Tag Archives: maple syrup

All things maple

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New Hampshire sugar shacks fired up their evaporators this weekend and opened their doors to the public for Maple Weekend 2015. There was a long list of participating sugarhouses throughout the state, so today I chose one not too far from here and took a Sunday drive under brilliant blue skies.

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This particular farm, about an hour away, was set amid a network of dirt roads. They had horses, chickens, two golden retrievers, and the friendliest cat in New Hampshire. The young woman who was boiling the sap said in a good year they do about 125 gallons of syrup, but because of the very cold weather they’ve done just a fraction of that this year. With a window of only 5-6 weeks, losing even one week’s time can put a big dent in the production.

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With the goal of educating the public on how maple syrup runs from tree to table, the process was explained to the onlookers in the sugarhouse and we were offered maple doughnuts, sugar-on-snow, and taste-testing. All were approved!

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Now loaded up on sugar, I made my way back to the car and came across the previously mentioned friendly cat. In fact, he was so friendly that after a few head-pats he assumed he could go home with me.

I think not, kitty. Had a heck of a time getting him out of the car.

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The next stop was completely unplanned; I found the next sugarhouse as I was making my way back to the main highway. It was also in a highly unusual place: directly across the street from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway! (I suppose it’s a great spot to be selling maple products to the tens of thousands of tourists who flock here several times a year.) This was actually more of a gift shop, but they were boiling sap in the back room with a huge, shiny-new-looking evaporator. In the front, though, was live music and a crowd of people.

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Photo Mar 29, 11 53 54 AM (Large)

My third stop was our local sugar shack, just around the corner from where I live, and still my favorite. Many generations of the same family have collected and boiled sap off their land here. I stopped for photos only – I love the sight of the hundreds of silver sap buckets hung from the stick-bare trees amid the snow and mud, and the sound of the drip-drip-drip hitting the metal. It’s the classic image of spring (or, as they like to call it here, Mud Season) in New Hampshire.

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So how would I sum up this sunny Sunday?

Sweet.

 

 

Sugar-Shacking

Photo Mar 23, 2 09 15 PM (Large)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.

Notice how only the tops of the gravestones are visible!

Notice how only the tops of the gravestones are visible!

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.

FROM 2013 Photo Mar 10, 2 40 22 PM (Large)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.

Photo Mar 23, 3 06 18 PM_ (Large)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.

Photo Mar 23, 3 01 54 PM (Large)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.

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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.

Photo Mar 23, 3 02 17 PM (Large)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.

Photo Mar 23, 2 59 14 PM (Large)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.

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Mud season

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo Mar 10, 2 49 24 PM (Large)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!

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Photo Mar 10, 3 09 10 PM (Large)There are plenty of things New Hampshire isn’t in late winter …   Warm.  Green.  Thawed.  But if you want a little piece of maple heaven, this is the place to be.

It’s a bumpy road into spring

With the snow rapidly receding in the wake of our record-breaking, near-70 degree temperatures today, the focus shifts to spring.  Photo possibilities become something other than winter white.  Color gradually begins to work its way back into the landscape.

And what is there to do here in New Hampshire in late winter/early spring?  Navigate the frost heaves, for one thing.  It’s a good excuse to slow down and admire the view (and save yourself a front-end alignment).

Or … go fishing.  This photo was taken in the local hardware store – does your hardware store have a view like this??  The bobhouses have been pulled off the lake, though, and ice fishing probably isn’t recommended at the moment.

Buy some fresh maple syrup.  I drove past our local farm yesterday and they were boiling … steam pouring out the roof and the driveway into the place engulfed in mud.  Do you know it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup?  A saphouse in March is a sight to behold.  Inside, the tastes and smells are even better.

Take a class.  The local paper last week offered many to choose from at the high school.  This was a topic of conversation at the office today … some were a bit unusual.  How about “The Widower’s Guide to Survival”? What about us widows … are we being discriminated against?  Or “High End Salads” … Meaning what??  And our favorite, “Spring Babies From Wool Balls.”  I don’t even want to go there.

Mud season, sap season, early spring, late winter … call it what you want.  It’s the season of hope, of a fresh start, of looking forward to the days to come filled with mosquitoes and blackflies.  For now, I’ll stick with the frost heaves.