Our original plan had been to visit 3 different sugar shacks (there are over a hundred sugar houses open to the public throughout the big state of Maine on Maple Syrup Sunday, annually held the fourth Sunday of March), but Google maps and our GPS did not take into consideration that many dirt roads in Maine are closed in winter. So after driving about 15 miles on a dirt road, only to find that we should have approached our destination from the other side of the mountain because the end of the road from our direction had not been plowed all winter and was therefore completely inaccessible, we limited our itinerary to two places, Thunder Hill Farm in Waterford and Balsam Woods Farm in Raymond.
The cold was biting, yet the sun shone and the skies were clear – perfect for sap-tapping.
I was happy we chose Thunder Hill Farm. Although they have taps on 350 Sugar Maple trees, their equipment is fairly old-timey and their output is very small – a real family operation done more for love than profit. The very gracious Bells, a husband-and-wife team with two strapping sons, derive most of their income from raising Scottish Highland Beef cattle. They had parked two of their steers (who were not the Highland Beef breed) near the sugar shack so they could revel in the visitors’ pats and attention (they looked like oxen to me, but Mr. Bell politely informed me that “ox” refers to a steer that is over 4 years of age. Live and learn).
The Bell sons ran the sugar operation. One brother would get up at 6 a.m. to start the day out in the woods, checking and maintaining the taps, and as the day warmed up and the sap began to flow, he’d collect that by pouring the sap into a large sealed vat mounted on the back of his pickup truck. He’d then drive the truck to the shack, where brother #2, who started during the afternoon shift, would pour the sap into the evaporator, stoking the wood-powered contraption to boiling temperatures and ensuring it would stay at even temperatures for the many hours needed to turn the sap into syrup and bottling it – usually til 2 a.m. The sap had started running two weeks ago, and they had been at it ever since, already going through 5 cords of wood so far to keep that fire burning and the sap boiling. (To give you an idea of how much 5 cords of wood is: if we use only wood to heat our entire home through the whole 4 1/2 months of winter, we will use a total of 3 cords of wood.) Although their evaporator is a pretty impressive piece of equipment, it’s not the most efficient one made. Of the 350 – 400 gallons of sap they’ll get from their trees (it varies year to year depending on weather conditions), they’ll only yield approximately 35 gallons of syrup.
I asked the son if he uses butter to prevent foaming and over-boiling. “Nope,” he replied. “For one thing, I don’t overload the evaporator, so there is plenty of room for the sap to boil. For another, I babysit it all night, so it never boils over or foams up enough for me to need to add anything extra.” Their syrup is 100% pure maple syrup: kosher and pareve! After the sap turns to syrup, it is run through a filter, and bottled immediately thereafter. The Bells don’t bother to grade their syrup, because their output is so small and anyway, “It’s top quality, so we’re sure it’s grade A.” In larger operations, syrup is graded (A or B, with A being the clearest and with highest sugar content) as well as graded for color (light amber is milder; dark amber is a more intense flavor. The intensity of color usually increases as the season progresses).
Sugar Maple sap is clear, thin liquid, and looks and tastes like nothing more than, surprisingly, water. It’s truly miraculous to think that this thin runny stuff turns into liquid gold, not to mention how the heck someone (Native American Indians?) figured out that by cooking it for hours and hours, such a tasty treat would result.
Every day Son #1 checks the taps not only for output of flow, but for color. The minute the color of the sap at the tree site changes from clear to a light yellow or amber, sugaring season is officially over. The cause of the change is warmer night temperatures. Once the outside temperatures start to warm up, maple buds form on the tree branches. Not only does the flow decrease dramatically or cease altogether, the sap that runs is bitter and useless for sugar production. A good season can last 6 weeks. Last year’s season was especially bad – only 2 to 3 weeks. This year, despite complaints that it’s been a bitterly cold spring, it’s been great for the maple trees, and the season will be at least 8 weeks long, with a bumper crop of running sap. Even if a cold snap reappears after a warm spell, once those buds have formed, it’s too late to resume tapping.
We made our way out of the cozy, steamy sugar house to the barn cellar, where Mrs. Bell was selling Thunder Hill maple syrup in a variety of sizes. It’s not cheap – a half-gallon is $30 – but after we calculated the man-hours involved cutting, hauling and stacking the wood, the cost of the evaporator and other supplies, and the extreme care taken in syrup production, we couldn’t figure out how the Bells could do anything more than break even. Clearly for Thunder Ranch, maple sugaring was a labor of love and a cherished family tradition that they were generous in sharing with others.
Just as I was leaving, Mrs. Bell tried to entice me with a sample of her maple creme. I asked her how it was made and with what ingredients. “Just maple syrup,” she said, sharing the recipe. “You take maple syrup and heat it to 239 degrees. Then you must cool it down very quickly – – we use snow. Then you whip it in a mixer, and it turns to a creamy consistency.”
Because their operation is so small, Mrs. Bell doesn’t have a special whipper for her maple creme. “I just use the paddles on my kitchen mixer.” Okay, so her maple creme wasn’t kosher. But it meant that at a larger sugar house where no anti-foaming additive is used, maple creme could theoretically be made on a dedicated machine and therefore kosher and pareve.
We thanked the Bells for their patience in explaining everything maple, and opening their sugar shack on Maple Sunday. We were on our way, 1/2 gallon of mellow Thunder Hill syrup in hand, to Balsam Ridge Farm for a taste-test comparison, and to learn even more about maple sugar production, this time on a much larger scale!