Maple syrup is made in the short span when winter is over, but it is not quite spring. In between times—the soft colors of dusk when it is no longer day, but not yet night, or those awkward years when a child is turning into an adult—are passages and celebrations of change. The annual rite of boiling sap on a bonfire shifts us from dark, drowsy winter days to the freshening and greening ahead.
It is time to let go of winter, and what a sweet way to do it. March is the month for making maple syrup, and in Maine, the fourth Sunday is Maple Syrup Sunday. Sugarhouses throughout the state open their doors and serve pancakes with syrup, or drizzle it on snow, or offer tiny cones of maple cream. Streams of families get outside and trudge through snow and mud to watch the clear sap drip from a hose and to see vats of amber syrup boiling and billowing steam. They sample and savor, then buy their yearly supply of the sweet amber liquid. Sugarbush tours and tapping demonstrations inspire future tappers and boilers. A sugarbush is simply a stand of sugar or other maple tees that are tapped for syrup.
In the shade, spring snow is grainy and crunches underfoot, a lingering reminder of the white frozen winter we leave behind. Overhead buds have ripened unnoticed, and the dormant trees feel the thaw in their veins. It is the cold nights, with below freezing temperatures, and warm days that cause the sap to run. The process of turning sap to syrup can be a simple production with a few taps and buckets, boiling over a bonfire, or a vast commercial venture. Large scale or small, syruping is frequently a family adventure.
The taps and other tools of the trade get more sophisticated every year. The metal spouts once driven into bark have been replaced with small plastic tips and a short hose that drips into a bucket, or connects to a long blue tube leading to a stainless steel vat. Maine Maple Products, Maine’s largest syrup producer, has been in the same family for generations, and taps over 80,000 trees. Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox is also family-run; owner Lee Kinney remembers tapping and making sap when he was a child. They now tap close to 9000 trees.
Tim Littlefield of Lucerne Maple Products has been tapping for forty-five years. He used to go with his uncles when he was ten or eleven and says he was probably not much help, but it got him hooked. “It’s a sickness,” he says, “it gets into your blood. My daughter asks me how much longer I’m going to be doing it. My answer is, ‘As long as I can.’” When Tim was thirteen he was allowed to drive the sleigh through the woods. In those days it was horse-drawn sleighs, metal buckets and taps, and boiling over wood. Today he has a sugarhouse with an evaporator, the trees are tapped with small plastic tips, and the sap drips into tubing draped through the woods into a stainless vat. He says the spirit is the same, though. It is his rite of spring, and after eight hours of replacing tips, repairing drop-lines and cutting up fallen trees, he takes a brief rest, outside, because being outdoors is one of the things he likes about syruping.
Tim has a truck fitted out with a large plastic tank to transport the syrup, and then there are bottles and labels. It is a big investment for a short season. “I don’t do it for a profit,” Tim says, “most of the profits go into new equipment.” He attends workshops, goes to seminars and what he calls Maple School every year. “It’s a better product than when I first started. The filters are better, we know more about bacteria, and keeping things clean, and we have better ways to measure. We all use hydrometers now. Forty-five years ago it was hard to even find one.”
Tim started with twenty-five taps as soon as he had property and maple trees of his own, and has expanded every year since. It is a family affair; his daughter helps bottle, and can run the evaporator, and come Maple Sunday his kids will be helping at the sugarshack. He takes special pleasure in sharing his passion with youngsters. “School groups come for tours, and I always tell them if they want to tap, I’m here to answer questions. Years later I’ll hear from kids who saw their first tap right here, and got hooked just like I did. They may have twenty-five taps, or a hundred.” Tim doesn’t know how many people he has helped get started. He also says each year folks ask him what the syrup season is going to be like. “Mother Nature hasn’t told me yet,” is his reply, or “Call me in six weeks and I’ll tell you.”
Tim turned backyard syruping into a full-scale business, but many families tap trees and keep it on a small scale, making enough for themselves and for gifts, or perhaps selling some to cover supplies. Greg Sanner of Town Hill has been syruping for four years, but said he has wanted to tap ever since he had a job hauling sap twenty-five years ago. He has expanded from a small wood burner behind the house to a converted goat shed with a gas stove and drip-feed boiling pan. He loves syrup, and making sure the family has a good supply comes first. He also has a strong Yankee ethic, and reuse, recycle figures strongly in his syrup operation. He made his first boiling pan from an old refrigerator door, and the lamp hanging beside the stove was being discarded at a tennis court. But the newer plastic tips get his approval. “They are much easier on the trees,” he says. “They don’t have to go deeper than a sapsucker hole.” Greg taps seven sugar maples, and has collected up to 900 gallons in a season. This boils down to enough extra syrup to sell at local markets or through word of mouth. The amber syrup in old-fashioned mason jars is clear and beautiful.
Both Greg and his partner Patti Savoie have full-time jobs, this is just a sideline, and Patti says she really just helps bottling and labeling. Still, it is a family affair. Their daughter likes to help collect, and their son helps gather wood for the bonfires—they herald spring and maple syrup season with all day-bonfire parties. Families, friends, kids, and dogs all congregate at the sugarhouse, eating, working and playing. “It is just so great to finally be outside again,” Patti says.
Getting outside, love of maple syrup, a family project; these are reasons given for maple syruping each spring. But the drive so many Maine families feel to tap trees and get their hair smoky tending bonfires, and backs aching hauling heavy buckets goes beyond reason. The call to change our focus from winter sports, or winter boredom, pulls us as if with strings out of the house to seek the sun, and see, and feel, and taste the return of spring. That taste is maple.
For a list of sugarhouses open on Maine Maple Syrup Sunday go to: http://www.mainemapleproducers.com/
Maple producers mentioned:
Lucerne Maple Products
352 Lower Dedham Road
Holden, ME 04429-9605
Maine Maple Products
Kinney’s Sugarhouse Knox, Maine www.mapleconfections.com
Maple Syrup Recipes
The simplest, and for many, the best.
A scoop of Maine-made vanilla ice cream with Maine maple syrup drizzled over the top.
Maple, Dried Fruit and Nut Salad
10 oz baby spinach
1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled
¼ cup walnut bits, toasted and tossed with nutmeg
½ cup mixed dried fruit: apricots, cranberries, cherries, figs
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Warm maple syrup in a small saucepan. Pour vinegar into a bowl and slowly whisk in olive oil. Drizzle in the warm syrup, stirring constantly. Place clean spinach on a large plate, pour warm dressing over and toss lightly. Top with cheese, nuts and fruit, give one more gentle toss, and serve.
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