Down East 2013 ©
Photography by Ted Axelrod
The moment my husband, John, and I pull open the door of the shack and enter from the cold, it feels like we’re walking into a sweet, sticky sauna. Our glasses steam up. The aroma of hot griddle floats above the din of cheerful voices. We have to press ourselves into the crowd, as though entering a subway car at rush hour, and find our way to the end of the line. With my specs in hand, I fuzzily make out row after row of picnic tables filled with families, elders and tots, elbow to elbow, hunched over their own personal Styrofoam plates of the lightest, fluffiest pancakes imaginable. One chubby girl of seven or eight seems to be wrestling with hers. Her plastic fork can’t quite cut through the spongy interior. Finally, she daintily pins down an edge of the pancake with one finger and, with her fork, stretches a bite up into her mouth.
Okay, so I’m staring at her. I don’t care. All I can think is Hurry up, kid. People are standing here starving.
It’s just after nine on a March morning in Limerick. But not just any morning. It’s Maine Maple Sunday, an annual event in which maple syrup producers from across the state fling open their doors to celebrate the bounty of the season with free samples, demonstrations, games, wagon rides, and more. Attendees — whose numbers are in the thousands — range from ardent aficionados to those who wouldn’t know a sugar bush from a sugarplum. But there is one shared enthusiasm: a hankering for a taste of something as sweet as springtime itself.
John, who works in the wine business, falls into the former camp. Beyond the vine, he also has a keen palate for syrup. Even though our cellar is amply stocked with the stuff, each season he coaxes me out into the Maine countryside to sample and forage, and we never leave a sugarhouse empty-handed. That’s because, according to my syrup man, each one is different. As with wine and coffee, terroir — or the soil, climate, and conditions where the sap is sourced — affects the flavor. Even sap taken from the same forest can vary from one day to the next, depending on its sugar content. Taste also depends on how quickly the sap is processed after it leaves the tree, how long it’s boiled, and even the type and condition of the equipment. And that, he says, is why we always need more.
To be honest, I could never tell much difference. I certainly knew the real thing from the chemical/corn syrup crap that passes itself off as commercial “maple syrup,” but beyond that, it was all pretty much the same deliciousness to me. So I proposed a challenge: part Amazing Race, part syrup tasting. We’d collect samples from as many sugarhouses as we could in one day, bring them home, and taste them using wine-judging standards. John agreed.
Prior to, I did what I do best: I spent days planning out a route. The Maine Maple Producers Association has a useful and user-friendly Web site with an interactive map that not only flags where many of the state’s sugarhouses are located, but it also contains helpful pop-ups about each when you roll your curser across them. Armed with that information, and using Google maps and my trusty DeLorme Gazetteer, I put together an itinerary that started in the state’s southwestern corner and made a wide arc around Sebago Lake.
And that is how we came to be standing in this long, snaking line at Morin’s Maple Syrup all-day, all-you-can-eat community pancake breakfast. Every so often a side door opens into the sugarhouse and admits, with a gust of steam, another parade of people who have filed by the gleaming evaporator and visited with the sugar-man. Before I know it, we’re nearing the head of the line, where a hulking man is hunched over an enormous mixing bowl, spinning batter with — what’s that? — an electric hand drill, with a paint mixer attachment on the end. A very in-charge and completely unharried woman takes our money ($4.50 per adult) and slides two plates of pancakes, each accompanied by a small Dixie cup of syrup, our way. We jostle upstream, against the line, and settle into a corner, joining a family, who is just finishing up. The father is egging on the middle-school-aged son to step up for more, but the mom puts the brakes on. “Look at his eyes. He’s in a food coma. He’s had enough.”
After we finish, I approach the free-sample table, bumble my way through an explanation of what we’re doing, and then hold out one of the twelve sample cups I’ve brought with us. I’m given a drizzle, but I don’t think it looks sufficient for our tasting test. Pulling a pitiful Oliver Twist face and using a vocal pitch that would attract dogs, I ask, “Could I trouble you for just a teeny bit more?” The very accommodating volunteer complies, I think, just to get rid of me.
The drive out had been serene. Once we left the Greater Portland area, which was in the throes of mud season, we turned the clock back to full-on winter. Past Hollis Center, snow was still piled high around stone walls, horse farms, stark fields, and decrepit barns. But there was one clear sign of spring: plastic and galvanized steel buckets hanging from trees, heralding us into sugar bush country.
The term sugar bush does not actually refer to a bush at all. It means a stand of sugar maples (Acer saccharum), also known as rock or hard maple. Raw sap from these trees, which is nearly tasteless, is usually around 97 to 98 percent water, with the remaining percentage sugar and just a fraction of trace minerals. It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, which comes in four grades: Grade A light, medium, and dark amber, as well as Grade B, which is used industrially and in processed food.
But you need more than the right tree to make syrup. As winter ends, sugar, which is stored in the trees’ roots, moves into the trunk to nourish spring buds. Specific climatic conditions — a string of warm, sunny days and below-freezing nights, which are so characteristic of Maine’s springs — are also required. (It’s said that Thomas Jefferson tried to start his own sugar bush at Monticello. While the trees did okay, the sap lacked sugar. No sugar, no syrup.)
Just how all this sap collection and syrup-making started is spotty, but it’s known that Northern Native Americans so valued syrup that it was used both as commodity and currency. They gathered sap into thick wooden containers and did what they could to hasten the evaporation process, such as dropping hot rocks in it. When those clever Europeans arrived with their iron cauldrons for boiling, the game changed forever. Today, even though the technology has advanced — from the collection of sap through vacuum tubing to removing as much as 80 percent of the water before the sap is boiled with high-tech, reverse-osmosis machines — the primary concern is the same: part the sugar from the water . . . ASAP. And if that means staying up all night, well, that’s just the price that’s paid for spinning liquid gold.
With my Gazetteer open on my lap (no GPS for these adventurers), we swoop up and down dramatic hills and around forested bends, with buckets hanging and bright blue tubing running from tree to tree, like police tape. No matter how much territory I’ve covered in the state of Maine — and I think I’ve seen it all — every so often I stumble upon a new and beautiful unturned stone like this, the greater Newfield area. Our next stop is at Hilltop Farms, where we trudge alongside other pilgrims up the steep grade from where we left our car. We weave our way around the sap-lugging contest, where a very determined three-year-old is carting her bucket into the home stretch on a muddy track, and make our way to the free-sample line, which stretches fifty or so people back. I eschew all my mother’s good training about manners and fairness and creep up to the front, where I quickly and quietly explain my mission to one of the volunteers. Without a second look, the server gives her dispenser a generous pump and almost fills my cup. Wow, that was easy, I think. I like cutting the line.
I have the same good fortune at our next stop, Sugar Hill. The two women staffing the sample table are equally generous with their pour. In addition to the standard syrup on ice cream, they’re also handing out maple cream (syrup that has been boiled to a solid) on peanuts and pretzels. We cast a glance back as we head to the car.
Sugarhouses can resemble anything from grandpa’s shed to a swanky getaway lodge. Although some modern evaporators are enclosed and vent the steam through a side pipe, and oil-burners are not uncommon, the classic look for these structures is an open rooftop cupola with white steam billowing out, beside a wood-smoke stack. If the product wasn’t so pure and the setting so bucolic, the whole affair could be said to look industrial.
The snazziest “shack” we encounter is Thurston and Peters Sugarhouse, a new facility in West Newfield, where we meet Harry and Debi Hartford, two retired schoolteachers, who have traded the classroom for the sugarhouse. This is a high-tech operation, replete with the aforementioned vacuum pumping system and reverse-osmosis processor. While John and Debi run down the specs on the equipment, Harry talks to me about the threat invasive insects — ash borers and Asian long-horned beetles — present to the sugar bush. (Other concerns include acid rain and calcium runoff in road salt.) Clearly, this is a resource we all want protected.
We next wend our way north, passing roads with names like Ramshackle Lane and houses with junked-up yards. Rounding the bend just outside of downtown Limerick, our entire windshield fills with the bedazzling sight of snow-covered Mount Washington. We make a quick stop at Pingree’s Maple Products in Cornish, whose sugarhouse is painted the color of an autumn-red maple leaf, then on to an old favorite, Grandpa Joe’s in North Baldwin. This is the first sugarhouse John and I ever visited together, and I remember being bowled over by how good that warm maple syrup on ice cream tasted — and that they just gave it to us. For free! The lines for the tour and for the grills are out to the road, so after collecting our sample, we’re off.
At Greene Maple Farm, we meet Ted Greene, who, with his long gray beard and sparkly eyes, is every inch a maple man. In fact, his young granddaughters mark the family’s seventh generation in the business. In his low, rustic shack, he recalls earlier days in the Maine Maple Producers Association, when there were only seventeen members. (Today, the Web site lists 105 local producers.) It was 1982 or ’83, he says, when he was secretary treasurer and presented the idea of Maine Maple Sunday to the board. “I can still name every person sitting around that table.” And, according to Greene, that is where this big beautiful Maine celebration started.
I notice a gallon jar of maple spinners behind him on a shelf, and ask about their significance. He hoists it down, gives it a shake, and says, “When people want to know how they can produce their own syrup, I show them these and tell them, ‘Wait forty years, and you’ll have it.’ ”
We make our way across the top of Sebago Lake and motor up to lofty Megquier Hill in Poland, where we pass a graveyard with sap buckets hanging from trees. We arrive just as a hay wagon is departing to take visitors down to the sugarhouse at the bottom of a steep hill, and we race to hop aboard. The wind is brutal. A few brave souls are working on pancakes at the outdoor picnic tables. When I request my sample, and the ladle is tilted to fill my cup, the wind sends the entire contents aloft, and syrup coats my hand and wrist. We all stand and stare at the mess for a minute, and, then, once again, defying every ounce of manners my mother instilled in me, I shrug and start licking my hand clean. Occupational hazard.
After a swing by Cabane A Sucre Bergen in Hebron, where the remains of a tire (hot syrup poured on fresh snow) stand in the yard, we head to the West Minot Sugarhouse, where the bleary-eyed syrup man is launching into what he calls the “five-cent tour.” As he describes the thirty-six miles of tubing and the five thousand trees he’s tapped, his wife hands him an energy drink, which he downs.
All of a sudden, the shadows are lengthening, and we still have two sugarhouses left to visit. Where did the day go? We first hit Balsam Ridge in Raymond, where the staff is closing up shop. But when I make my request, I am warmly greeted by owner Sharon Lloy, as though I were the day’s first visitor. She says she’d be more than happy to help me. There’s just one problem. She gestures to her shelves. “We’re sold out.” Fortunately, she has a tiny plastic jug she insists on giving me, even when I try to pay. “Just make sure we win,” she says with a laugh.
Our last stop of the day, Merrifield Farm in North Gorham, is equally in shutdown mode. The grounds are quiet. The giant sugaring cauldrons have gone cold. When I finally find someone to ask about a sample, I am pointed in the direction of a large, barrel-chested man wearing a green-plaid hunting jacket. “Oh, you’ll want to talk to Lyle.”
While Lyle also has that done-in look, he merrily takes us on a behind-the-scenes quest for syrup, punctuating his conversation with a resounding “There ya go,” by way of agreement. In the backroom of the sugarhouse, workers and volunteers are dining on meatballs and looking a little stunned. Lyle doesn’t have a final tally on guests, but he knows it’s in the thousands. He checks here and there, but like the folks at Balsam Ridge, he is sold out. So he digs into the freezer for his personal stash of what he refers to as “contest grade” and pours a lethargic glug into my cup. (Syrup doesn’t freeze.) When I notice an unopened bottle of Knob Creek — the call of which, I am sure, is much more appealing than fielding my request — he graciously invites us to join him.
Tempting as it is, we decline. Though we have been sparing with our on-site sampling, I still feel the onset of a sugar crash, and it’s time to head home.
But I will tell you something: John was right. Indeed, no two syrup samples are the same. In fact, we were bowled over by their differences. (See the sidebar for our tasting results.) And I will tell you something else: Lyle sure knows how to pair his flavors. Bourbon, it turns out, is the perfect complement to maple syrup. And I have the hot-toddy grin to prove it.