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