Yesterday was Maine Maple Sunday, a fairly brilliant campaign organized by the Maine Maple Producers Association. On the fourth Sunday in March, sugarhouses all over the state open to the public, offering tastings, demonstrating the process, and generally having a sweet time. A lot of smaller operations aren't on the website map - I headed over to visit my friends Patti and Greg at Heart of Eden here in Bar Harbor. This is Greg's sugarshack:
Looks a lot like an iceshack, doesn't it?
For my friends outside Maine, a couple of definitions might be in order.
Sugarhouse: this can be either the building in which the sap is boiled down ("I've been down in the sugarhouse all morning.") or a business ("My grandfather started the sugarhouse back in the 1940s.")
Sugarshack (or sugar shack): always the building.
Sugarbush: a stand of maple trees tapped for sap. I only know people who tap sugar maple (Acer saccharum) but it's also possible to tap silver maple (Acer saccharinum). The botanical names are a clue.
So what's inside a sugarshack? Well Greg's got an ancient restaurant stove under an enormous pan he built himself. That white bucket in the background is about half full of sap. The tubing leads into the large pan, and the sap trickles in constantly as the pan bubbles and the boiling liquid evaporates and thickens. After about five hours or so, Greg will let it cool a bit, then pour it into another pan, which you can just see on the right there (much smaller), and let it bubble away for a few more hours, thickening even more.
Greg at work.
The boiling sap. It looks like water when it comes out of the tree, but gets darker and darker as it thickens. The syrup produced at the beginning of the season is lighter than the stuff made at the end, and the flavor changes through the season.
I usually like mine dark-dark-dark (also the way I like my coffee and chocolate) but I bought some early syrup from Patti yesterday and the flavor was so different I may convert. I can't describe the difference, either. I need some syrup-tasting vocabulary! In fact, I think I'll go have a spoonful now and ponder that.
If you'd like to learn more about making maple syrup, my friend Karen wrote the definitive article, full of facts, figures and funny anecdotes, for Maine Morsels. The only thing she got wrong is that nobody around here buys a year's supply of maple syrup in one day. It wouldn't fit in the house!