Maple Syrup Season

McAllister's Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

McAllister’s Sugar Shack and Farm Stand, Waterford, Maine

Because Maine’s famous Maple Syrup Sunday falls the day before Pesach this year, I will already be back in my hometown.  On Maple Syrup Sunday, sugar shacks throughout Maine open their doors to the public for tours of their farms and syrup-making operations.  Besides free tastings (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried boiling maple syrup ladled on snow), they often have pancake breakfasts (not kosher) whose proceeds go towards local charities.

But the sugaring season started about a week ago, and it’s already possible to buy freshly made syrup from sugar shacks and farm stands, albeit without the bells and whistles associated with Maple Syrup Sunday.   Yesterday  was such a beautiful sunny day, I decided to visit 3 different sugar shacks and purchase syrup from each, since in any case the sugaring season is short and ideal weather conditions (cold nights and warm days) will not last forever!

You may be wondering, “Why go to more than one sugar shack?  Doesn’t all maple syrup taste the same?” but like wine, maple syrup varies in taste, quality and grade based on the location of the trees, weather, and technique.  Early in the season, the sap is lighter in color, with a more delicate, mild flavor (“Grade A Fancy: Light Amber).  A couple of weeks later, the sap’s color changes from light to medium amber, and is more viscous (Grade A: Medium Amber).  Towards the end of the season (2 – 6 weeks long, depending on weather conditions), the syrup is Grade B: Dark Amber with richer, more flavorful body – – a bit too strong for pancakes but suitable for use in baking.  Once the days warm up sufficiently for buds to appear on the maple trees, the season comes to an abrupt halt, as the formation of buds alters the quality of the sap dramatically.  Not only is the flow of sap greatly reduced, but it becomes bitter instead of sweet.

When I went to McAllister’s sugar shack in Waterford ME, I was pleasantly surprised by how light-colored the syrup was.  But unfortunately the price was prohibitive  – – $80 a gallon! – – so I settled for a quart for $20.  The proprietors – – like most sugar shacks, a family business and extension of their farm – – had been feeding the wood-fired stove and tending the evaporator for hours.  Steam rose in great billowy clouds to the top of the pine board interior of their large cabin-sized shack, perfuming the air with the scent of sweet maple.

Steam rises to the ceiling  from the evaporator in Mcallister's Sugar Shack

Steam rises to the ceiling from the evaporator in McAllister’s Sugar Shack (click to enlarge)

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually, turning it into syrup.

One of the men adds logs and stokes the fire that heats and boils the sap in the evaporator, eventually turning it into syrup. (click to enlarge)

The other two shacks I visited were not nearly as appealing.  One fellow’s trees had already budded, and his syrup was thick and dark as molasses.  It was fine for use in baking, but not so tasty for use on pancakes.  The other was producing the medium amber syrup, which is the most common grade available, but it could not compare to the syrup from McAllister’s shack.

When I returned from my syrup shopping excursion, my husband and I went on a hike through the woods on a snowmobile trail.  Although we heard several snowmobiles in the distance (they are really just glorified motorcycles on skis), none came our way.  The snow is melting quickly now with only about 4 slushy inches left on the ground – – we were glad we had carried our hiking poles to keep from slipping and sliding.  Although there are still ice fisherman out on the lakes, I keep wondering when I am going to hear about the inevitable shack that plunges into the water because its owner waited a little too long before spring melt to remove it.  Spring mud season is coming!  My Muck Boots stand at attention by the front door.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season.  They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike.  They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable).  They are worth every penny - - you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new.

Muck Boots are de rigueur in Maine during mud season. They are worn by farmers, woodsmen, and homemakers alike. They are made of heavy rubber and neoprene and are completely waterproof (and are quite comfortable). They are worth every penny – – you just hose them off when they get covered in mud and they are as good as new. They also keep your feet nice and warm in cold weather.  They can take all kinds of abuse and seem to last forever.

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