats on the foam and is filtered. This we call a tadpole. Next, when the syrup gets close, the bubbles turn to big bubbles called “fish eyes.” The next term we use is happens when the syrup gets thick. As it bubbles up like pudding, we call these thick bubbles “the hominy hop.””
During the third hour of cooking, the foam turns a golden color as the syrup sets. This is when it is time to look at pulling the syrup. We start testing the temperature, wanting to bring the syrup off at 227° or 35° balm hydrometer. (This is the new method.) One of our “seasoned” Cane Cookers uses the old method by which he watches the syrup coming off the dipper, looking for a string of syrup. Our hosts determine that the syrup is ready.
Now we quickly dip it out into a big container to so we can bottle it. We dip the syrup quickly to keep the temperature hot enough to ensure sanitary conditions – as most people know, 212 degrees is boiling, so 227 degrees is sure to kill any bacteria that may have been in the original sugar juice! As soon as the syrup is out of the big kettle, Steve hollers, “Pull the fire!” Andy and Drew pull the fire out of its hotbox and onto the sand for it to burn itself out.
We do this to cool the kettle down as quickly as possible. Next water is brought in to help cool and clean the kettle out for next time.
A group of folks are stationed around a table and the bottling commences. First the syrup is poured into pint bottles, then the bottles are capped by the next person, wiped clean and laid down by the next, labelled by the next and wiped off again and put topside down in boxes to cool for distribution.
Before we go, Wilbur Dew explains what Sugar Cane Syrup Cooking is all about (and it’s well worth the watch):
Much of this prized cracker treat goes back with the people that helped. It will make a fine meal with buckwheat pancakes and real butter.
Sandy’s Buckwheat Pancakes:
1 C Buttermilk 1tsp sugar
1 egg ½ tsp salt
3 Tbsp melted butter 1 tsp baking soda
12 Tbsp buckwheat flour 3 Tbsp butter
Whisk together buttemilk, egg and melted butter. Mix together flour, sugar, salt and baking soda. Pour dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Stir until the two are blended together. Heat gridle to medium heat. Heat 1 Tbsp of butter until melted. Spoon batter onto butter, turn when bubbles begin to appear. Cook until brown.
Serve hot with butter and Cane Syrup to taste.
You can see this historic process at the Florida Pioneer Museum in Dade City several times in the season. including November 21, 2015 in the morning, and the January 9, 2016, at the Raising Cane and Pancake Fest. Contact the museum at 352-567-0262 for more details or visit their website here.