Sugaring is sticky business. Just like any other agricultural endeavor, there are no guarantees - no exacting seasonal metric nor promise of abundance. But when that tap's running, there's fever in the air, and the sugar bush is flowing with activity. It's been this way since the early 1600's, when Native Americans first gashed a sugar maple with their tomahawk and discovered New England's liquid gold. During Maple Moon, they'd relocate their camps to the sugar bush and set up sugar huts to boil and evaporate the collected sap into syrup and sugar. Sugaring is one of America's earliest agricultural traditions. I made a recent trip to Vermont and Massachusetts with maple on my mind and here's what I brought back:
Sugar huts, sugar shacks, sugar houses - I'm pretty charmed by any moniker that has to do with maple. It's unequivocally enchanting. Weaving through Vermont's hills, speckled with farm houses and open fields, it seemed every family had their trees tapped for a personal supply of Vermont's pride - maple syrup. Sugar shacks sat nearby virtually every house, some, awaiting the season's bounty, others, sinking into the soil, like a forgotten tree fort in a grown child's old backyard.
In Vermont, sugaring typically takes place in the month of March, though that's entirely dependent upon the weather. Once the days begin to warm up and the nights cling on to the cold, the nurturing of the sap begins. It gets massaged by the alternating temperatures, coaxing its flow. The snow ring at the base of the tree begins to melt, the backroads soften into muddy lanes and the sap starts to run.
In bygone days, sap was hand-collected then carted by horse and sleigh to the sugar shack for evaporation. It's not the norm these days, but there remain some small operations that preserve the custom, like Turkey Hill Farm in Randolph Center, VT, which I visited during my stay. More common are sugar bushes tapped and tubed, sap flowing continuously to a central collection container.
A ride through the sugar bush is an all together enchanting experience. The forest is still - clusters of sugar maples rest in silent anticipation, ready to take their big sigh. There's an overwhelming, fervent feeling in the cold air.
And towns throughout Vermont also await the season in open anticipation. When the sap begins to run, the landscape is dotted with small chimneys, weaving thin wisps of sweet smoke upward. Festivals fill up the calendar and grocers big and small (in Vermont, they're wonderfully small!) stock their shelves with the year's harvest.
Vermont produces nearly half of the maple syrup collected in the United States, but it's not the only terrain blessed with the sweet sugar maple. Maple syrup is also produced throughout the rest of New England, within the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions, even Virginia.
After a maple-less trip to still snowy Vermont, I cruised southward to another maple state, Massachusetts. Not too far outside of Boston, I discovered a neighborhood farm, Natick Community Organic Farm, dedicated, among other things, to community agriculture education. There, I struck gold. Driving up the tiny dirt road, the small sugar shack was surrounded by tall stacks of wood, smoke was slowly billowing toward the treetops. I poked my head into the little hut and was instantly seduced by the heavy sweet smell of maple, wafting into every corner, filling my senses. It was a maple steam bath.
The fire beneath the evaporator was stoked continually and the sap vigorously boiled, was drawn, cooled and bottled. A single attendant watched and waited, worked and lingered as the sweet steam fogged the windows and veiled the air.
Maple syrup used to be a product of necessity, even if today's consumer sometimes considers it a luxury. I ran across a vintage poster along my journey that justified the high price, reading:
What does it take to make 1 Gallon of Pure Vermont Maple Syrup?
- It takes 4 maple trees, at least 40 years old, growing in the mountain "sugarbush" to yield enough sap in six weeks to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
- It takes a four foot log sawed, split, dried and burned in the raging fire in the "arch" under the evaporator for each gallon of syrup produced.
- It takes 40 gallons of sap, boiled down in the "evaporator" to concentrate the sweet sap-water into one gallon of maple syrup.
- It takes the whole sugarmaker's family to continually fire the arch, operate the evaporator and sterlize, filter, grade, and pack each gallon of syrup.
- So, If you had to climb the mountain, tap the trees, haul the sap, cut the wood, stoke the fires and pack the syrup to comply with the nations only strictly enforced maple laws, how much would you ask for a gallon of Pure Vermont Maple Syrup?
Indeed it's quite an arduous undertaking, and no need convincing this cook. Every time I pour sweet, warm pure maple syrup onto my morning oats, stir it into homemade granola, infuse a creamy custard or glaze a marbled piece of pork - everything's as good as gold.