The entire process of making maple syrup is mysterious and magical to me. The sap beginning to flow, drawing from the roots of the thawing trees and dripping into the buckets with a rhythmic "plonk," filling them to overflowing and then some on a good day. The way sap moves along a gravity-fed line, long air bubbles visible, into a large collection tank, where it waits to be transported to the sugarhouse, or even how a vacuum-flow line pulls the sap to its collection destination.
Add all the steam, smoke from the fire and roiling of the sap as it boils in the pans, the way a dash of cream breaks the foaming and the fancy tools that look as though they belong either onboard a ship for navigation or back in a chemistry classroom, and I am humbled.
Fortunately for the rest of us, most of what I describe above is well-understood by our maple producers. They prepare and plan as best they can, watching and waiting for the sap to begin running so as to capture the best crop of sap they can, hoping to yield the maple syrup that will be sold to us for our pancakes and waffles, oatmeal and breads, dressings and sauces. They have the equipment and know-how to turn this crop of theirs into something indescribably delicious and well-worth both the price and wait, but they, too, are operating with an element of the unknown. As with any kind of farming, sugaring is fraught with risk. Some decisions are based on best guesses and there are some things that no matter what their experience, they just can’t be sure of.
This past March came back as the coldest on the books in Vermont, and most of us will accept this news with an "I could’ve told you that!" as we had all waited and waited for some relief -- even a day or two -- from the seemingly never-ending chill that accompanied each of March’s 31 days. Having grown up with grandparents who sugared, I felt as if my internal clock was a bit off -- it seemed too far into the season to not have visited a sugarhouse whose evaporator was steaming mightily as it turned sap into syrup. But honestly, what did I know?
Even though I miss it now, the extent to which I actually participated in the process of making syrup was limited mostly to gathering sap, swinging buckets up to a cousin in the back of the old pickup truck and helping to wrangle the pump to the occasional collection tank. I showed up when told to, dressed ready to scale snowbanks and prepared to be sloshed with sap, knowing that at some point there would be a taste of warm syrup and probably some good dinner to be had in Grandma’s kitchen. This was not about production, grade or income -- this was about family and hard work, important to a teenager, but not quite the same.
My grandparents knew, as other producers know, the intricacies and connections between temperature, weather and all those other variables that we laypeople are flummoxed by and how they affect the bottom line. Even so, no one ever presumes what a sugaring season will yield. This year some producers had hoped that with such an "old-fashioned" winter the season would be a good one. What many found was that by the time the frost had lessened its grip on the roots of the sugar maples allowing the sap to flow the sun was too high in the sky and the nights just didn’t get cold enough. Days never really warmed up, either.
For most Southern Vermont producers, this production season was a quick one, producing about half of the syrup that they hoped. But most local producers that I have spoken with accept this pretty pragmatically -- this is how it was, time to clean up and move on -- after all, there is always next year.
Supporting the local maple industry is one of the best ways we can offset any difficulties the producers may face this year. And this suggestion doesn’t go just for this year, or even just for maple -- supporting out farmers is imperative to maintaining the rural lifestyle that we love here.
I’m making an effort to use more maple products in new ways. Maple cream (there is no dairy here -- just syrup that has been boiled and then stirred, stirred and stirred some more -- is great on pancakes and toast in the morning. I am learning how to substitute maple sugar and syrup in more recipes that call for cane sugar and have been really pleased with the results. I’m also including a couple recipes from a mimeographed sheet distributed by the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association that I found among my grandmother’s things. They are new to me and delicious, and I like following in the footsteps of people who know, understand and live by the unpredictability and mystery of the maple season.
Delicious Maple Bars
1Ž2 cup sugar
1Ž2 cup soft shortening
1Ž2 cup maple syrup
2Ž3 cup flour
1 cup chopped nuts or coconut
1 cup rolled oats
1Ž2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees; grease an 8"x 8" pan. Mix all ingredients thoroughly and spread into pan. Bake 30-35 minutes; cool and cut into squares.
Vermont Spring Chicken
1 2 1Ž2 -3 pound chicken, cut up
1Ž4 cup butter, melted
1Ž2 cup maple syrup
1Ž2 teaspoon lemon rind
1 teaspoon salt
1Ž4 cup chopped almonds
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange chicken pieces in a shallow, buttered baking dish. Combine remaining ingredients and pour evenly over chicken. Bake uncovered until juices run clear, about 45 minutes, basting occasionally.
Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.