I was a child of Mrs. Butterworth’s, weaned on breakfasts of French toast floating in a sea of “pancake syrup.” Then I moved from southern California (home of all things imitation) to New England, where I tasted pure maple syrup for the first time. Real maple syrup, I discovered, is full of subtleties. It’s earthy, a little bit smoky, and tastes of caramel and fruit—nothing at all like the one-dimensional maple-flavored corn syrup that I used to drown my French toast in.
I’ve been fascinated with maple syrup ever since that first taste. It’s not just the flavor that intrigues me; the alchemy that turns tree sap into syrup is a fascinating one and something that I’d always wanted to witness firsthand. So early last April I found myself ankle deep in mud on a tree-covered mountain in northern Vermont, where I had come in search of the source of real maple syrup.
A visit to the sugarbush
The first stop on my maple pilgrimage was Dave Marvin’s Butternut Mountain Farm in the town of Johnson. Marvin made his first batch of maple syrup when he was eleven years old and has been making it ever since. A former head of the Vermont Maple Industry Council, today he’s one of the most respected sugarmakers in the state. And since that state is Vermont, you could say that Marvin is one of the most respected sugarmakers in the world. Sugarmakers are what the locals call the folks who make maple syrup. The groves of maple trees that cover the landscape are referred to as the sugarbush, and the process of making maple syrup is known as sugaring.
Vermont is serious about maple. The state makes over one-third of the nation’s maple syrup, about 500,000 gallons annually. (The title for the world’s largest maple syrup producer goes to Quebec.) Vermont has the most stringent grading standards of any state and a staff of full-time inspectors. Maple syrup from Vermont is denser than other maple syrups; it has less water and a more intense maple flavor.
Seeing the sugarmakers
To be sure to catch the sugarmakers in full swing, the best time to visit is during the second half of March and the first week or two of April. Don’t forget to bring your mud boots!
The sugarmakers below offer tours, and we’ve listed a few other points of culinary interest. For more listings or information and to order maple products by mail, contact the Vermont Department of Agriculture (www.vermontagriculture.com), 802-828-2416
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory
Billings Farm Museum
Goodrich’s Maple Farm
Simon Pearce Glass Studio & Restaurant
Sugarmakers live at the mercy of the weatherman
The night before I left my home in New York for Vermont, a blizzard of wet snow knocked down the power lines in my town, but the next morning the sun was shining bright, and I made the drive with only a light jacket. This dramatic swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures is ideal for sugaring. “It’s the weather that determines when the syrup is made,” Marvin explained to me.
Sugaring begins when daytime temperatures rise above 40°F and nights still fall well below freezing. As the trees freeze, they fill with sap; when they thaw, the sap begins to flow. The season begins in late February or early March and typically runs in fits and starts for six weeks or more into the middle of April. Cold daytime temperatures can halt the flow and an early thaw can bring the season to an abrupt end.
Changing from sap to syrup
As we walked through his grove of maples, Marvin offered me a taste of the sap that collected in one of the buckets that hung from a tree. I don’t know who first figured out that tree sap would taste good on top of pancakes, but whoever it was had an awfully good imagination. The thin, watery sap bears little resemblance to the sweet, dark syrup that comes in a bottle.
As Marvin told me, maple sap looks like water because that’s mostly what it is; the sugar content averages just 2% to 3% of the raw sap. In order to become syrup, the sap must be reduced and the water must be cooked away. Forty gallons of sap are required to make just one gallon of syrup.
Sugaring is broken down into three steps—tapping, gathering, and boiling. Tapping means drilling a small hole in the tree and fitting it with a spout. The sap that runs from these holes is collected and rushed back to the sugarhouse (maple sap is highly perishable) and transferred to an evaporator where it’s boiled down to syrup.
Anyone who’s ever made caramel can relate to the sugarmaker’s task. You stand around waiting and watching, and then, all of a sudden, it happens. The color starts to change and only a moment’s inattention stands between golden, fine-flavored syrup and a blackened disaster.
Syrup technology old and new
Syrup-making today is a wonderful combination of old-fashioned techniques and high technology. All over New England, families still hang tin buckets from stately backyard maples and boil down the sap on their kitchen stoves to make a few gallons of syrup.
Then there are men like Robert Howrigan, a seventh-generation sugarmaker who collects his sap in buckets, gathers it on horse-driven sleds, and transfers it to an ancient wood-fired evaporator via a wooden trough carved by his grandfather in the late 1800s.
Howrigan’s tin buckets and horses provide a stark contrast to the miles of plastic tubing that most commercial sugarmakers use today to collect the sap rather than incur the labor costs of collecting with buckets. Those tubes carry the sap to a reverse osmosis machine (a tool for larger-scale sugarmakers that separates the water from the sugar in the sap).
Color and flavor determine grade
As the sugaring season progresses, biochemical changes in the sap affect the color and flavor of the syrup. Early on, in the coldest part of the season, the syrup tends to be lighter and more delicate in flavor. As the weather gets warmer, the syrup gets darker and the maple flavor becomes more pronounced.
The lightest syrups are Grade A light amber—called Fancy in Vermont. The most delicately flavored syrup, Fancy fetches the highest price and is a sugarmaker’s source of pride.
Next comes Grade A medium amber and Grade A dark amber, each a bit darker and stronger in flavor.
Then there’s the dark, robust-flavored Grade B that has the most assertive maple taste. While the flavor of Grade A syrups tends to get lost when combined with stronger tasting ingredients, Grade B is robust enough to hold its own and is the syrup recommended for cooking and baking.
At the end of the sugaring season, the syrup tends to get very dark and intensely flavored. This Grade C syrup is used commercially as a flavoring and is not generally sold to the public.
I like maple syrup best when combined with rich, mellow ingredients, such as milk, cream, and butter, that let the maple flavor take center stage, but it also pairs surprisingly well with ingredients that counter the syrup’s sweetness (for suggestions, see below). This is something sugarmakers know well and is why they often eat dill pickles with their syrup.
Enjoy maple syrup in both sweet and savory dishes
Maple syrup’s mellow sweetness can complement a lot more than just French toast and pancakes. But its distinct flavor can overwhelm, so use a light hand.
- Add a pour of maple to braised red cabbage, especially when it’s flavored with a bit of smoky bacon and onion.
- Mix maple syrup, melted butter, and a bit of grated fresh ginger to brush onto winter squash during baking.
- Spike a pot of baked beans with a few tablespoons of maple syrup.
- Make a glaze of maple syrup, soy sauce, and a dash of hot sauce for basting roast chicken or Cornish hen.
- Substitute maple syrup for half of the sugar in a favorite bread pudding recipe.
- Toss chunks of apple with some maple syrup, a dash of cinnamon, and a sprinkle of lemon juice to use in an apple crisp or apple pie.
- Sweeten a cup of warm milk for a soothing, restorative bedtime drink.
Vermont maple sugar by mail
Butternut Mountain Farm
Couture’s Maple Shop
Gillian Family Farm