Ashfield farmers bringing back fruit shrubs

  • Charlotte and Sam Perkins of Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield stand in front of patches of berries, which are made into shrub. The couple moved to Franklin County a few years ago after careers in the eastern end of the state. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Strawberry shrub fruit concentration made and bottled by Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • The farm store at Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Berries at Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Inside a greenhouse on the farm. Besides berries, the farmers also manage a large vegetable garden. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Charlotte Perkins labels bottles of Bug Hill Farm shrub. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • More than a business, operating the organic farm in a sustainable way gives the Perkins a way to give back and help create a better future. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2019 1:00:15 PM

Upfront, Bug Hill Farm’s Strawberry-Rhubarb shrub syrup tastes incredibly sweet — it’s sharp 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, 58, 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, in this context “shrub” has nothing to do with small bushes. Instead, it’s “derived from the Arabic word ‘sharab,’ which means, ‘to drink,’” said Sam Perkins, 65. “That root word led to ‘shrub,’ ‘syrup’ and ‘sorbet.’ ”

Bug Hill Farm’s shrub is an organic sweetener that has a variety of uses. Spiced pear shrub, which has a flavor reminiscent of apple pie and is popular in the fall, can spice up alcoholic drinks and complement seasonal dishes.

“People use it in many different ways — black currant is great on ham,” Sam said, noting it can also be used in salad dressings or as ice cream topping.

Typically, Charlotte said 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 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.

Shrub dates back to colonial-era New England, Charlotte said. 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 said.

These days, Charlotte said 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 said shrubs can be a good alternative to commercially produced sweeteners.

To make the syrup, Charlotte 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 Ashfield-artist Beverly Duncan using a machine built by Henry Kaminski, who also lives locally.

Although the farm’s 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. Sam and Charlotte 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 worked as an academic writer and Charlotte owned a preschool business.

Their transition to Ashfield’s farming lifestyle — which wasn’t exactly what they initially had in mind, according to Sam — 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,” Sam said.

On average, Sam estimated they produce about 300 cases of shrub each year. They sell their product in a dozen or so stores, including 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. The farm is certified organic.

As much as Bug Hill Farm is a business, it’s also an ecological endeavor. At one point, Sam said Kerivan received a state grant to clear parts of the land to provide habitat for rare migratory birds and pollinators. 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, Sam said.

“The shrubs aren’t our creation, but we’re delighted to continue (the farm),” Sam said. “It’s a wonderful birding site.”

On quiet nights, Charlotte said they sit on the front porch and savor the atmosphere as the evening light fades.

“We’ve been here two years and we still have to pinch ourselves we’re so grateful,” she said.

Berry vinaigrette

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 the pan and boil until it is reduced by a third. Add butter, heavy cream and cordial and stir until blended.

Pour sauce over chicken. Best served over rice with a side of green beans.

Andy Castillo can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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