Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maple Syrup from the Source

After a long, cold winter, maple sugaring season has finally arrived in the Pioneer Valley. Despite the early ice storm that devastated several Western MA communities, many farmers say the maple trees made it through and this will be another good year for sugaring.

As luck would have it, we just finished up our supply of maple syrup last weekend, so we decided to go to a local sugar shack to stock up and check out the operation. This morning we headed out to the North Hadley Sugar Shack on Rt. 47 in North Hadley. The North Hadley Sugar Shack not only gives tours of their maple syrup operation, they also serve breakfast Friday-Sunday and have a small petting farm for kids, so you can bet this is a popular destination. When we arrived, the parking lot was full and we had to drive a ways up the street that runs beside the farm to park on the side of the road. As soon as we got out of the car, we started to see signs of maple sugaring - old fashioned taps and buckets:

(Many large sugaring operations today use lines instead of taps and buckets. The lines are long plastic tubes connecting the taps from tree to tree to tree, so when you want to collect the sap, you just have to go to 1 place on the line and open it up. With taps and buckets, you have to individually empty each bucket into a larger vat.)

We had planned to eat breakfast at the sugar shack, but by the time we made it in to the restaurant from our parking spot, they said it would be at least a 90 minute wait. At that point, we were fairly hungry and desperately in need of our morning coffee, so we decided to just do the tour of the sugaring operation, pick up a new supply of maple syrup and grab some coffee (and breakfast) elsewhere, where the wait wouldn't be long.

As we set off around the side of the restaurant, we ran into the horse drawn carriage ride getting ready to leave on its first trip of the day:

The cart it was pulling was filled with happy children, excited to be going for a ride. (As I mentioned, we hadn't had coffee yet - and Mr. ValleyWriter can be a little grumpy pre-coffee - so I didn't dare ask him if I could go for a ride....)

We continued on into the sugaring room. Here they take the sap from the trees and boil it down into syrup. Today, boiling was in full swing in a wood-fired evaporator. We got to watch as the farmers boiled the sap, checking the consistency every so often to see the progress. The room was filled with steam, which is what the majority of the sap eventually turns into.

As you can see from the sign above, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce just 1 gallon of maple syrup. It's a very time and labor intensive process, which explains the higher price tag for real maple syrup vs. "pancake syrup." (But trust me, one taste of this liquid gold and you'll never go back to the fake stuff.)

They had a video set up explaining the sugaring process from start to finish, as well as samples of some freshly made Grade A syrup (the lightest syrup that's made at the start of the season). It was sweet and light and delicious, though I must admit I prefer the Grade B syrup that gets made at the end of the season. It's a darker, heartier syrup with more maple flavor. It's often recommended for cooking and baking (a general substitute for sugar in baking is 3/4 c. maple syrup plus 1/4 tsp. baking soda, minus 3 Tbsp. of liquid in the recipe). But I think it's also wonderful on pancakes, waffles, etc. The intense maple flavor just can't be beat.

On our way out, we also stopped by the little petting farm and said hello to some goats and a sheep eating their breakfast:

Then it was on our way to find our own breakfast. Next time, I'd like to try out the breakfast here, but I think our best bet would be to come right at 7am when they open (that might be a tough sell). If you're in the area - check it out. It's always neat to see where your food comes from - and the North Hadley Sugar Shack makes it a fun outing for all.


Anonymous said...

omg, how fun does this look?? I don't think hadley is super far from us either.

Mediterranean Turkish Cook said...

This is so interesting. I never realized or even thought about how maple syrup is made! Thanks for sharing.

Tangled Noodle said...

What fun! I remember taking a field trip in elementary school (Ottawa, CAN) to a maple syrup 'farm'. We ate breakfast and then watched the syrup being boiled. Then, of course, we used our lunch money to buy candies and little bottles of the sweet stuff which we gorged down on the bus ride back! Ah, memories . . .