Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making Sugar From Grass

Last Sunday we pressed sorghum to make molasses.
Sorghum is very similar to sugar cane.
6 Families in our village are sharing the labor in this project and will divide the bottles of syrup when the job is done. A few friends came from Greensboro, one of them took several photos.
Mathura and Chitra are overseeing the entire operation, the rest of us simply lend a hand with whatever they ask us to do.

The horses take turns walking the 'sweep' which turns the press, while the kids push the sorghum cane into the slot. A stream of sweet, green juice flows into a bucket below.

At any time you can put a cup to it and take a drink of the most refreshing juice. This is very different from refined sugar. It is full of health giving properties. Rather than make you hyperactive then sleepy as refined sugar will, it acts like a tonic, giving steady energy. Still, you don't want to take too much, as it is very rich.
When the bucket is near full, the horse is stopped and the bucket is poured into the evaporating tray. A fire burns under this all day, boiling away the water to make syrup. This can take 8 to 10 hours and requires constant attention, someone stirring it almost continuously.

The seed heads from the cane are used as grain in many parts of the world. We took some of these grains, cleaned, winnowed and ground them into a course flour. This was toasted in butter over a wood fire to bring out the flavor to make halava. A few cups of the hot boiling syrup from the evaporating tray were ladled onto the hot grains causing them to bubble like a volcano. When it settled and cooled this was served on leaf plates. Many of the participants reported this as the best halava they have ever tasted.

Much of the helpers had to return home as it got dark. While the syrup thickened, the foam that was cleared off became more tasty. Rather than drop it into the feed bucket, we collected it into a cup which was passed around, even though each of us said,"No more after this one".It was difficult to just let it sit there, tasting like a very sophisticated cotton candy.
Some started to get a little silly after so much sugar foam. A visitor suggested we should sing ''My Sweet Lord" while we're doing this. For some reason, that seemed hilarious and we all had a good laugh. "That's the syrup talking", Chitra said.
The purpose of boiling is to get enough of the water out so it will store without fermenting. When the syrup reaches that thickened state it can easily burn and the whole day's work will have been wasted. I wanted to be there to help through that stage.
At around 10 PM, under a single light bulb in the darkness, it was determined that it may have reached that stage. Apparently this is something one can only learn through experience. Mathura and Chitra have helped others in boiling, but this was their first time on their own. There was considerable discussion back and forth,
"I think we should take it off now, look how it's making 'strings' hanging off the spoon."
"Well,I think we should leave it on. There are only a few ;strings', they should be hanging consistently"
It was decided 'better safe than sorry' and I helped Mathura carry the pan off the flames.
Under the single light the syrup was ladled into two 5 gallon pots while Scooby growled at coyotes howling in the distance. Scooby had been licking up every bit of the syrup or foam that fell on the ground. We were wondering how his little body could handle all that sugar, I guess that's what dogs can do.

After the pots were filled, we all scraped what was left and had a taste.
A slice of home made bread had been placed above the coals to toast it.
That was the best toast anyone had ever eaten, shared between the 5 of us, crunchy and drenched in the fresh syrup.
I was able to scrape a cup of syrup from the pan for myself which I carried home in the dark. Wrapped in a buckwheat pancake Monday morning, it brought back memories of the day before, how the seed, sun, soil and rain combined to produce the sorghum plant, how the juice was extracted by horse power then concentrated by fire.
This entire process will be repeated today and Sunday. You may take this as a personal invitation from Mathura or myself. Any help or simply company is appreciated. Kids are always glad to feed the cane into the press or find firewood. Many hands make light work, and also make a fun gathering.