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Maple Syrup: A Sticky Situation

May 11, 2010

I used to work with a woman who told me she made her own maple syrup.  This was out in California, and I was very impressed. So I asked her all kinds of questions.  She was a bit taken aback by my interest, and confessed that it was rather easy.  All you do is add maple extract to corn syrup.

Disappointment is not something I have ever been very good at hiding.

There is no substitute for real maple syrup.  Period.  No restaurant worth its salt would ever dare to serve anything but the bona fide product.  Imitation syrup, like my former colleague used to make, is as out of place at a fine dining restaurant as Cool Whip.

Which brings us to the current conundrum.

Local newspaper columnist and blogging superstar Kristi Gustafson recently had Mother’s Day brunch at Dale Miller.  Chef Miller has been a fixture in the region for a long time and has a splendid reputation.  His eponymous restaurant is one of the best in Albany.

And Miss Gustafson insists they serve imitation syrup. Now here is where things get interesting.

I found these allegations to be hard to swallow, given the chef’s reputation, and fired off a quick email to the restaurant.  Here is the verbatim text of that email:

Kristi Gustafson wrote today about bringing her own real maple syrup to brunch.  The implication was that the restaurant doesn’t even have real maple syrup on hand.  I find it difficult to believe this is true.  Do you now or have you ever served imitation maple syrup?

The response came from Maura Gannon, the restaurant’s General Manager/Owner:

no, i am not sure why she did that – after telling me how fabulous the meal was, i am surprised by that – we use real maple syrup.

Well, I thought surely there must be some kind of misunderstanding.  In an attempt to find some possible scenario where both parties could be right, I suggested in a comment on Kristi’s post:

Could Dale Miller’s suppliers be pulling one over on them? Could they think they are buying the real deal, not tasting it, and passing off imitation maple syrup as 100% pure? Could the restaurant actually be buying the better 100% Real Grade B stuff, and diners unfamiliar with the assertive maple flavor assume it is imitation syrup?  I have no idea. But I thought it was interesting to hear the restaurant’s side of the story.

Honestly I didn’t think that sounded self-righteous.  But putting that aside, Kristi’s proof text is:

Both my parents ate the provided syrup — and I ate it last year — and it tasted far from any of the “real” maple syrups I’ve eaten in 30 years (and I eat maple syrup at least once a week).

Which brings up another interesting point: There is a lot of variation in real maple syrup. Here is a bit about the stuff from Stephen Childs at the Cornell Maple Bulletin (#202):

Maple syrup is primarily composed of a mixture of sugars, water, and minerals.  In addition to these three components maple syrup will contain small amounts of various other organic compounds such as organic acids, amino acids, proteins, phenol compounds and even a few vitamins.  Variation in the levels of these various components gives maple syrup the broad spectrum of flavors experienced with syrup from different producers and from different sap runs at the same location.

If Kristi did not care for the maple syrup at Dale Miller and wanted to bring a preferred bottling from home, more power to her.  When you are paying $40 for brunch, you have the right to enjoy it.

And honestly I can neither say with any authority that the syrup used at Dale Miller is 100% Pure Maple, nor can I say that Kristi cannot taste the difference between real and imitation syrup.  (I should note that this isn’t an indictment of Kristi’s tasting abilities, rather an acknowledgement of how difficult it is for anyone to blindly taste and identify similar items.)

If I were a gambling man, I’d place my money on Grade B syrup being the culprit.  It has a much more intense maple flavor, which is ideal for pancakes and waffles.  So if one is accustomed to the much more neutral Grade A syrup, I can imagine thinking some kind of shenanigans are going on with the provenance of the topping.

But frankly I have no idea what is going on here.

Regardless of the truth, the specter of doubt cast on the integrity of ingredients at Dale Miller, and people’s willingness to accept it, has been a stain on Chef Miller’s reputation.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:07 am

    I recently cooked a quail recipe that called for Grade B maple syrup. Much to my aggravation, I couldn’t find it anywhere, and so had to settle for A. Anyone know where to get Grade B in the Saratoga-Capital area?

    • StanfordSteph permalink
      May 11, 2010 11:33 am

      Ioka Valley Farm in Stephentown, Mass, right next to Jiminy Peak. They make their own. You can drive there, or they also have an online store. http://iokavalleyfarm.com/

      Go visit some time. It’s a great little place, and during maple sugaring season they serve breakfasts there. No imitation syrup.

  2. May 11, 2010 10:29 am

    @Mr. Sunshine I think there’s someone at the Farmer’s Market that sells syrup, they probably have grade B. Saratoga Apple has it, I believe. Battenkill Creamery definitely has it but they are in Salem over by me. Although, IMO worth the trip.

    As for the whole Dale Miller fake syrup thing I’m not sure what to say about that. When I read the post at the TU, I was surprised and appalled. I wouldn’t expect a restaurant like that to serve fake syrup. Especially because in this area most places at least keep it as an option. Syrup is a local product and a pride of NY product as well.

  3. beck permalink
    May 11, 2010 12:06 pm

    I’m a bit loathe to admit this. Please don’t ban me from commenting on the FLB…but I like pancake syrup on pancakes sometimes. I grew up with it and enjoy its uber-sweetness and viscosity from time to time. I also like that it’s not assertively maple flavored, as frankly, maple is not one of my favorite flavors.

    I also enjoy real maple syrup on pancakes once in a while, I do like it mixed into plain yogurt, and I’d never cook or bake with Aunt Jemima, but pancake syrup is definitely one of my guilty pleasures.

    As to the Kristi situation, well, it’s just sort of odd.

    • Kerosena permalink
      May 11, 2010 12:55 pm

      I’m with you on pancake syrup. I can’t help it, it tastes good to me. Although I rarely eat pancakes or french toast more than once a year. I’m not a fan of mapley things, even though I grew up in this area with field trips to sugar houses and bites of real maple sugar candy.

      Also, “loath” not “loathe.” Loath=reluctant. An ajective. Loathe=to hate. A verb.

      I realize it’s obnoxious to correct grammar on a blog, but the loath/loathe error is a pet peeve of mine. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen the correct version for ‘reluctant’ used on a blog.

      • May 17, 2010 1:35 am

        Well, ajective is actually spelled adjective. People correcting people with poor grammar and making typographical errors is a pet peeve of mine. Why can’t we all just get along?

  4. RealFoodMom permalink
    May 11, 2010 12:55 pm

    Very thoughtful musings, Daniel. For me, maple syrup is THE sweetener. We don’t use white or brown sugar in our house, and while I don’t bake a lot, when I do, I nearly always use maple syrup as the sole sweetener. (Honey comes in a distant second.) I have a terrific cookbook, The Common Ground Dessert Cookbook, which uses only maple syrup and/or honey in all its divine recipes. Sadly, it’s out of print.

    As for purchasing Grade B maple syrup, the Honest Weight Food Co-op stocks it in its bulk section. They have Grade B, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade A Medium Amber. They all come from Adirondack Maple Farm in Fonda, NY, and cost $6.69 per pound ($4.95 with a 26% working member discount). To those for whom this is important, it is even kosher (Chaf-K). They also sell Adirondack Maple Farm syrup in pint and quart bottles, but only Grade A, I believe.

  5. RealFoodMom permalink
    May 11, 2010 1:02 pm

    Forgot to mention that it’s certified organic.

  6. Sarah M. permalink
    May 11, 2010 1:45 pm

    lol @ someone who mentions fitting a bottle of syrup “in the Louis.” I’d assume she’s being ironic but the rest of her blog leads me to believe otherwise.

  7. May 11, 2010 2:27 pm

    I think Grade B tastes like Grade A, just more intense. Anyway it’s hard to imagine Kristi Gustafson not knowing what Grade B tastes like and getting confused, just as it is hard to imagine Dale Miller serving imitation syrup and not knowing it. Profusser, it’s your job to get to the bottom of this so get cracking.

    Mr. Sunshine, at the Saratoga Farmers Market you can find Saratoga Apple Grade B for $30 a half gallon and Sheldon Farms Grade B for $28, as of last week. If you need it immediately you can either drive out to Schuylerville or, go to Putnam Market. They understand the appeal of Grade B and have it in fancy bottles, not cheap.

    • May 11, 2010 5:23 pm

      This gnawed at me and I had work to avoid. So I did my own due diligence by going over to the On the Edge blog and finding Kristi’s post on this at http://blog.timesunion.com/kristi/26996/byobottle-and-were-not-talkin-booze/ . Two things.

      First, she talks about Dale Miller’s use of fake maple syrup as if it is a well known fact and mentions that she established this last year. But a search of her blog doesn’t find any other Dale Miller maple syrup references. Seems unfair.

      Second, she shows the bottle that she smuggled in with “real” maple syrup and it’s one of those little tourist maple leaf bottles. It is very hard to imagine that would contain Grade B. So maybe you’re right, profussor, this time anyway.

  8. May 11, 2010 7:45 pm

    I would like to add that while I like both Mrs. Faklesworth for her blaringly fake buttery flavor and Grade B, it is because grade B just tastes richer and more… buttery than Grade A.

    Not a big fan of ‘regular’ pancake syrups which tend to be too corn syrup-y, and Grade A of the real stuff, since it’s a little too floral/delicate. I want to be hit over the head with maple flavor.

    As a side note, you’ve reminded me that my in-laws brought me a brick of maple sugar. The Mr almost mistook it for soap and was about to rub it all over himself before realizing it was sugar. I’m sure that too is some kind of New England fetish, but thankfully now I’ve got a solid chunk of the stuff and I’m not sure what to use it for.

  9. joni permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:41 pm

    This past Sunday at Mother’s Day brunch at 333 Cafe, real maple syrup was offered on the menu for an additional charge. We ordered some for Robert.

  10. January 26, 2021 10:01 pm

    other folks could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thank you

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