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March Madness

I am sitting here watching it pour rain and thinking that March is one of the most maddening months in Vermont. It can be absolutely the best skiing of the year with the most spectacular sunshine and warm days on the mountain that you have ever experienced, or it can be like it is today - pouring rain. But despite the change in weather almost daily, it is one of my favorite months.

Why? Because it is maple sugaring time. The sap has begun to run in the trees, you drive down one of the roads in Stowe and you see a trail of blue lines decorating the maple trees. When I am showing people real estate they ask me what the process is to make maple syrup. Most of them know the syrup comes from trees and that it taste good.

Back in the day, as they say, the maple trees were tapped with a spigot from which a bucket was hung. Sometimes a tree could have three buckets on it at once. Oh, I forgot to mention that there are various types of maple trees but the ones that produce the syrup are sugar maples. Makes sense doesn't it? Anyway, collecting the syrup from a full bucket meant that you had to team up the horses or start up the tractor , then with a holding tank on the back of a sled, you dump each bucket into the holding tank. Taking the holding tank full of sap back to the sugar house, it is siphoned into a larger holding tank, that feeds into the evaporator. From there it goes into the back pan where it boils over chambers to the front pan where it boils through a series of chambers until it becomes syrup.

Usually this is not a one man job because someone has to be at the sugar house to watch the syrup boil. But many times a farmer would collect during the day and boil at night, sleeping a few hours while keeping one eye open to the boiling sap. It is easy for the sap to get too hot and burn, when this happens you have lost a large production of syrup. Most of the sugar operations use gas but there are still a few who use wood furnaces. Because a "sugar bush" ( a grove of maple trees) needs thinning and continual maintainence there is wood for the furance.

Nothing is more beautiful than coming through the woods on your snow shoes, a crisp clear starry night overhead with the sugar house nestled among the trees. The smoke is coming out of the chimney and the steam from the syrup is coming out the vents in the roof, there is a glow of light in the windows and all around you is peace and quiet.

Nowadays, the sugaring is done by a blue plastic line connected to the tap. The syrup runs into the line, that line feeds to a larger trunk line and this line meanders down to a secondary holding tank or straight into the primary tank near the sugar house. At times it is still necessary to check lines to make sure there are no breaks or kinks in them, but now instead of horses, snowmobiles get there faster and easier. Still with all the new techniques, the end result brings the same old fashion taste of a luscious golden elixer.

It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Syrup comes in different grades: Light Amber- is very light and has a mild, more delicate maple flavor. It is usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder. This is the best grade for making maple candy and maple cream. Medium Amber - is a bit darker, and has a bit more maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup, and is usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, about mid-season. Dark Amber-is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer. Grade B-sometimes called Cooking Syrup, is made late in the season, and is very dark, with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavor. Although many people use this for table syrup; because of its strong flavor, it's often used for cooking, baking, and flavoring in special foods. My personal preference is Medium Amber.

I love maple syrup in my baked beans. Here is a recipe. I bet you have never had baked beans like this.

Baked Beans with Maple & Rum

4 cups dry navy beans 1 lb. salt pork or ham 1 cup maple syrup 1 cup maple sugar 3 qts. water 1 large onion 1 tbsp. salt ½ cup butter 1 tsp. baking soda 1 tsp. dry mustard 4 apples, cored & unpeeled ½ cup dark rum

Rinse beans, cover with cold water, soak overnight. Pour beans and water into large pot. Add baking soda and more water to cover beans. Bring to a boil uncovered and boil until some of the skins fall off when you blow on them. Line a bean pot with thin slices of the pork or ham, pour in beans and water. Roll onion in dry mustard completely and bury it in middle of the beans. Pour maple syrup and salt over top. Bake at 325°F for 4 to 5 hours. At the start of the last hour, place whole apples on top as close together as possible. Cream maple sugar and butter together and spread over top of apples. Pour rum over top just before serving.

Try this recipe and let me know what you think. If you are one of the first ten people to get back to me you will win a bottle of maple syrup. But you must respond to my blog.

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