The nights are cold and the days are warm as spring approaches in New England, and that means the sap is running in the maple trees. This time of year is maple sugar season, and it's a busy time in the hardwood forests here from Connecticut on north. All of the New England states, as well as our brethren in New York State and Quebec, have native maple syrup industries, and sugaring is an increasingly popular activity on "hobby farms" and other properties that might have a sugarbush large enough to be tapped.
This children's book, Maple Sugaring Time in Vermont, was printed in 1956 in Middletown NY. It's a wonderful and engaging look at sugaring as it was commonly practiced right up through the early 1980's. For many producers, tin buckets and wood-fired boilers have given way to collection hoses, centrally-located holding tanks, and gas-fired multiple-stage evaporators, but the basic process is the same: Collect sap and evaporate it down over heat until it becomes syrup (it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a single gallon of syrup.)
I don't know of any producer still using an oxcart to collect sap. Most of the sugarmen I've met use 4x4 trucks or tractors in the woods.
There are precious few weeks in sugar season. If you live near the north country, try to get out to a commercial sugar shack near you - you'd be surprised at how many there are once you start looking for them. You'll get to see the syrup being made, and there will be freshly-bottled syrup and maple candy available for purchase. Some places may even be offering sugar on snow (if there's any snow - this has been kind of an odd year for snowstorms here, what with Baltimore and DC and the Jersey Shore getting all the snow and leaving us with bare roads and brown grass.)
Sugar on Snow
Maple SyrupSnowDill Pickles
Heat maple syrup in a pan to about 235 degrees F (use a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature.) As soon as the syrup reaches the proper temperature, pour it immediately and without stirring over a pan packed snow or shaved ice. It will form a thin waxy, taffy-like sheet over the snow. Twirl it up with a fork and enjoy!
Traditionally, sugar on snow is served with dill pickles - a couple of bites of dill pickles between servings of sugar helps "reset" your taste buds so you can eat more sugar without it getting "too sweet."
The best maple syrup and pancakes I've ever had were up in your neck of the woods (sort of). Have you ever been to Polly's Pancake Parlor in New Hampshire?
This place is absolutely amazing. They have five different batters (Buckwheat, Whole Wheat, Cornmeal, Oatmeal & Buttermilk) and then you can throw in different mixings (Blueberry, Walnut, Coconut
Chocolate Chip, Bananas, etc.) and the maple syrup is to die for...not to mention the maple butter and maple sugar. Man...I love that place.
I visited a real old sugar shack last weekend they still exist.
Thanks for that link, Mona Lisa. I'm glad to see that there are still some old-school sugar shacks out there.
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