Back in my waitressing days we had a sommelier come to our restaurant with the purpose of teaching front of the house staff proper wine service. It was a brand new restaurant, which offered a unique opportunity for the owner to train his entire team at once, all of us in sync from day one. I remember being taught that once you open and present a bottle of wine six times, you will be an expert. Our teacher was right. I still open wine the same way I was taught all those years ago: turning the bottle and not the blade as I remove the seal; leaving 1 1/2 turns of the corkscrew exposed, ensuring I do not “cork” the bottle. Sometimes I’ll even extend my arm to place the cork - damp side up - in front of the person who ordered the bottle, and of course they are not there. Old habits.
We’re in a sugaring lull right now. Adam thinks we’re done, I’m hoping for one more run. He’s probably right. One thing I failed to mention in my last post is that the length of sugaring season is not only marked by how long the ideal temperature fluctuations can hold out, but by the trees budding. That’s actually the true end of the road. Trees budding can be influenced by temperature, but the timing is most heavily influenced by strength of sunlight, which of course increases as we approach the equinox. So, as much as temperature can affect the season, strengthening sun is the true harbinger of its end. At least that’s how it works around here.
While boiling one night last week, we were talking about how the start of sugaring season can feel clumsy, the first boil all about adjusting gear, gauging temperatures, finding rhythm. I asked Adam if he thinks the old-timers experience similar starts. He said yes, he sees it all the time. Misplaced equipment, squirrel-chewed taplines in need of repair, broken spiles; there’s always something to deal with, always a groove to find. Annual activities such as sugaring, gardening, hunting, canning, etc., are difficult to compare to the quickness with which one learns to open a bottle of wine, or knit a hat, sew a dress, weave a basket, carve a spoon, or move through a sun salutation. For many of us, these once a year events are practiced only a few dozen times in our lives. It can feel like we’re always beginners.
I remember when I learned how to cook, to really cook. I was in my mid-twenties and had discovered Fine Cooking and Bon Appetit magazines, as well as The Food Network. I cooked from those magazines cover to cover, and studied Bobby Flay, Nigella Lawson, and Ina Garten on TV. I also worked in the previously mentioned restaurant at the time, and in those early days, we had an excellent chef. I was front of the house which meant he was more eager to give me a hard time than teach me to cook, but I watched him every chance I got. I watched as he hit the pan with broth and let it reduce to deepen the flavor before adding fresh spinach; I watched as he used a combination of butter and olive oil when cooking breaded cutlets, so they’d crisp to a more golden brown than if using olive oil alone; I watched as he sautéed onions for several minutes but added garlic only at the very end, careful not to let it darken; I watched as he added ingredients to the pan over several minutes, in order of cooking time required; I watched as fresh herbs went in at the end, a quick sauté to release fresh aroma but retain bright color; I watched as he stirred hot broth - one ladleful at a time - into sundried cherry, wild mushroom, and sausage risotto that he stirred and stirred and stirred. I still make that risotto. Actually, I still make several of his recipes, which is kind of crazy to think about because we never exchanged a single word about any of them. I threw myself into cooking and went from being a serviceable cook to a pretty darn good one in about three months. With something like cooking, you can go all in and learn quickly.
I guess it's easier (quicker?) to gain skill with work that is not season-dependent. But when it comes to that which is experienced only once a year? It’s not as simple as “do it six times and you’ll be an expert.” You’ve got to be patient and willing to begin again.
I’m not really sure there is a point to this. Maybe I needed a reminder to go easy on myself. A reminder that there is freedom in not knowing, in not mastering. That maybe for all the comforting familiarity in the repetitive nature of our daily lives, it’s also nice to have some things feel new again. Yeah, that might be the point.
(But if you’re looking for consistently killer wine service with a perfect five ounce pour, any day of the year... I’m your girl.)