Posts Tagged ‘syrup’

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.

What Sunshine Brings

After two weeks of cloudy skies, we woke up to bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies.  Although the forecast said it would be 45 F over Shabbos, we were surprised with 61 degrees!

I set up a chair outside to soak up the day’s warmth and when not reading, I enjoyed listening to the quiet and looking out into the woods.  My dog sat about a foot away from my chair, when suddenly a little black field mouse scampered between us.  My dog lifted his head in surprise, but looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “Nah, not worth it.” And so the mouse lived to see another day.

The warmth meant that cluster flies’ larvae hatched.  Cluster flies look exactly like common houseflies, and as far as I can tell they do not bite.  What makes them odd is how slowly they fly around, almost clumsy in slo-mo and masochistically easy to swat when they come into the house to annoy us.

In the midst of my lazing around I suddenly heard very loud buzzing.  I thought it was the cluster flies, but upon closer investigation I realized that the strong sunshine had warmed up the beehives and for the first time all winter, the bees had exited their hives and were foraging.  Unfortunately for them, there is simply nothing for them to forage – – there is no pollen nor flowers as yet, and they were angry, tired and weak.  One that flew near me plopped to the ground, wobbled a bit like a disoriented, drunken clown, and after a few tries managed to get airborne again.  There is still honey and some supplementary sugar paste in the hives which served to nourish them over the winter, so for those strong enough to find their way back to the hives, they would survive their premature exit.  I cannot help but wonder about all those who were not so lucky.

I walked quite a bit this Shabbos, trying to make the most of the glorious day.  The snow is thin, especially along the well-used snowmobile trails, and I suspect tomorrow will be the snowmobilers’  last day till next winter.  While out and about a fellow on a snowmobile stopped to talk to me.  I couldn’t really see who I was talking to, since he was wearing dark goggles and had on a full helmet.

“Was there enough snow on the trails?” I asked.

The man answered me and I really had to strain to understand his thick Maine accent, but I still missed much of whatever he had to say.  Suddenly I realized he wasn’t talking about snowmobiling at all, but maple syrup.  And then he said, “By the way, my name is Buck.” He pulled off his helmet and I realized it was the fellow I met at the local library this past Tuesday.  In a conversation I’d eavesdropped upon, he mentioned that his “trees were running well” which means that the syrup was flowing from his tapped sugar maple trees.  I stepped forward and asked him if he had any maple syrup to sell and he said I was welcome to come by later in the week when the syrup-making was further along, He’d tapped 72 trees so there should be plenty of sap this year, he said, and the warmer days and cold nights of the past week were ideal for a high yield.

Now here is a funny thing about rural Mainers:  they are suspicious of people “from away.”  Mainers are very friendly (you cannot walk anywhere down a country road without a passing car’s driver raising his hand to say hello), and some are downright chatty.  Ask advice about any topic and they are happy to give it, but never to take it.  Anyone worth his salt has been living here for generations, and they’re perfectly happy with life as it is and they don’t want to hear about how people “from away” do things or how things could be better.  To them, a person “from away” represents change, and perhaps altering the culture and values they cherish.  So when you meet a rural Mainer, they will be perfectly polite, and may talk your arm off for 30 minutes – – but they will never introduce themselves, and never tell you their name.  They might tell you their name if you ask (and then it would be only a first name), but it is considered rather uncouth to ask.  When I met Buck for the first time at the library and asked about his syrup, he told me on which rural road he was located, but no street number (even though there are 5 houses on that road), and he certainly didn’t offer his name.  Had I gone looking for him, I would have had to look for a small shed with a chimney (a sugar shack), or knock on doors asking for “the guy who makes syrup.”

So when he said, “my name is Buck,”  it wasn’t just an introduction.  He was not saying “you are one of us now” – – that will never be – – but he was saying, “I guess you’re here to stay, so  . . . welcome.”

And that was no small thing, here in rural Maine.