Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Naturally Sweet - Massachusetts Maple Syrup

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.


Sarah D - Texas said...

Lovely lovely to see them still making syrup. I miss the buckets on trees of my childhood in NH, and never *ever* buy anything but real maple syrup, even way down here in Texas.

While we were still in MA I got one good batch of Sugar on Snow made for my 1st son, he loved it. It was an exciting treat in my childhood too!

Best -

Anonymous said...

Sugar on snow-- that reminds me of a book read in childhood that I had long forgotten. Does anyone else remember "Understood Betsy", the little city girl taken in by relatives on a Vermont farm?
-- Gretchen

anniejs said...

That sounds so nice. Much better than obsessively watching the weather for tornados/hail/microbursts/high winds. That is what is tap this morning in NE Oklahoma, sadly, nothing that can be eaten on pancakes, waffles or just straight from a spoon.

Nanci said...

Looks like the farmer likes the sweet stuff too! We are visiting our local sugar shack this weekend to get the best stuff around here in southern Ontario.

ChickenBetty said...

The sugar house is built and we have ordered our evaporator for next spring - no more kettle boiling for us! I can't wait to host those all-day breakfasts :)

yarnpiggy said...

Mmmmmm, maple syrup! Truly the nectar of the gods. I'm sending a big can to my sister in England for her birthday -- she can't get it in quantity over there.

I haven't been to a sugar shack in ages -- since I was in university in Quebec -- wish we had them out here on the west coast. :-)

Anonymous said...

hi from Shell:

I grew up in Vermont and remember going on a "field trip" about five minutes down the road from school to visit the SugarHouse for maple-syrple, as we called it. yum !
My Nana made a version of sugar-on-snow with a special snow scooping spoon, used only for that purpose.

Have you had the maple syrup candy that is in the shapes of bee hives, maple leaves, etc. ? its beautiful and wow-Za yummie.
enjoy ~

Randy, Ally, and Wes said...

That is so cool! Thank you for sharing that. I really have to try the real stuff now . . .

Sarah said...

No boiling on our road today--too cold for the sap to run. We boiled on Sunday into Monday--18 hours + 10 gallons of sap = just under a quart of syrup for us! It was phenomenally good. We don't have a sugar house --just did it in the yard which is why it took so long. It was cold!

Renna said...

That was fascinating to me. I now understand why real maple sryup is so very expensive to purchase. A lot of work goes into making it!

If ever I get to visit New England during sugaring season, I'd love to visit a sugar shack!

ElvaUndine said...

"Miracle on Maple Hill" is great for getting your kids interested in this process. It's fun to read as a grown-up, too.

Thanks for the pictures. I love them.

Two Beans said...

The real stuff all the way.
It reminded me of a time we used to go to this breakfast place on Sundays. They made phenomenal pancakes but they used some Aunt Jemina stuff. You can spot the locals/regulars from the long lines queued up to get in by the maple syrup containers that they toted along. The owner didn't seem offend by it at all.

lovecontagious said...

I love to see old time traditions still being done. I clicked on the link for sugar on snow, and it had a recipe to do at home. I got all excited and then realized that, well, you need snow. Unfortunately, that's the key ingredient that I'm missing. Maybe I can convince my husband for a trip up the coast!

I was wondering, when you use maple syrup as a sugar substitute, is it in equal parts?

Amy Ellen said...

I wish I could take a ride and come and see this with my kiddos. However Massachusetts is a bit of a drive for me, and I might noe make it home in time for dinner!! ; ) Thanks for sharing the experience with us though. It is really neat to read about.

Rane said...

I miss this from my child
hood! I can almost smell
it! Thank you for bringing
back such a happy memory!
Rane and kids.

Turtle said...

Ah...that is what it looks like at mom's right now i bet! Now you just need some fresh buttermilk donuts to dip into the warm fresh syrup!

Anonymous said...

When I taught preschool, one of my favorite field trips was to the Sugar Shack. Every child needs to experience this authentic process.

Angela said...

oh, what a wonderful tradition - something we miss out on here in the NW. i've always wanting to go see maple trees being tapped and sugar being made. and the delicious rewards!