Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield continues colonial-era fruit concentration tradition
By ANDY CASTILLO, The Recorder, July 24, 2019
Upfront, Bug Hill Farm’s Strawberry- Rhubarb shrub syrup tastes incredibly sweet — it’s sharp and delicious with a tangy aftertaste that lingers for a while on the back of the palate.
The syrup concentration’s flavor profile is complex and dynamic — in a word: Delicious.
To be fully appreciated, “It really has to be tasted,” said Charlotte Perkins, who manages the Ashfield farm on Bug Hill Road with her husband, Sam Perkins.
Made using a combination of fruit from the farm and other locally grown berries, the word “shrub” (in this context) has nothing to do with small bushes. Instead, it’s “derived from the Arabic word ‘sharab,’ which means, ‘to drink,’” Sam Perkins said. “That root word led to ‘shrub,’ ‘syrup’ and ‘sorbet.’ ” Bug Hill Farm’s shrub is an organic sweetener that has a variety of uses. For example, spiced pear shrub, which has a flavor reminiscent of apple pie and is particularly popular during the fall season, can spice up alcoholic drinks and complement seasonal dishes.
“People (can) use it in many different ways — black currant is great on ham,” he said, noting it can also be used as a base for salad dressings or as ice cream topping.
Typically, Charlotte Perkins says their shrub syrup is comprised of two-parts fruit to one part vinegar with an added sweetener like honey or raw organic cane sugar. Bug Hill Farm’s shrub products range the fruitgamut from the strawberry-rhubarb and spiced pear concentrations to black currant cordial, black raspberry, brambleberry, crabapple-ginger, raspberry-mint, blueberry and red gooseberry — fruit that’s specific to this region.
While not as popular today, shrub dates back to colonial-era New England, according to Charlotte Perkins. Back then, the syrup was used to mask the flavor of bad-tasting water and help make it safe to drink. After falling out of favor for a while, it’s beginning to become popular again.
“The comeback started in cocktails,” Sam Perkins said.
But while it’s slowly becoming more mainstream, there are still a lot of marketing challenges. These days, Charlotte Perkins says most people associate shrubs with mixed drinks and don’t know what the syrup tastes like on its own. They’re trying to change that. By holding frequent tastings, “in the one to two years we’ve owned (Bug Hill Farm), there’s been a noticeable change,” she said. “More people are learning.”
Standing alone, the syrup is intensely sweet. But when it’s diluted in sparkling water or plain yogurt, Bug Hill Farm’s shrubs infuse a nuanced profile that’s similar to jam. Because of that, Sam Perkins noted shrubs can be a good alternative to commercially produced sweeteners.
To make the syrup, Charlotte Perkins said they soak 15 pounds of fruit in 7 ½ pounds of vinegar, filling between 10 and 30 buckets.
Beforehand, “We like to freeze the fruit because it breaks down the cells and we get more juice,” she said, noting the fruit isn’t pressed in order to preserve its flavor. After letting the fruit soak for about a week and a half in a walk-in cooler, stirring it daily, a sweetener is added in the farm’s commercial kitchen and the mixture is heated over a stove to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, making it shelf-stable for about two years. Then, it’s strained into glass bottles by a few part-time employees and labeled with artwork by Ashfieldartist Beverly Duncan using a machine built by Henry Kaminski, who also lives locally.
Although the farm’s beautiful farmhouse dates back to 1812, its current incarnation was inspired by former owner Kate Kerivan, who moved to Bug Hill in 2005 and started the shrub business. The current owners, Sam Perkins, 65, and Charlotte Perkins, 58, previously lived and raised four children in Lincoln, where they managed huge vegetable patches and learned how to farm. They took over from Kerivan a few years ago as a retirement project. For much of their previous careers, Sam Perkins worked as an academic writer and Charlotte Perkins owned a preschool business.
Their transition to Ashfield’s farming lifestyle — which wasn’t exactly what they initially had in mind, according to Sam Perkins — has been a welcome change and the business endeavor has so far been successful, he said.
“It’s been great — a lot of work — we basically work every day,” he said.
On average, Sam Perkins estimated they produce about 300 cases of shrub each year. They sell their product in a dozen or so stores that include Atlas Farm Store in Deerfield and River Valley Coop in Northampton. Besides shrub, the farm also produces about 80 cases of fruit preserves and jams featuring flavors like black currant, blackberry lavender, blueberry and raspberry.
When they’re not preserving fruit or making syrup, Sam Perkins says they spend much of their time pruning and managing Bug Hill Farm’s 82 acres, which include an acre of cultivated blueberries, two acres of cultivated raspberries, elderberry, aronia, gooseberry and currants and 38 acres of forest. Notably, the farm is certified organic.
Its landscape is beautiful. From the farmhouse’s front porch, sprawling grassland and fruit bushes stretch across rolling hills. Fruit bushes huddle around the farmhouse. Seasonally, pick-your-own fruit patrons can be seen wandering between the rows.
As much as Bug Hill Farm is a business, it’s also a ecological endeavor. At one point, Sam Perkins says Kerivan received a state grant to clear parts of the land to provide habitat for rare migratory birds and pollinators. To that end, managing the farm’s varied terrain and continuing Kerivan’s legacy is a way they can give back and make the world a better place, he noted.
“The shrubs aren’t our creation, but we’re delighted to continue (the farm),” he said noting that, besides managing the business, “It’s a wonderful birding site.”
On quiet nights, Charlotte Perkins says they sit on the front porch and savor the atmosphere as the evening light fades.
Around them, she said birdsong can often be heard reverberating through the trees as they enjoy a dish of ice cream liberally drizzled over with shrub syrup.
“We’ve been here two years and we still have to pinch ourselves we’re so grateful,” she said. Andy Castillo is features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He grew up in Northampton and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. He can be reached at email@example.com
1 part Bug Hill Farm shrub 1 part balsamic or apple cider vinegar 2 parts olive oil mustard and honey to taste Pinch of salt Whisk together and serve over a bed of fresh spinach and mixed salad greens.
Pairs well with local goat cheese and walnuts.
Creamy black currant sauce and chicken
4 boneless chicken breasts Salt and pepper Coconut oil 2 to 3 ounces white wine 2 ounces Bug Hill Farm Black Currant Cordial 2 ounces heavy cream 2 tablespoons butter In a large pan, heat coconut oil on medium heat. Cook chicken on both sides until cooked through about 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.
Add wine to pan and boil until it is reduced by a third. Add butter, heavy cream and cordial and stir until blended.
Pour sauce over chicken. This is wonderful served over rice with a side of green beans.