Sugar Season in a Small Town

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Every year, as February becomes March, our hearts begin to feel just a little bit giddy with anticipation. Down the road we wait for The Sign. When The Sign comes out it means that The Sugar Man is boiling!

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Yes, those are pet llamas.

Before I was swept from the west by a certain professorial boy, I thought syrup came from a factory. Maple and trees and sap happened in books, maybe. I don’t know. I was reading The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.

I grew up happily eating Mrs. Butterworth or some other generic variety. When I came to live in the sticks I saw buckets attached to trees and it was explained to me that the trees were dripping sugar that we were going to eat. is this for real?

The real stuff is so superior to the fake stuff that it took me a few years to like it. Saying that kind of thing in these pahts will get you looks of shock, pity, and a gasp or too – “Oh No!” It’s simply not done! In New England we eat real syrup boiled down from real sap procured from real maple trees. THE END.

The Sugar Man puts out the sign in March, after a long marathon of winter. All winter he and his crew have been checking buckets, sap lines, and taps. And every year is different than the rest. You need specific temperatures of cold and then a good thaw so the sap can run. It’s the life of a farmer: Some years are better than others with big bounty highs and disappointing lows that can kill a business. It’s part of the thrill.

When we see The Sign we travel down a gravel road that turns to dirt that turns to mud. Which is why March in this little town is also called “Mud Season,” a season to get your van stuck in the mud repeatedly with four children in the backseat shrieking, laughing, fighting, singing, and asking when we’ll get there. I love mud season. Because I love doing laundry.

Mud Season though, is better than Black Fly Season. A season which can make you go insane.

Mud Season you see, has amber waves of syrup.

DSC_0311This is Eric’s “The Sugar Man’s” Sugar Shack. Eric built it himself. It was a hobby that turned into an award-winning business. Why, his Tucker Mountain Maple, is a 1st place winner at the Sandwich Fair!

I just think it’s great that there is a town named Sandwich.

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Before we can get to the sugar house we have to traverse the mud by way of long boards, which is a rather exciting adventure for children and their Mama, too.

Public Service Announcement: You do not walk to the sugar shack in heels, flip flops, or anything white or adorable. Just believe me on this one.

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We know we’ve arrived by way of the giant maple leaf

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Walking into the sugar house, we are greeted by a warm mist mingled with the most divine smell…of sugar. Pure dark maple sugar that has been boiled down from sap that comes from trees – isn’t that remarkable?

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Here is Eric’s sugar record. The first year he put in 140 taps and got 24 gallons. Every year since he’s done better than the one before except for 2012 where we had the weirdest cold and warm spells and very little sap flowed.

So sad! Without sap there can be no syrup. We managed to procure a precious bottle and rationed it carefully for a whole year. Sometimes we have to hide the good stuff…

Boiling day is when we get to taste the fruits of The Sugar Man’s efforts. Eric and Heidi and their two girls, and volunteer sap collectors have long days collecting sap. Some seasons, especially when there is a record sap flow, there is very little sleep, just long days and nights of boiling and boiling and collecting and boiling.

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Of course, we have to do our part and drink those little sacrament cups of maple syrup samples. Preach!

There are different grades of sap and syrup. The lighter colored sap is the most desirable and will sell the best. The darker grade is rich and rustic and comes at the end as the tree is getting tired and running low, so it’s considered a lower grade.

When we take the little cup, the children look at their Mom – really? you’re letting us just drink sugar? Yes, darlings. Drink! Be filled! It’s plant based, right? It came from the trees!

It always reminds me of Buddy the Elf.

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And then we try the maple cream. Oh my goodness. On those cold, wet, dreary March days, standing in front of the wood burning stove drinking sugar and tasting maple cream dripped pretzels feels something like a Laura Ingalls storybook.

Eric, a former teacher and logger, and now an educator for NH Logger Association, used to chop all the wood himself and feed a wood fire evaporator and stove to boil the syrup. But now our Sugar Man uses pellets because it’s easier and he has ALS and needs it to be easier. We don’t worry of these things, or future sugar seasons.

A few months ago he said to me, “We’ll just go as long as we can go.”

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So that’s what we do too. We go as long as we can go. We enjoy the season we’re in, this glorious season of sugar.

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IMG_2903The Sugar Man and his Papa Sugar.

On the next warm weekend The Sugar Man and his troops will spray out all the sap buckets, a messy, wet, muddy process that marks the end of a glorious sugar season in a small New England town.

 

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8 thoughts on “Sugar Season in a Small Town

  1. Carrie Rubin

    When we visit my mother and step-father (a native New Englander) in New Hampshire, my poor step-dad cringes to see the boys and I use Mrs. Butterworth or some other grocery store brand on his homemade waffles. He has the real stuff, too, of course, and always tries to get us to use it, but we tried it once and didn’t care for it. I suppose, as you point out, it takes some time to get used to. Not sure he’ll ever have the pleasure of seeing us devour real maple syrup. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Dianne Salerni

    Oh, YUM!

    Now, I live in Pennsylvania, but I’ve been to Vermont and I KNOW the difference between Mrs. Butterworth and the REAL THING. But we only visit Vermont once in awhile to ski (unless Daughter #1 goes to UVM, which I’m rooting for), and my husband goes occasionally for work and brings back those little maple sugar candies I love so much.

    How wonderful to get the real thing, fresh boiled, straight from the tree!!!!

    Reply
  3. Heather Makechnie

    Maple syrup is the mother’s milk of a true New Englander.
    However, the olders among us remember when “bilin” meant long lines of willing onlookers making the trek to their local sugar shack to partake of that uber treat, “sugar on snow.” The last of the season’s corny snow was packed flat and a thin stream of super boiled golden syrup was drizzled over it in lacy swirls. We “tasters” scoured the local brush for a “just right stick” which we used to pry up some of the maple taffy. We balanced this amber lollipop in the one hand with a sour pickle spear in the other. Is your mouth watering? Good.

    Reply
  4. Marathon Glenn

    Also, for all you uneducated neanderthals out there, the word “syrup” is spelled with a y as the second letter, not a u. S.Y.R.U.P. Like Syria.

    Reply
  5. Jessica Lawson

    Yum, yum, yum! I would imagine getting used to the taste is the same as switching to all-natural peanut butter, where the only ingredient listed is “Peanuts” (not even salt). Once you get used to it, most brand peanut butters taste disgusting and grossly sugary. Love the photos in this post~ have you read Kate Messner’s middle grade book Sugar and Ice? Your daughters might like it!

    Reply

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