As residents and visitors can attest, life is sweet in Western North Carolina. It’s largely thanks to the people, the vibrant arts scene and the fabulous landscape. More literally, it’s thanks to our area’s important role in the production of the natural sweeteners honey and sorghum — both of which get the spotlight in Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s “Get Local” initiative this month.
While a variety of honey is available and produced nationwide, Sourwood honey is produced predominately in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its rich and buttery flavor makes it extremely sought after by honey-lovers everywhere. And then there’s sorghum molasses, or sorghum syrup, which has been almost exclusively a Southern crop, poured in Appalachia since the late 1800s. Notably, Johnny Hensley of Burnsville is currently heading up the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processers Association (nssppa.org).
But don’t get sorghum confused with blackstrap molasses, a byproduct of the sugar-refining process. Sorghum molasses is made from 100 percent sorghum cane juice and has a lighter flavor.
The Murphy brothers of Old Fort have been making sorghum all of their lives. Reed, 72, and his brother, Clifford, 83, learned from their father who learned from his father and “right on back,” Reed says.
They thought about quitting their sorghum production last year after several disappointing cane crops. That all changed when Annie Louise Perkinson of Flying Cloud Farm in Fairview contacted them for some help.
“I thought it was really interesting to be able to grow a local sweetener,” says Perkinson, who started growing sorghum cane three years ago with her husband, Isaiah, on their vegetable, fruit and flower farm. She has since learned a great deal.
“The first year, we ordered just $15 worth of seed and ended up growing a half-acre’s worth of sorghum,” she says.
Last year, the Murphy brothers visited Flying Cloud to give their now smaller crop a good look over. They were impressed with the cane’s quality and agreed to come out of “retirement” to help the Perkinsons process.
Just how is sorghum processed? The cane is de-headed (seed heads removed), stripped of its leaves and harvested (most often by hand), then milled or squeezed for juice. The labor-intensive process continues with cooking; as the juice is cooked, the surface must be constantly skimmed to remove any plant matter and debris. Eventually, the molasses becomes its syrupy self.
Reed Murphy truly loves the sweet stuff, and has decided he won’t quit making sorghum until he has to. Nor will he quit enjoying it with butter on a biscuit. That’s one way Perkinson likes it, too. However, it can be enjoyed in lots of ways. On cornbread, in oatmeal, in pies —you name it.
Aimee Mostwill of Sweetheart Bakery makes a famous sorghum-spice cookie (find them at area tailgate markets during the season) and sorghum sweet potato pie. She also uses it as a substitute for corn syrup and sugar in other recipes.
“When I substitute sorghum for corn syrup, it works well,” Mostwill says. She advises: “In nut pies, if replacing sorghum for corn syrup, use two-thirds as much.” She also notes that honey can replace sugar in fruit pies. “I tend to make my pies really sweet, so for a standard 9-inch apple pie, I would use one-quarter to one-third of a cup of honey.”
But she doesn’t advise replacing sugar with sorghum or honey in other baked goods, like cakes. “Sugar really affects texture,” she notes. “If you want to make a honey or sorghum cake, I would find a recipe specifically for that.”
That being said, Mostwill enjoys using local sweeteners in her baking. “I buy all of my honey and sorghum from local producers at area tailgate markets. I love knowing that the honey I’m using was made by the bees that pollinated the blackberries that I’m using to make other baked goods for my bakery.”
Although markets are on hiatus until spring, you can still purchase local honey and sorghum at area groceries as well as direct from the farm. In fact, sometimes, direct from the farm is the only way you can find the in-demand regional specialties. Perkinson and the Murphy brothers are already out of sorghum this year, and they only sold it to those who knew to stop by. To find area farms producing honey and sorghum, search ASAP’s Local Food Guide at buyappalachian.org.
You can also find both items featured this month on the menus of participating Get Local restaurants, like Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet-to-go and the Red Stag Grill. Dine at Red Stag in January and mention Get Local, and you’ll receive two free treats: a glass of champagne and a crostini served up with local Looking Glass Creamery chevre, drizzled with either local honey or sorghum.
Get Local is ASAP’s year-round initiative that brings together farmers, chefs and community members around the region to celebrate a single seasonal ingredient. To find a list of all participating restaurants, visit asapconnections.org. There, you’ll also find information about Get Local in area schools, where the focus is all about apples this winter. Visit growing-minds.org for more information.
For more information about Flying Cloud Farm in Fairview, visit flyingcloudfarm.net or call 828-768-3348. To reach Sweetheart Bakery, e-mail email@example.com. You can contact Reed Murphy, whose sorghum speaks for itself and doesn’t carry a farm name, at 669-6638.
— � Maggie Cramer is the communications coordinator at Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (asapconnections.org). Contact her at�firstname.lastname@example.org.