Sourced from trees that only grow in northeastern North America during a fleeting season (about four to six weeks in early spring) and inextricably linked to climate and the rhythms of the forest (warm weather encourages maple trees to turn stored starch into sap, which is then boiled down by sugarers), pure maple syrup is a truly precious elixir prized among foodies. It helps that it’s a one-ingredient sweetener boasting trace minerals, micronutrients, and antioxidants—a natural alternative to corn syrup and white sugar. As Runamok Maple co-founder Eric Sorkin puts it, “It’s this wild-harvested food from a really specific regional area that is unlike anything else—and it happens to be delicious.”
Vermont—where Runamok is based—is the top syrup producer in America. The Green Mountain State turned out almost two million gallons of the sticky stuff in 2016, about 47 percent of the country’s total output. Around 4,000 Vermonters are employed by the industry, according to Matthew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. “It’s how people understand their place and their heritage,” he says. “It does spill off into the wider use of maple in restaurants and other products.”
Fresh maple creations flooding the market—from infused and barrel-aged syrups to maple-tinged seltzers and spirits—highlight its versatility. “Maple’s not just sweet; it also has flavor,” says Katie Webster, author of the cookbook Maple (Quirk Books, 2015). “I love to add that roundness, warmth, and nuttiness to sweet and savory recipes.”
To wit: A joint project between the University of Vermont and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture resulted in a “maple map,” a flavor wheel of sorts that describes the range and intensity of flavors found in the amber liquid, including “toasted” (burnt sugar, caramel), “fruity” (raisins, apricot), and “earthy” (grassy, hay). Sound familiar? It’s no wonder sparks fly when maple meets likeminded cheese.
Infused Maple Syrups
Crown Maple, based in Dutchess County, N.Y. (the country’s second-highest syrup-producing state), recently released a line of infused syrups at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. “Pure maple is a rather porous ingredient and it quickly takes on other flavors,” explains CEO Mike Cobb. The brand’s Madagascar Vanilla Infused Maple Syrup finds harmony with Sprout Creek Farm Madeleine, an aged raw goat’s milk round. “The vanilla syrup complements the floral notes of Madeleine and tones down some of its more piquant flavors,” Cobb adds.
At Vermont’s Runamok, Elderberry Infused Maple Syrup—one of four bottles in the company’s “Cheese Pairing Collection”—is a no-brainer with curds. Its woodsy, honey, and fig notes are made for drizzling on a spicy, salty blue.
You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s dairy in this ultra-rich, caramelly spread. Yet it’s made by boiling maple syrup to evaporate more water before stirring it vigorously to achieve a thick, creamy texture. Eat it straight from the jar (I do!), smear it on a toasted English muffin, or dollop it over pancakes dotted with fresh chèvre for breakfast bliss—a suggestion from Al Wood of Wood’s Pure Maple Syrup Co. in Randolph, Vt. Or take the savory route and match April’s Maple Cream with mature Cabot cheddar. “The maple cream adds a smooth finish to this tangy, extra-sharp cheese,” says April Lemay, founder of the Canaan, Vt.–based maple purveyor.
Seizing on the salty-sweet trend in the specialty food industry, Whitney Lamy launched her Salted Maple Castleton Crackers last fall. Boost the wheat crackers’ subtle maple undertones with Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company Vermont Maple Sriracha WindsorDale—a pleasant, palate-cleansing heat soon eclipses the combo’s candy sweetness for a balanced bite. Dori Ross, owner of Tonewood in Mad River Valley, Vt., meanwhile, offers maple flakes, cubes, and wafers. “I think what’s held maple back historically is that it’s liquid and messy,” she says. “Solid forms lend themselves beautifully to pairing with cheese. It’s not just the flavors I’m pairing, it’s the different textures.” Serve shards of the thin, crunchy wafers—made entirely from maple—with soft-ripened Vermont Creamery Coupole for a burst of earthy, umami-blasted brown butter.
Feature Photo Credit: Svetlana Foote/Shutterstock.com