A local chemist discovers “gold” on his property.

by RONA MANN/Photos courtesy John Humphrey

With a degree in bio-chemistry and a Ph.D in organic chemistry, you’d figure John Humphrey would be some kind of lab geek…an uber serious scientist with thick glasses and little sense of humor.

Well, smash that stereotype to bits! Erase the urge to pigeon-hole, for this chemist who was born in Michigan and grew up loving the outdoors through hunting, camping, and fishing in the woods of the Midwest, eventually found his way to an old sheep farm in Groton and has “discovered” what the Native Americans knew about hundreds of years before… hickory shagbark tastes good. Darn good. The Indians steeped their bark in hot water, sweetened it with honey, and created a tea which they believed could cure a plethora of ailments, among them arthritis, since the shagbark was rich in magnesium. The Algonquins also subsisted on hickory nuts that fell from the trees and became a staple in their diet.

John Humphrey originally came to Connecticut for a job with Pfizer (which he still holds), after completing his higher education and post-doctoral training in Michigan, California, and Texas. Yet the farm boy in him yearned to get back somehow to his country roots.  When he came upon an old sheep farm for sale in Groton with 17 woodsy acres, he knew he’d found a home. There were birch trees on the property, and initially Humphrey thought he could tap them for the same kind of syrup that is common in Alaska. It smelled sweet and aromatic, but it was bitter to the taste. Then he discovered there were nearly 100 shagbark hickory trees on the farm, a common hickory in the eastern United States. This tree will grow well over 100 feet tall in its 350 year life span and is called shagbark because the trees have a hairy or “shaggy” bark which they begin to shed at just seven years. Unlike the seasonal tapping of maple trees, shagbark may be stripped and used for syrup and tea all year round.

Humphrey collects the bark, cleans it thoroughly, and then boils it. “We wait till the trees shed themselves and look for newly fallen bark,” he says. “We don’t want to ruin the integrity of the trees by stripping them ourselves.”

While his first recipe was “not bad” by his own admission, John knew as a chemist that by trial and error he could create a syrup that would be perfect.  Using a mixture of sucrose bonded to glucose (disaccharide sucrose), and with the addition of fructose and some added molasses, providing a rich brown color, a syrup was born that was unlike any other he had tasted.  It wasn’t thick and overly sweet like maple, but had an earthy flavor some have described as “nutty, honey-like, or even smoky.”

Humphrey and his wife, Thao, make the syrup in small batches – usually four gallons at a time, but always less than ten gallons at a time. The end product is crystal clear because the Humphreys use a process of twice filtering the syrup.  Although they produce the products under the name of their property, Turkeywoods Farm, the couple is not looking to mass produce it nor open a factory. “We can’t get too big because we’re dealing with freshly fallen bark, and there isn’t that much of it,” John informs. Rather, they began selling bottles of their liquid gold through the internet and bringing it to local Farmers Markets and stores. Before long the Turkeywoods shagbark syrup caught on and is now available at many locations, a list of which appears at the end of this story.

But chemists are rarely satisfied with the status quo, and this chemist is no exception.

Using the hickory nuts that fall during a three week period in autumn, the Humphreys can now boast they are the world’s only commercial producers of Hickory Nut Syrup.

Collected and painstakingly cracked by hand, it is an ongoing race between John and Thao and the local squirrels to see who gets to these nuts first.  Hickory nut syrup, like the shagbark syrup, creates a unique presence on the palate; yet they are totally different from each other.  While the shagbark syrup is sweet, hickory nut syrup has a distinct nutty flavor and is light…wonderful on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, and corn bread.

And still the chemist invents.  A new favorite is Hickory-Ginger syrup prepared from the shagbark syrup recipe, but with the tasty addition of fresh ginger root.  For those who enjoy making their own carbonated beverages, hickory ginger-syrup will give an added twist to all-natural, fresh ginger ale. And like many of their products, the hickory-ginger syrup is available only from Turkeywoods Farm.

Other products include a variety of fresh berry syrups that use only fresh fruit; however they are not always available due to the season of the year and current weather conditions. John Humphrey speaks with great pride of Turkeywoods Farm commercial barbecue sauce, a combination of habanero and hot peppers and sea salts.  “It is an all natural product that also has shagbark syrup as one of its components.”  He readily shares this recipe which, along with others, is available on the farm’s website (www.turkeywoodsfarm.com).

The syrups have been a big hit thus far, garnering a number of awards including first, second, and third places for their Shagbark, Hickory Nut, and Hickory-Ginger syrups respectively from the Connecticut Specialty Foods Association..

So what’s next for this curious chemist, his wife, and now their three year old son, Ricky who also “helps?” “We’re now growing our own concord grapes to be used in the syrup,” John says. “The level of sugar in syrup is 67%; and at that level it is a natural preservative.  Less than that, and it will go bad.”

He’s also working on a soap made from the broth of the shagbark that he hopes will relieve pain the way the Indians did it hundreds of years before. “And we have a beehive, which is unique deep in the woods.  Our bees are producing a kind of woodland honey with a richer flavor than most because the bees are not feeding on flowers.”

John and Thao are also raising chickens and growing oyster, shitake, and chicken of the woods mushrooms.  No announced plans yet, but the Pfizer chemist by day, is still planning and plotting by night and weekend, ever curious to see what can be concocted from what grows naturally in the great outdoors.

Turkeywoods Farms is not only the first and only producer of hickory syrups in New England, but John Humphrey keeps his enterprise a good neighbor as well. With a presence at Farmers Markets and festivals throughout the region, they are heavily involved in the community.  “We donate to local pancake breakfasts and non-profits,” John says, “and I’m always willing to give free samples of our products to chefs, because once they taste it and see what a difference it can make on different foods, they’re hooked.”

Turns out all that chemistry background wasn’t so diametrically opposite from Humphrey’s woodsy passion.  Amidst the beakers, the test tubes, and the bunsen burners, something wonderful, all natural, and versatile has been and is still being created.  Good chemistry seems to make for good syrup.

“With my background as a chemist, don’t ever tell me I can’t,” laughs Humphrey, tapping the bottle of amber colored sweetness on the table as though to emphasize his point. “Vermont may have its maple syrup, but Connecticut has its Hickory Syrup.”

Turkeywoods Farm award-winning hickory syrups are available at McQuades Market, Old Mystic General Store, Franklin’s General Store, Pequotsepos Nature Center, Whittles Farm Market, and Clyde’s Cider Mill in Mystic.  In Groton at Johnson Hardware and available at Fiddleheads in New London.  Holdridges, Maugle-Sierra Vineyards, and Starwood Village Market sell it in Ledyard,while Fleming’s Feed in Stonington and Tri Town Foods in Uncasville both stock it.

Order online at: www.turkeywoodsfarm.com

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