Sugar, molasses, honey: these are certainly all sweet, but often lacking in nuanced flavor and golden ribboning goodness. Cane syrup, a process well loved by those who uphold the tradition, and a product becoming more and more esteemed in kitchens large and small across the South, has character to spare. The cane syrup tradition grew out of an economy that was based on sugarcane production. This is especially true in Louisiana, where sugarcane is an integral part of its history. Brought to the area by Jesuits over 200 years ago, sugarcane helped define the lifestyles of the people who depended on its success. While the sugarcane business focused on the exportation of white granulated sugar to Europe, those who actually grew the cane learned to use what they had available to them. This old-fashioned sweetener is the product of the first boiling of sugarcane juice, a process that greatly reduces the liquid content and caramelizes the sucrose in the juice. The tradition is time-consuming and labor intensive, but the result is a thick, sweet liquid perfect for drizzling on biscuits and, well, just about anything.
While practical in purpose at the onset, cane syrup and the making thereof became a cultural custom, something passed down from generation to generation. Sadly, like with so many traditions, the number of people who continue to make cane syrup has been dwindling over the years. There are some, however, who think the process is worth saving, and have set out to do just that. One of these advocates is Youngsville, Louisiana’s Charles Poirier of Poirier’s Cane Syrup, who is in his ninth season of making cane syrup. Charles loves the process and does everything himself, from planting, cultivating, harvesting, and milling the cane to cooking and bottling the syrup. His initial interest came when he learned that his great-great-grandfather grew cane and made syrup. The tradition had not been picked up by other relatives along the way, so when Charles began working with sugarcane he felt that it was a tribute to his family history.
“It’s important to keep up the traditions of the area,” Charles notes, telling me that he has a number of heirloom varieties of cane. A lot of these varieties have been almost lost. He estimates that he has made syrup with 15 to 20 different types of cane, in fact, and has settled on a favorite—one that he feels produces the best quality and flavor. “I know which one I like most and I stick with that now,” he says. His syrup is clean and light, and if you’ve ever chewed on a piece of sugar cane, you’ve had a hint of how it tastes. “Take that taste and multiply it by 100, and then add a touch of caramel,” Charles explains.
Charles started with a small set-up in his backyard. Once he found a mill, he would cook the juice down in a 15-pound cracklin’ pot. At this point, he was making syrup mainly for himself, family, and friends. The beneficiaries of his generosity encouraged him to sell it to the public, which he did, but had a difficult time breaking even at the price point people expected. “I don’t think everyone realizes how much labor is actually involved in it,” he told us. Thinking that retail wasn’t worth his while, Charles thought that he would give it up, until a Southern food blogger called him and told him that he would buy everything he could produce the next year. Little did Charles know that the blogger was giving the product to chefs and others in the culinary world.
As soon as Charles got going, he ran into a snag—he found out that at the time it was illegal to sell homemade cane syrup in Louisiana. Charles called his representative, who brought it up to the Louisiana State House of Representatives. “I got a call that they were going to vote on the legalization of the sale of cane syrup, and that he needed 108 miniature bottles of syrup for the House to try,” Charles said. The new act passed quickly, undoubtedly so the representatives could get back to their cane syrup. Since then, Charles’ business has taken off. He still sells bottles out of his home and delivers to restaurants in New Orleans and Lafayette. “Every year I more than double what I made the previous year, and I still sell out,” he says.
Charles has his process down pat these days. He prefers that his syrup is lighter in color and taste, which he ensures by making a batch slowly so that he can control how much it caramelizes. “You can hold up one of my bottles to the sunlight and see your fingers on the other side of the bottle,” Charles says. After the sugar cane is run through a press and the juice is extracted, it is set to boil in an enormous cast-iron kettle. It boils for hours before the heat is taken away from the pot, a task known as “pulling the fire.” But once the time comes, everything happens quickly. A watched pot suddenly becomes a precise experiment; a few degrees make a world of difference, determining if you get syrup or if you’ll have to convince yourself you’re happy with the idea of hardened candy. Charles is better able to control his batches by using propane to fire his kettle. This isn’t as traditional as a wood-fed fire, but it gets the job done with more accuracy. He originally planned to use a wood-fed fire, but realized that in a place like Youngsville, which has limited wooded areas, finding food for the fire is a job unto itself. He’d rather focus on the syrup.
When asked if there is a part of the process that he dreads, Charles was very upbeat. “Sometimes you have growing pains,” he explained. “I cut all the cane by hand, and I’m not getting any younger, so that weighs a bit heavy on me sometimes.” Bottling is a slow process, as well, at the pace of one bottle at a time. Next season, he is looking to get a bottling machine that will accelerate and simplify this process. But these seem to be small annoyances in a worthwhile process. “Everything I do with it I absolutely love—I never get tired of it,” he says. “Going from the field to the kettle to the final product in the bottle, and seeing people’s expressions when they taste it—it’s the best.”
Charles plans to continue the tradition of cane syrup and share his knowledge and techniques with others. “It’s something that has been fading away, so I’m trying to bring it back,” he told us. Whenever people ask about it, or want to see the process, Charles welcomes them. “I’m trying to pass it on—I don’t know that one person is enough,” he explains. “Hopefully, when I get too old to do this somebody will be interested in picking it up. I’ll probably give them everything I have.”
Learn more about Poirier’s Cane Syrup on their Facebook page. For product availability, call 337.254.8758.