Some things still require a little old-fashioned technique

Categories: On The Farm, Food

They used the thick, homemade syrup to slather on flapjacks, glaze hams, and sweeten gingerbread. Farmers grew the cane—a 15-foot tall, bamboo-like grass—in quarter-acre patches along creek beds and river bottoms, and they gathered as neighbors to harvest and cook the cane into syrup.

Though mass-produced syrup eventually displaced this pioneer custom, the Melton Family Farm celebrates traditional sugarcane syrup making.

Join the Fun at a Florida Sugar Cane Syrup Boil

Experience a Sugar Cane Syrup Boil, a long-standing Florida Cracker tradition dating back to the earliest pioneers and learn where you can enjoy the experience yourself 

The country morning fog shrouds giant oak trees at the Melton family farm. Faint outlines of grazing cattle are barely visible among 1,500 acres of hay fields as I drive through the gate and up the hilly, sandy road.

Melton Family Farm, Dade City

I am in rural central Florida in a community called Dade City, on the Pasco and Hernando county line. When I arrive to my destination I see two barns. One resembles an airplane hangar where Steve Melton houses his personal museum of antique farm machinery, and the other is a smaller building with an overhanging roof, known as a cane barn.

There is no doubt this is a busy working farm as I spot a truckload of freshly cut sugar cane piled next to tractors and farm equipment. I stop, get out of my car, and approach a group clutching coffee cups warming up in the crisp, cool morning.

My host, Steve Melton, greets me and extends a handshake. Steve sports a white cowboy hat, blue jeans, a plaid shirt and has a deep southern accent. His warm cowboy welcome is filled with excitement. “I am so glad that you are here today. It’s going to be a ‘grand’ day,” he says as he grins with pride.

“Today is our first cane syrup boil of the season, but I also have another treat in store for you.” He points to a large machine - an imposing antique contraption perched on a cement block. It has a fresh coat of blue and silver paint, flanked with giant wheels and attached to a 30-foot belt powered by a 1940’s red International Farmall tractor.

He walks me over to the machine and explains, “This here is a sugar cane press, owned by the Petters family dating back five generations when the family patriarch Bernard Petters purchased it around the 1920’s. The press (a Columbus No. 20 Sugar Mill) had been sitting on the Petters family property unused and decaying for decades. My friend, Charlie Kirksey, also a cane grinder, spotted it while visiting the property and encouraged me to contact the family. I called Debbie and Tim Petters and offered to restore it and put it back in use. Today is the official inauguration of this 95-year old sugar cane press.”

From there he introduces me to Debbie, Tim and their son, Nicholas Petters, who are standing by the press, beaming with pride. They are eager to see this piece of history placed back in service and are clearly excited to witness their family heirloom pressing sugar cane - the way it was intended.

And this is much more than an equipment demonstration. Friends, neighbors and members of the Melton’s church have gathered to witness this event and to celebrate an old cracker tradition still practiced in the heart of rural Florida. 

It’s Cane Boil Day at the Melton Family farm.

Cane syrup is caramel-flavored, slightly bitter syrup made from the juice of sugarcane. Making sugar cane syrup is an historical tradition dating back to the earliest pioneers – still a custom throughout the southeastern United States and rural parts of Florida.

Historically, cane syrup was the main source of sweetness for small communities where sugar was harder to come by. Even today, for many, it is the preferred natural sweeter over refined sugar - poured over pancakes, bacon, sausage, grits, eggs and biscuits. Cane syrup is also found in sauces, baked goods and hard candy recipes.

But let’s get back to the sugar cane grind and the cane boil process.

Steve alerts the crowd of 20 individuals that the process is about to begin as he jumps on the tractor. The engine sputters and fires creating a loud roar as the long belt motors the sugar cane press.

Immediately, folks gather to feed a truckload of lengthy sugar cane stalks, stripped of outer leaves, into turning rollers. The rollers crush and squeeze the stalks, extracting juice that flows into a separate bin, producing a 60-gallon batch of juice. The used flat stalks are then heaped in a pile for cattle feed.

The cane juice is immediately transferred through a hose to the large kettle to begin boiling the juice. This metal cauldron sits perfectly in a large brick vat over a fire of oak and lighter wood. Lighter is from the heart of a pine tree and is used as a fire starter for a very hot fire.

Once the juice is extracted, the three-hour process of cooking down the juice begins - thickening it to a syrupy consistency.

Initially, the juice boils to 190 degrees. Floating grey impurities are skimmed off the top using long handled skimmers. For over an hour the impurities continue to be skimmed and poured into a dump bucket.

Soon, white foam begins to appear and linen cloth is tucked around the kettle to continue absorbing and purifying the juice.

Sugar cane boil creating foam

These next steps, and the unique names identifying them, surely reflect the Florida Cracker culture:

Little black specks appear in the foam and are skimmed off. These called “tadpoles.”

Next, the syrup begins to create larger bubbles. These are called “fish eyes.”

Later, the syrup bubbles and thickens like pudding. This is called “hominy hop.”

In between the skimming steps Steve entertains the crowd with yet another skill. He is a Florida poet cowboy regaling us with his country stories while spinning humorous Cracker tales.

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