All the local sugar shacks are busy creating maple syrup - days are warm and nights are cold and the sap is flowing. Sugaring time is the best time to go for breakfast, eat and buy fresh syrup, and tour the sugar house to watch the interesting process that, with the exception of a few modern adjustments, hasn't changed much over the years.
Inside, the sugarmakers were busy keeping a watchful eye on the syrup and answering questions about what they were doing. It was cozy warm, the air was full of the damp and slightly sweet scent of the bubbling syrup, and enormous clouds of steam were rising up to the vent in the roof.
We then observed the sugaring process:
- Plastic lines are now strung on the trees to collect the sap, and left there year-round, and the taps are also plastic. In olden times, the taps were wood, and the sap was collected in individual buckets which had to be repeatedly emptied. One of the old sugarmakers showed me the wooden tap he keeps close in his coat pocket - he made it when he was young from a piece of punky wood. A heated coathanger was pushed through the center and out the other end to make the hole for the sap. It has the polished patina of much use and much love.
- Part of a sugarmaker's year-round job is maintaining the lines, which animals and nature tend to upset. They keep logs of when lines were put up, and have a routine maintenance schedule to keep them new. We were shown a length of pipe with some fairly impressive bear teeth marks. Hands also leave sweat on the piping, which turns to salt, which attracts smaller critters, so sugarmakers now wear gloves when handling the piping.
- The sap from the lines feeds into the holding tank and a reverse osmosis (?) process is used to remove much of the water before the sap is boiled.
- Then, the sap is poured into the large vat over the "Maple Pro Erable" woodstove. It roils and boils ferociously - when wood is added to the stove, it makes the syrup bubble even more and a de-foamer is added to maintain control over it. The sugarmakers prefer to do their work at night when the barometric pressure stays more constant - this affects how long it takes the sap to turn into syrup.
- A large thermometer on the side of the tank tells how hot the syrup is. When it looks like it's at the right temp, a cylinder of fluid is drawn off. If it's ready, a long portable thermometer (think very large candy thermometer) will float at the right level between 2 red marks.
- It's now time to remove any accumulated minerals, strain it, and determine the grade. The grade is determined by a combination of color and flavor, and is still a human-based decision-making process. Paler grades of sugar used to be in high demand, as maple sugar and syrup were used as the main sweetener in homes and a strong maple flavor wasn't desirable. Now, however, a maple flavor in the sugar is considered a good thing, so the darker grades are more popular. Only mother nature controls what grade the syrup will be; it's kind of like having a baby - you just wait to find out what you're going to get.
- When ready, the syrup is poured into large barrels, and from there into correct containers.
After watching and listening for a while, we headed over to the homey Calf-A. The tablecloths and curtains are in a cow pattern, and the table containers are quaint baskets and painted tin cups. When we got to our seats we ordered mini corn muffins with maple butter, homemade (and delicious) applesauce, and of course pancakes and syrup, plus bacon and sausage. Everything was wonderful and we had such a terrific Berkshire morning. We bought a jug of syrup on our way out - a little pricey but we want to support a local farm. Then, a quick look at the animals, the hay, and the old farm implements, and we headed home. Nice day.