Maple sugaring time is here again! This blog was written a couple of years ago and we still go back to get syrup from our favorite sugar houses so read beyond the dates to find out about the different experiences, but the maple weekends change every year.
MAPLE WEEKENDS IN NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND AND NEW YORK – DATES for 2014
Maine Maple Sunday, March 23, 2014
Maple Weekend: March 22-23
March 22 & 23, 2014
2014 Vermont Maple Open House Weekend – March 22 & 23
March 22-23 & 29-30, 2014 10am-4pm each day http://www.mapleweekend.com/locations.php
Buddy: “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” From the movie “Elf”
Call me a sap for maple syrup, but I attribute magical powers to the stuff. Before that first sticky drop drizzles my pancake, I know it will transform any ordinary flapjack from sweet to sublime. And I don’t even “like like” pancakes.
“A waffle is like a pancake with a syrup trap.” Mitch Hedberg
For years I stayed away from syrup, and pancakes until I followed the twang of blue grass music at the Topsfield Fair and landed adjacent to the Leavitt Family Maple booth. Based in Sunapee, NH, they offered free samples of various grades. I had my “wow” moment when presented with a tiny Dixie cup with darker liquid barely coating the bottom. Grade B maple syrup…. Angels could have been singing their harmonious, heavenly tone, should have been, but the blue grass probably drowned them out. Man, that stuff is good. So good I bought a quart and possessively toted it around for hours as I took in the rest of the fair. I returned to the booth this year as well, but the blue grass was secondary to the syrup. There is usually less Grade B available and the thought of missing out made me anxious, so I bought another bottle that they held behind the counter while I visited the fair. One year later, and my maple love had not diminished. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Leavitt-Family-Maple/125228503101?fref=ts
Grade B is sometimes called cooking syrup, and it occasionally costs less, because the palest, most delicate syrup was preferred in days of old. But if you prefer a full- bodied, robust flavor, Grade B deserves an A.
All maple syrup is mandated to have the same viscosity and the same sugar content, and it all probably has the same nutritional value, but the sap drawn later in the season has less sugar content and so needs a longer boil to arrive at the necessary levels. Personally I think this gives the syrup more chance to absorb the wood fire smoke (we much prefer wood fires to gas for syrup for this very reason.) Typically it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Once home, I returned to facilitating a book called “Sleeping Naked After 40” by naked food guru, Rosie Battista, and Rosie talked about the options when giving up processed sugar, Maple Syrup is a better option (in moderation). Reinforced by Rosie’s message, the flavor and the sweetener comparison chart below, my obsession with maple syrup began in earnest.
This blog is a compilation of my experiences investigating the wonders of maple syrup and it’s producers – arboreal and human. I encourage you to conduct your own research.
New England Maple Syrup Open Houses in March.
March 23-24 is the best weekend to visit all sorts of sugar houses in New Hampshire http://www.nhmapleproducers.com/ over 100 participate in the Open House weekend, and Vermont http://vermontmaple.org/
Maine celebrates maple March 24 http://www.mainemapleproducers.com/. This group has over 200 members.
Massachusetts doesn’t have one date set aside; March is Maple Month in Massachusetts and with approximately 200 members of Mass Maple there are lots of samples to try. http://www.massmaple.org/sugarhouse.php, but in all states call ahead because as long as the sap is flowing, kind-hearted producers invite you in for a visit and a sample.
One sure fire way to tell if you’re at a real maple sugar house – there is almost always a lazy dog snoozing somewhere nearby. I’m not sure what the dog does for the process, but it is a nice touch.
My supportive husband got onboard with my compulsion and whisked me away for a day of maple reconnaissance. We started at Belgian Meadows Farm in Lebanon, Maine where we were mistaken for a family who had won a sleigh ride so they brought out the gorgeous beasts and began harnessing. We let them know we were not in fact the intended celebrities, but they treated us like we were nonetheless,
and gave us a ride over the meadow and through the woods, courtesy of two Belgian Draft Horses and the obligatory dog who’d postponed snow snorkeling and sleep in favor of a ride..
A few jingles of the sleigh bells beyond the saw mill and we arrived at a small comfortable sugar shack and observed an old fashioned boil with a foot-powered thermostat. From there we journeyed on foot to the secluded honeymoon cottage where oil lamps, and wood burning stove seemed temptingly romantic til I noticed the chamber pot and strange animal?/human? tooth-filled jawbone, and decided the cottage suited me perfectly – for a day visit. The owners could not have been more obliging; they answered my endless maple questions and showed us their non-maple treasures: all sorts of horse
drawn carriages, an antique Ford, movie memorabilia, real horse tail extensions and their blues concert venue. Everything about our visit was magic.
Now back to the maple, Belgian Meadows Farm doesn’t grade their syrup, it is what it is. Except…..when we specifically requested their darkest syrup, they let us sample their private house stash, in a little mason jar, and this was the syrup that won our taste test last year. So smoky and intensely maple flavored. It was a unanimous choice.
Nothing could compare to the first stop on our tour, but we headed to Folsom’s Sugar House in Chester, New Hampshire. Another charming couple who answered our every question and let us sit and watch the process in action. And though they didn’t have B Grade, they had a plastic bottle of Grade A Dark Amber that was the 3rd place winner in our taste test. After watching our incessant photo-taking for quite a while, the Folsom proprietor told us he’d had a visitor once who won a prestigious award for a photo he took of the grading kit for syrup, and offered to recreate the pose.
2012 was a very short year for syrup, it was uncannily warm and snow was scarce after an October storm. Many smaller Massachusetts sugar houses did not even open for the season, but I really wanted a sample from each Northern New England state, so we headed to the Ipswich River Audubon Society in
Topsfield, MA. This property has the added advantage of myriad trails and terrains to explore and friendly birds that expect an outstretched hand to offer bird seed. Not knowing this at first I was a little taken aback when a chickadee buzzed my hair with its wing, probably frustrated because I did not have a treat to share. But we got a treat. They don’t make a ton of maple syrup and only sell ungraded syrup in the gift shop, but it was the end of the season and so it was dark, and they helped us look through the boxes of glass bottles to find the darkest dark. Audubon ranked #2 in our test. http://www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Ipswich_River/
Once people learn of an obsession, they often become enablers. My mother found Grade B Syrup from Vermont at the Christmas Tree Shop. My former employer generously gave me a quart from Maple Tree Farm in Concord, NH http://www.mapletreefarmnh.com/ in a word – exceptional. A trip to a travel show produced a few extra maple nips from Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee VT in my tote. And I received yet another gift of Canadian syrup from Trader Joe’s.
According to wiki.answers.com, maple syrup is only produced in North America; I guess it’s kind of nature’s apology for putting up with Noreasters, mud season and no-see-ums. More than 70% of the world’s syrup comes from Canada. Quebec Province is the number one producer in the world followed by Vermont State, and New York State (or depending on the source, New York State and Maine are tied). But I wasn’t looking for mass production; I was looking for the maple equivalent of a microbrewery that had great syrup and a captivating story.
This blog has been a year in the making and long after our initial taste test of 6 varieties we continued to expand out mapley horizons. Maple people for the most part are so pleasant; they’re passionate about their product and tend to only enhance their product lines with high quality additions. We literally found something to love at each place we visited. With knowledge and two seasons of maple experience under my widening belt, I’ve learned that our taste tests really mean very little because each year the season and the flow will produce different tastes and while my panel loved the smoky flavor, complex tones of honey or butter, others may simply want sweetness with a hint of maple. But we did notice that our top two picks both came in glass bottles. Could that be a coincidence?
When we relayed this tidbit of information to multi award winning syrup producer Hatch’s Sugar House in Milford, New Hampshire, the proprietor Matt told us to call ahead 603-547-8899 and he would specially bottle (in glass) a quart of Grade B to be ready when we arrived. Young Keegan at Hatch’s was a wealth of information. And the syrup really is pretty wonderful.
Something about the scent of maple must make all proprietors especially sweet and helpful. In fact when we couldn’t get B Grade at one sugar house, they called ahead to nearby competitors to see who might be able to help. We heard of several sugar houses that employ the honor system, just leave your money in the bucket and take your syrup with you.
Finding Harding Hill Farm in Sunapee, NH was serendipitous. We were actually looking for another syrup producer. We stopped to ask a random man out doing yard work for directions and he happened to be related to the farm in the area. He got in his truck and had us follow him to the farm where the Bernese Mountain dog lounged in the drive. The dog’s name was Grace, (like my stepdaughter) so that was a good sign.
On a subsequent Harding Hill visit, they poured our bottle from the hot spigot as we waited. The Harding Hill hot syrup we sampled stopped us in our tracks in appreciation of the flavor. But within a few weeks, the full flavor bloomed like a red wine exposed to the air, becoming more of a favorite as it aged, if that’s even possible. This is one of my “go to” syrups now, whether sweetening oatmeal or combined with warm almond milk and ginger for a tea substitute.
Parkers Maple Barn in Mason, NH is a must try. But from what I heard they use syrups from a variety of local sources, and the one we took home was more sweet than maple-y and so was not a favorite. But if you get a hankering for breakfast before 1 pm, arrive early, the wait can be long some weekends. The pumpkin pancakes, however, are worth it, and in-season you can keep yourself occupied with a guided maple tour. http://www.parkersmaplebarn.com/
In all of my experiments, I only came across one syrup I disliked to the point of never finishing the little bottle, and that was SugarBush Farm in Woodstock, VT. It just had a funny after taste, almost of plastic or perhaps a bit bitter. It was also the largest and newest machinery we’d encountered. I wonder if the tree buds had started to grow, when they collected their last batch, (that signals the end of the tapping season when sap turns bitter to better serve the foliage). Since the B Grade is the last of the season, could they have collected a day too late. Or could the syrup have been so hot in the plastic bottle it melted it a bit. In any event, I didn’t like it, and my panel didn’t like it. Vermont is dedicated to quality control of maple syrup, and is an industry leader in the process of regulating the grading system categories, so I guess I should have traveled deeper into the state for more samples and a more accurate assessment of the producers, but there were so many places to try much closer to home. SugarBush does however earn a visit nod for its amazing handcrafted cheeses, especially the 6-year cheddar. And the little chapel in the woods and the overly relaxed dog. http://www.sugarbushfarm.com/. Note that the word “sugarbush” actually refers to a grove of sugar maples.
We visited Boggastowe Farm in Pepperell, MA this past weekend. We tried last year to visit without calling ahead, and found no one home, though the dog was in fact lounging in the driveway, kind of false advertising if you ask me. Kevin came out to the sugar house to show us around and promised to be boiling later in the day. We weren’t able to come back, but would have enjoyed a repeat visit. He only had early syrup, which he proclaimed the lightest he’d seen in ages. It was still sweetly wonderful, but not intense like B grade. Call before you go: 978-433-5191
Harris Farm in Dayton ME, didn’t offer B Grade and their Grade A Medium Amber syrup was good if not exceptional. However, their own dairy products, flavored milks and homemade butter were worth the trip from anywhere. Plus they offer a cross country ski trail and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) options. http://www.harrisfarm.com/
We got a little carried away with maple, trying maple candies, maple popcorn, maple coffee, maple cream, and maple soda, even maple vodka and cordials distilled from the sap. By all accounts we should have been “mapled out”, but I am writing this with a mini syrup by my side occasionally stopping for a quick sip for fortitude and inspiration as I cull the vast amount of information to blog size proportions, ever diligent to keep my sticky stash away from the keyboard.
The adventure and the syrup combine for maximum appeal and so the search will continue. To date we’ve evaluated more than a dozen varieties and came away not only loving syrup but being convinced it sweetens dispositions, too, or is that the maple vodka speaking?
Remember to explore New England’s sweet spots March 23-24, 2013 and report back on sugar houses I may have missed!
©2013 Alison B. Colby-Campbell