Thursday, August 26, 2010

Profile of a Sorghum Farmer

Danny R. Townsend is a rock star in the sorghum world. He is a fifth generation sorghum farmer and producer. His sorghum has been twice voted the National Champion Sweet Sorghum. His sorghum is revered in these parts and beyond.

I was introduced to him by Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods whose mission is to bring sorghum to the mainstream – to your breakfast table. We toured Danny’s endless fields of sorghum and tobacco. We tasted the cane straight from the ground. Cut with a knife at the base and split between the 4th and 5th notch from the base, that’s where the best juice comes from. And although it was still weeks before ready to harvest, the juice ran sweet and refreshing, a little milky, a touch green. It’s hard to explain – I guess it tasted like sorghum.

So what is sorghum? It’s the juice of the plant, Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench, a grass technically, that is boiled down and clarified until it reaches an amber – brown color with the viscosity of honey. It is a natural sweetener like honey but with a flavor that is deeper, think grassy caramel with notes of vanilla, coffee and leather. But it is not molasses, a by-product that is often plagued by a burnt tar aftertaste.

Sometimes, you’ll see a quaint bottle of sorghum with a mule painted on it. That’s how they used to squeeze the juice, with big rollers pushed by mules. That’s about as practical as jumping in a barrel and pressing wine grapes with your bare feet. Today it’s all mechanized and Danny is one of the pioneers of this modernization. The juice is brought in through large conveyor belts, milled through mechanized rollers and boiled in large pans that have partitions so the syrup slowly snakes its way down the chute while being clarified. Depending on the time of year and the producer, sorghum can be a light amber to a roasted brown color. It’s all a matter of preference.

Danny talks quickly with a hushed monotone that takes some getting used to. He chuckles after almost every sentence. Like most farmers, he messes with other projects ad infinitum; tomatoes, corn, potatoes; he collects old machinery, he’s working on producing ethanol, etc. And he also makes some damn good sorghum. Did I tell you he’s won the Sorghum Championships? Twice?

Originally brought over from Africa as a wonder plant to compete with sugar cane, sorghum was pretty much forgotten once refined sugar and corn syrup became the norm. It is now almost exclusively grown in Kentucky and Tennessee with probably less than a few hundred growers in the country. The ones that do grow it tend to be slightly obsessed with it. And so it is with consumers who taste it. I’d never heard of it before coming to Kentucky and now it has become a staple in my pantry. Anywhere you need sweetness with an added layer of flavor, sorghum does the trick: BBQ sauce, braising liquid, sweet syrups, glazes, soups, marinades, pickling liquid, even cocktails. Ice cream, berries and sorghum drizzle is simple but oh so complex. Slow braised brisket with sorghum glazed and baked into it until the meat shimmers with promise is sublime. Sorghum with stout beer is an incredible braising liquid for winter months. Sorghum can be thinned out with a little water and brushed on anything from scallops to foie gras for a taste of something sweet yet mysterious.


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