This past weekend was Maple Weekend in New Hampshire. Actually part of Maple Month, hosted by the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, sugarhouses statewide opened their doors to the public to share their centuries-old craft. Broken down by region, this weekend was the Lakes Region’s turn – we printed out a list of 23 participating saphouses.
This year’s weather has not been kind to the maple syrup industry. For the sap to run you need daytime temperatures above freezing and nights below freezing, and Mother Nature just has not cooperated this year. It has been frigid right into March. Generally we get single-digit overnight temperatures in January … this year it has continued right into early spring. It was 3 degrees when I left for work this morning.
So our first stop – Hunter’s Sugarhouse, right around the corner from my house – was a disappointment: there was no activity at all. With 1400 taps it is one of the largest sugarmakers in the area, having been in operation for generations. Our sugar-shacking day was not starting off well.
We visited three more saphouses this afternoon, though, and while there might not have been much sap to boil there were plenty of visitors to entertain. The houses and equipment ranged from state-of-the-art to downright vintage, and all the owners were eager to share the process of sap to syrup. The promotional material for the weekend had promised working demonstrations, tours, maple products, and food; being lunchtime, and hungry, we were mainly interested in the food. We were on a maple mission.
What the first place lacked in cuteness made up for with the attached bakery. We each bought a chocolate cherry scone (to die for) and had a cup of sap coffee. What is sap coffee, you ask? Sap is collected right out of the bucket – the one hanging on the tree – strained through a piece of muslin, and then added to a coffeepot while brewing. At this point it is the consistency of water. The result is a cup of coffee that is slightly sweet but smooth, not quite like flavored coffee but neither overly sugary nor maple-y. (And I drink my coffee black.) It was good enough that I thought it might be fun to tap a tree on my own next year and see what I get.
The second saphouse was new and had an enormous shiny boiler that we were told cost $27,000. It was a thing to behold. This place had a display of taps and how they had changed over the years, which was interesting, but even better were the goodies offered in the shed next door. There were all kinds of maple products but what got our attention were the hot dogs cooked in sap! “Maple dogs” – who knew? In the name of experimentation we each tried one, gave it a thumbs-up, washed it down with some hot apple cider, and then bought a few things in their gift shop. There seemingly is almost no end to what you can do with sap.
The last saphouse was our favorite. We almost got lost finding it – with a GPS, no less – as it was way out in the boonies. But it was vintage, cute, and we were greeted by a pair of dogs. There was a crowd of people there – most of whom knew each other, I think – watching kids slide down a well-groomed snow trail through the woods on a plastic sled. (By the time they reached the bottom of the hill they were airborne.) This place, a wood-fired operation, was chock full of cool old stuff and provided us with a half hour of entertainment, courtesy of the very talkative owner. By the time we left the saphouse was full of steam from the boiler and the maple smell was heavenly.
The only things missing from our afternoon tour, according to the literature, were sugar-on-snow (which I’m sure we could do ourselves, not lacking snow this year) and some good cider doughnuts. We were happy with what we found, though, and grateful for such a uniquely New England weekend. This time of year, with spring just barely out of reach, it feels good to get out of the house and see what’s under all that ice and snow. And when the sap rises the promise of a new season is not far off.