All through the back roads of our little town, things are a-buzzing. Not exactly the bee variety but the tree variety of buzz. Maple trees to be specific, that is. It’s time for “sugaring.” I can sense the activity as I drive around. The enthusiasm for a ritual of spring has a rather festive feeling – even if there are no festivities of the formal matter. What’s actually going on is a very old-fashioned harvest.
The maple trees are being tapped by drilling a hole or two in the trunk of the tree. The sap that rises during the day as the temperature increases runs out the drilled holes and into a collecting vessel of some type. After the sap is collected, it’s taken back to the sugarhouse where the real excitement - if a bit slow and really low key - takes place.
Tucked away in back yards, in the middle of the woods, by the side of the road, are these funny little structures – all built by hand by someone. They’re called “sugar shacks.” Some are new, some are very old (the one pictured above was built by a long gone farmer in 1938 - it's still in use today by the Johnson Family). Sugar shacks are by no means fancy – basically a roof and wood sides covering a rectangular metal evaporating pan. Sometimes there is a recycled window or two. There are always shelves along the sides for the few supplies needed. Under the metal evaporating pan, there is a furnace for a source of heat. Some folks use oil but the traditional way to sugar is by heating the pan with wood in a furnace. There is always a vent of some sort for the steam to escape.
Sugar shacks are warm places – the closer you get to the evaporator, the warmer they are. You’ve got to be careful not to trip which makes taking little kids to some of these home grown operations a bit dicey. But little kids love anything sweet and so the pull of the maple syrup is undeniable. For me, the pull of the sugar shack is the tradition that began with the Native American Indians who taught the colonists how to make syrup out of water that comes out of trees.
A lot of townspeople I know, drive around town, checking to see “who’s boiling.” It's easy to spot - you look for a long plume of steam escaping into the blue sky. Then they stop in, catch up on a year’s worth of gossip, try not to distract the maple farmer too much for fear the sap will burn. There’s a fine line of done, or not done and you can’t leave the evaporator for a minute. Turn your back, and the whole batch can turn to char. The farmer stands there stirring, scooping, checking the consistency of the sap, seeing how close it is to syrup.
When it is just right, the syrup is released out the side of the evaporator. It’s pure gold – sweet and sticky. If you have never had real maple syrup, it’s one of the things you need to eat once in your life. It is nothing like that fake stuff they sell in the grocery store. Besides the normal uses like pancakes, I use it in marinades, to baste hams and pork, and in homemade bread as a substitute for sugar.
If you're looking to take a ride this weekend, check out the "sugar shacks" of western Massachusetts. Many are open to the public and offer all day breakfasts of pancakes, waffles, and sugar on snow.