The Sugar Bush

Like countless other children, I was introduced to maple sugaring in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. I was a suburban kid. Descriptions of “sugar snow,” and Garth Williams’ delightful illustrations, were magical.

I was reminded of Wilder’s charming tale last week while visiting Washington Island, WI.  I saw lots of maple trees being tapped, and the air smelled like woodsmoke.

As far as I know, the people who make syrup on Washington Island do so for themselves, their families and friends, or a local restaurant. Two years ago a friend on the island gave me a Snapple bottle filled not with tea, but with syrup. It was a little thinner and paler than what I was used to, and tasted divine.

The sap is as thin and clear as water.

Each year I spend a week writing near Egg Harbor, also part of WI’s Door County peninsula, in late winter or early spring.   That’s how I discovered Jorns’ Sugar Bush.

The home-based outlet is always open.

The Jorns family has been making maple syrup in this area since 1857!

Ferdinand Jorns emigrated from Hamburg, and eventually settled in Door County,

After Ferdinand died, Dora Dow Jorns raised twelve children. One of them was Roland Jorns’ father.

The current master, Roland Jorns, has been making syrup since he was ten years old. The work agrees with him:  Mr. Jorns is 82, and would much rather be working outside than anything else.

Today, with the help of his youngest son, he taps about 6,000 trees. They could double that if they had enough workers. (It’s not just the work of tapping and condensing. Every one of those pails must be washed.)

Mrs. Jorns showed me how the spiles (spouts) have changed over time.

A lot has evolved over the years. Among other updates, Mr. Jorns introduced a reverse osmosis machine in 1978, an innovation that removes 80% of water from the sap and therefore reduces resources needed to produce syrup. His light amber syrup has won many awards. He has also served as president of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Council, and represented our state at the North American Maple Syrup Council.

I love stocking up at Jorns’ Sugar Bush, which is open year-round.  I love chatting with Mrs. Jorns, and picking out my purchases in a simple space made special by family mementos.

I love seeing maples being tapped, knowing that spring must be right around the corner.

Two of the thousands of buckets used each year.

And I love the taste of maple syrup so much that I rarely cook or bake with sugar anymore.  I’ve shared the following recipe with readers, and it’s received  rave reviews.

First in the Chloe Ellefson Series

Chloe Ellefson, the protagonist of my series, is not an autobiographical character. We do have a lot in common, though! She’s a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large living history museum where I was once a curator. And we both spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Like me, Chloe loves to cook and bake with local ingredients.

This cake is easy and luscious. I use whole wheat flour, farmers’ market blueberries, free-range eggs from a local farm, and Jorns’ maple syrup. Substitute as your options dictate; the cake will still taste great.

Chloe’s Maple Blueberry Cake

2 c. blueberries, fresh or frozen (don’t thaw)
3 c. flour
½ c. butter, softened
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
¾ c. maple syrup
2 t. vanilla
3 eggs
1 t. baking soda
½ t. salt
6 oz. vanilla yogurt
2 T. lemon juice

Glaze (optional)
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
4 t. lemon juice

In a small bowl, combine blueberries and 2 T. flour.  In a separate bowl, combine the baking soda, salt, and remaining flour.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese.  Add maple syrupe, lemon juice, and vanilla, and beat until mixture is light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with the yogurt.  When everything is well blended, fold in the blueberries.

Transfer to a 10-inch fluted pan well coated with butter or cooking spray.  Bake at 350 degrees for 65-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes.  Remove from a pan to a wire rack.

If desired, whisk glaze ingredients until smooth and drizzle over cake.  Enjoy!

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7 Responses to “The Sugar Bush”

  1. Meg Justus Says:

    I have wonderful memories of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child, too. Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, though, her experiences couldn’t have been more different from mine. I didn’t see my first snow until I was at least eight or nine, and never saw it in my own yard till we moved to Denver when I was fifteen.

    I envy you your trip to the sugar bush. I’ve always wanted to see one in action. We have many, many maple trees in the Pacific Northwest (along with alders, they’re our most dominant deciduous tree), but to the best of my knowledge no one taps them. I wonder if bigleaf maples just don’t have sweet-enough sap.

    Thanks for the window into the past.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks, Meg. I know what you mean about growing up in the suburbs–although in Baltimore we did sometimes see snow. As for the maples, perhaps you’re right. I think of sugar maples as the key tree.

  3. Heather Says:

    I remember going somewhere in 5th or 6th grade to learn about this process, but have no idea where it was. Somewhere close to Madison. All I remember is acres of trees, and how cold it was despite the sun shining overhead. I’ve been up by Egg Harbor, but don’t recall seeing Jorns’ Sugar Bush, so thanks for sharing your photos!

  4. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Heather! I know that the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, near Madison, held their maple sugar event last weekend. Perhaps that’s the place you visited.

  5. Laurie Rosengren Says:

    Sounds divine, Kathleen. This history behind the family business is wonderful. Now I want some pancakes . . .

  6. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    My maple syrup memories come from Franklin, NY where family lived. On a visit in the 1980’s I bought some from the “wrong” makers…oops. Unaware of some bitter family feud, I carried more than planned back to CA.
    I’d love to try that recipe.

  7. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Oh my, Arletta, you just never know! I should add that there are of course many wonderful syrup-makers in WI. If you try the blueberry cake, I hope you enjoy!

    And Laurie – call me when the pancakes are ready. :>)

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