Sticking to It
The Poirier family legacy lives on
Ever since Acadians settled in south Louisiana, some members of Charles Poirier’s family have been extracting the sap from sugarcane and cooking it down into syrup.
Today, in Youngsville, Louisiana—historic sugarcane country—with his Poirier’s Cane Syrup company, he’s honoring his ancestors by making the sticky, rich sweetener the old way. And he’s honoring one family member in particular; his cane farm and small-batch syrup business all started as a tribute to his father. “My dad passed away in 2004, but right before his death, he had been telling me more about him being a kid and going with his dad to watch his great-grandfather making cane syrup,” Poirier says. In the months that followed his loss, his father’s reminiscence sparked an idea for a way to reconnect. “I was missing him, and missing my grandfather too, and thought it would be a cool tribute to dad and his memory to make some cane syrup myself, the same way my great-great-grandfather did,” he says.
He began gathering the needed equipment, a mill and a pot, and in 2005, gave it a try. “I started dabbling with it, and my first batch was just three gallons,” he says. “I never did intend for it to be a business, not at all.” But as the little glass bottles of amber liquid made it outside the circle of family and friends to whom they’d been gifted, demand broke wide open. The first lucky few were wowed by its multi-layered flavor (a complexity not found in white table sugar) including a hint of caramel and a nuanced toasted note supported by a more subtle sweetness. “One guy got a hold of a bottle and called me saying he loved it and would buy every bit I could turn out the next year,” he says. That guy (a heavyweight in the Louisiana culinary world) did, and then he passed it around. “He was sending it all over the country, to some chef friends and such. That put us on the map,” Poirier says.
This trend has continued. The more people get a taste of Poirier’s version of the Louisiana kitchen staple, the more people want it. And he never makes enough; he sells out quickly every year. Yet, Poirier has no current plans to expand; he’s content to keep his syrup-producing operation a side hustle. His day job is mechanic and machinist for his local government.
When he’s not fixing things for his city, he’s tending to his farm. He grows his own cane on a 1.5-acre plot, starting in August by putting stalks of seed cane in the ground, which then grows up until the first good frost. Around October, Poirier begins to harvest his cane crop by hand, first stripping the leaves, then using a cane knife to cut the cane stalk off, getting as close to where it meets the ground as he can. It’s labor intensive, but not as time-consuming as what comes next.
The process Poirier uses to turn those freshly hewn stalks into syrup is a tradition that was dying out. It’s slow, and his yield is small. It starts when he runs the cane through his vintage mill, which grinds and crushes and forces it to give up its juice. The liquid, now in two 60-gallon cast-iron kettles set over propane-fueled fire, is heated to bring out impurities that can then be skimmed off the top. Next, the flame is turned up, and it’s brought to a boil. Bubbling, watching and waiting will occupy Poirier’s next six or seven hours. “I really have to stay with it as it cooks. The thicker it gets, the more it wants to boil out of the pot, so I have to reduce the heat as it boils down,” he says. When it’s all over, 120 gallons will have distilled down into approximately twenty-eight gallons of syrup, and that’s it. Nothing else but this pure liquid goes into every bottle. In a few days, he’ll do it all again. “I usually do a batch a week until I run out of cane or run out of energy,” he says.
While creating a culinary gem that often has award-winning NOLA chefs frantic at the thought of not getting their yearly bottles was never Poirier’s plan and still surprises him, he does understand the attachment to cane syrup in general. It’s an affection he shares. “It’s a thing in our culture,” he says. “I have this strong, good memory of my mama making syrup cake, which we call gateau au sirop. She probably made it twice a month or so as I grew up.”
Today, Poirier has found multiple applications for his mildly dulcet delight. “I use it a lot at breakfast, like a drizzle on oatmeal. It’s great on pancakes and biscuits. It’s really good with a shot of bourbon too, but later in the day, not at breakfast,” he quips. He mixes it into his homemade BBQ sauces and brushes it on as a glaze at the end of grilling meats.
Every year since he started, Poirier sells out, and seeing that passion for his product keeps him engaged and enthused about reviving this disappearing art, despite the immense effort. “It’s lots of work, but it’s really nice to know how much people want something I have made,” he says. “It’s a really good feeling and different from working for the man, as they say.”