Is it possible to say that maple syrup has a particular terroir? Yes, if we translate the French concept of terroir to the English phrase “taste of place.” In Vermont, this concept captures what we consider defining elements of our state’s food system: farming communities, strong rural agrarian and culinary traditions, and the belief that it does matter where your food comes from. Tying taste to place asserts that food and drink reflect the natural environment and its intersection with human craftsmanship and cultural practices.
This all begins at the intersection of physiological and cultural tastes. Judging the sensory quality of any food or drink is complex. All human beings share certain physiological aspects of taste. However, taste remains profoundly subjective because, perhaps even more so than with senses such as hearing and sight, taste experiences are simultaneously shared and not-shared. The body (or at least the mouth, nose and brain) always mediates between food and drink as an external social object and an internal sensory subject. Once food or drink enters the body, any social engagement becomes the sensation of an individual. Sensing taste also requires talking taste; sharing this particular sensory experience requires translating it to language, a shared dialogue with others.
The complexity of creating an aesthetics of taste, therefore, lies in how discussions develop and what values and beliefs shape both conversations and final sensory evaluations.
Describing the taste of maple syrup is difficult, especially these days, when we are endlessly pursued by sweet flavors found in almost every processed and packaged food. In an interview, long-time sugar maker Francis Howrigan said, “I’d have to stress the maple flavor [has] a lot of body to it. It’s the same as anything. People taste today or eat today, but do they taste? You put the syrup in your mouth and you swallow it. You should have a good, sweet maple taste afterwards.” Sugar makers know that not every batch of maple syrup will taste the same; what else can we expect from a truly wild food? Much of the joy and pain of the sugaring season revolves around just what sort of syrup emerges after the sap has been harvested and then boiled down to a viscous liquid. Every year brings new surprises.
Lighter syrups can taste like vanilla or evoke the smells of maple leaves that have fallen on the forest floor. Meanwhile, the maple flavor of darker syrups, depending (among many possibilities) on the location of a sugarbush or the amount of time the sap takes to boil down into syrup can taste woodier and earthier, with even a hint of mushroom. More than a century ago, the naturalist John Burroughs said, “[maple syrup] has a wild delicacy of flavor that no other sweet can match. What you smell in freshly cut maple-wood, or taste in the blossom of the tree, is in it. It is then, indeed, the distilled essence of the tree.” Soil, tree, slope and weather all make a difference in the taste of maple syrup.
A constant conversation between people about sensory judgments in light of nature’s bounty can reap many rich rewards: new aesthetic values and new relationships to the natural landscape. In Vermont, this conversation now involves sugar makers from around the state, researchers at the University of Vermont, policymakers from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and others. We keep smelling, sipping, swallowing and talking, always learning more about the unique tastes of Vermont’s working landscape.