HOW SWEET IT IS: The Gift of the Maples

Here in New England (and all the way north into Canada), the deciduous sugar maple (Acer Saccharum) is leafless and barren in February, a dead sign of a dead land. Or would be — except that with the slightest daytime warming, sap begins to run in the maples, galvanized tin buckets sprout on tree trunks, shabby-looking wooden shacks spout steam night and day, and the annual maple syrup season gets under way.

Sugar Shack Steam

This year was no exception. After a bad season last year, the sap’s been running freely, and for a long time. Here it is the beginning of April, and although the season’s over in lower, warmer Valley locations, the combination of warm days and cold nights that are essential for sugaring is holding in the higher elevations for one last weekend. In fact, it was a banner year for most local farmers.

I LOVE maple syrup. The real thing is expensive even here, where it comes from. No wonder. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down into a single gallon of syrup. Labor intensive, you might understate! The boiler goes day and night.

Boiling the Sap

You can enter the boiling room and watch syrup flowing from the evaporator in the steamy room:

Sap Into Syrup

Early in the season the syrup is thinner, lighter, more delicate. As the season advances the syrup thickens, becomes more intense. There are A and B grades of maple syrup, but in this case, they’re more descriptors than “grades”: lots of people, me among them, prefer B grade dark amber.

Jugs of Syrup

You need to taste and try for yourself.  After all, I’m sure maple syrup is the reason someone invented pancakes. Blueberry ones, or plain pancakes. Add sides of bacon or sausage, and steaming hot coffee. If you’re fancy, you might go for a Belgian waffle. Or a corn fritter. But the syrup’s the thing!  That’s a New England breakfast.  It’s no wonder that while our farmers are tethered to their shacks for the intense two month season, some of them got the bright idea of showcasing their syrup and making a little extra money by serving breakfast right where they’re boiling. You can watch the process at work and eat something delicious, all in one visit.

Waiting for Breakfast

The sugar shack here is Williams Farm in South Deerfield; there are shacks dotting the whole area, up into the mountains in the Berkshires and across the Pioneer Valley. You’re too late to come for breakfast this year — But while you’re planning your bucket list of interesting things to do in 2014, consider adding a maple syrup tour and breakfast out our way.

The Queen of Maple SyrupsAnd now I need to do something painful — loyal as I am to Massachusetts, I have to tell you that the Queen of all maple syrups comes from New Hampshire. This is my friend Biff’s organic unblended single source Mount Cabot maple syrup, and it is to die for. We only give tastes to truly beloved friends; we tend to want to hoard it for ourselves. Don’t believe it’s as good as I say? Biff once suggested we try some in a shot glass, with heavy cream floated on top — which we did. Our conclusion: who needs Irish coffee? We use Mount Cabot dry maple sugar in our oatmeal. That’s great also. But it’s a bear to find, only a couple of stores around here carry it, so if you’re intrigued, take a peek at the website.

Whichever maple syrup you choose, light or dark, Massachusetts or New Hampshire or Vermont, you really can’t go wrong.

This entry was posted in Etcetera, Food, Nature, Personal Essay, Photography, Pioneer Valley, Spring and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to HOW SWEET IT IS: The Gift of the Maples

  1. barb19 says:

    Interesting post about a delightful subject – I loved the information about how we get maple syrup, and didn’t realize it was so involved!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Involved, very! It’s fun to drive along country roads in February and March and see the tin buckets ornamenting the trees —
      That’s a (very early) sign of spring around here!


  2. mybrightlife says:

    Very interesting. We have french toast with banana pieces and maple syrup for breakfast on celebration days such as birthdays. (The banana is a substitute for bacon for the vegetarians in the family.) Now I realise that our syrup is maple flavoured and cannot possibly be the real thing!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Probably it is not the real thing. That’s hard to come by out of the US, and even here, it’s mainly local Northeast.
      I confess to you, though — there’s a maple-flavoured brand called Vermont Maid (how’s that for truth in advertising?) and the Hubs LOVES it.
      So keep on enjoying! Maybe someday fate will bring you to our shores and we can breakfast on the real thing together!!!!!


  3. Lucid Gypsy says:

    I love maple syrup but always wondered what would happen if the sap wasn’t collected, the tree has to be cut to get it doesn’t it? would it ooze out on its own? sorry silly question 🙂


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Not a silly question — I left out something. There are little wood tubes (well, once they were of wood, now they use plastic tubing and undoubtedly something else) that are inserted into the tree. They are small, and there’s only one to a tree — as you drive by you see the single buckets. The sap inevitably rises, but would not ooze out on its own, these little “spills” guide it out.
      And it doesn’t harm the trees at all — they have a 10-month vacation after the last sugaring weekend.


  4. cocomino says:

    What a nice place. I love mayple syrop a lot I should visit this place 🙂


  5. Oh you make me miss New England so very much! I love your stories about Maple Syrup. We have traveled to New Hampshire from Texas just to buy the syrup! There is nothing better. I love the web site for Mount Cabot and am going to order some.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      I’m so happy to make you remember delicious things!
      I think traveling Texas to New Hampshire for maple syrup makes you a real connoisseur —
      I know you’ll savor the Mount Cabot syrup. Let me know, Emil!


  6. CMSmith says:

    This was interesting. Thanks for explaining it. Maybe I should consider ditching Aunt Jemima’s and getting some of the real thing.


  7. Damn. Now I have to run back out and get some maple syrup…


  8. Patti Kuche says:

    You have definitely tingled the taste buds with this one Judith! I have a small pot of Vermont Grade B in the cupboard which needs to get out more often, thanks for the reminder!


  9. so very interesting. Yum!


  10. What a neat, intense process it take to make that delicious syrup! A tour and a breakfast? I would be in Heaven! That alone would be enough to justify a cross country trip.


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