March came in like a lion with another storm that dropped a foot of wet, heavy snow in many places in New England. Then, being the fickle month it is, the sun came out and blessed us with a warm, bright weekend. This late winter/early spring weather is how New Hampshire comes by its fifth season: mud season.
So on a brilliantly sunny Sunday we set out for our local farm to see if the saphouse was running – it’s that time of year. As we rounded the curve on Mountain Road we were rewarded with the sight of steam coming from the saphouse roof, and the rule is that if they’re boiling, they are open for business. We parked, avoiding the puddles, and picked our way along the snowy path to the front door.
This farm is glorious in March … nothing but leafless stick-trees and the timeworn shingled sugar shack. It is beautiful in its stark simplicity. The sky was a royal blue, the ground a mucky mess, and the interior of the building a maple sauna.
We were handed a small paper cup of fresh, warm syrup to sample as we watched the boiling process. The sap is poured into a stainless steel cooking bin, uncovered, that is set on top of a wood fire that burns long and hot. As the sap is boiled the water content is removed, leaving only the syrup. The sugary foam forms bubbles on top, which is skimmed off. The process involves lots of stirring and testing before the syrup is graded and poured into containers; the grading is based on color, flavor and consistency.
Everything smelled of woodsmoke and maple. Several other people were in the saphouse, joking and visiting, and we took some photos. One man asked if we wanted him to roll the big wooden door halfway shut so we could see the generations worth of seasonal information penciled on it; we did, and he replied, ”Well since you aren’t professional photographers, I’ll do it.” This brought some laughs, and one of the women said to us, “You just missed all the excitement!” When we drove in we had seen a man traipsing around in the snow carrying a big camera and an even bigger tripod, and apparently he had come into the saphouse with a request. He asked if they would move one of the sap buckets to another tree for him, presumably for photographic purposes. While no one actually said if they honored his request, they finished the story by telling us that the tree he wanted the bucket moved TO was not a sugar maple! So, heads up … if you’re flipping through a magazine and come across a beautiful photo of a sap bucket hanging from a birch tree, you’ll know the backstory. Darn city folk!