The same conditions that create the horrific road conditions that mark mud season in Vermont have a positive side: sugaring.

The 2008 syrup crop in the Sands' kitchen.

When the nights are below freezing and the strengthening sun combines with above-freezing temperatures, during the day, the maples begin to thaw and the sap to starts to run.

The race is on to collect; the sap will only run when conditions are just right. A good year may yield up to 6 weeks of sugaring. Some years we wait forever for the thaw, only to have a frantic 10 days when things get too warm, too fast. This year has been somewhere in between. A couple of brief runs in February, then a prolonged pause while it got cold again. The past 3 weeks have seen some steady runs.

Maple syrup and sugar have been a vital cash crop for Vermont’s farmers for centuries. At a time of year when nothing is growing and the cows are subsisting on the last of the hay and sileage, it’s a great relief to have something to harvest.

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The old-time method of sugaring involved families who drove their horses through the woods pulling a sleigh with a tank on it. The contents of hanging buckets with slide-off lids were collected, one by one, and brought to the sugarhouse. There are still farmers who practice this method in Vermont today; there may be a pickup truck in place of the sleigh, but the idea's the same.

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For those who produce syrup in commercial amounts, those picture postcard methods have been replaced by tubing and tanks. The tubing brings more sap from each tap, and puts gravity to work as well. You can hear the sap trickling in as it runs down the hill, like a faucet.

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Your sugarbush may be a few miles away from your sugarhouse. This tank is along my daily commute. The tubing comes down the hill, and it's positioned for "drive under" collection by truck.

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I followed this neighbor on the way home last week, obviously headed for one of his collection points. The white plastic tank on the trailer will carry the sap back to his sugarhouse.

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Here it is “in action”. The sap was trickling into the tank in a steady stream.

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Now that the sap's collected, it's time to boil. In my neighborhood, it's not unusual to see small outbuildings surrounded by a cloud of sweet-smelling steam. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so a lot of water has to go. This isn't an operation for inside the house, lest you coat everything you own with sticky-sweet residue.

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Tending the evaporator pan has given rise to a lot of family gatherings and maple-inspired cuisine. I've heard of old-timers having hot dogs on hand to cook off in the boiling sap. There are maple-walnut brownies, maple cornmeal rolls, maple baked beans, and of course there's the whole ritual of sugar-on-snow. Syrup is boiled to the soft-crack stage and poured over snow, where it becomes taffy-like. This treat is always accompanied by sour pickles and doughnuts.

Tiny little Vermont produces more maple syrup than any other state in the nation. We don’t lay claim to a great many superlatives as a state, but we’re mighty proud of this one. Unfortunately, millions of people in this country don’t even know what real maple syrup tastes like. Sure, they may have some recollection that the Indians taught the settlers how to boil sap, and that colonists used maple because they didn’t have access to white sugar as we know it. But the vast majority of Americans are pouring artificially flavored and colored corn syrup over their pancakes.

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This is the last of the quart of my brother-in-law's syrup that was in my Christmas package. One or two more breakfasts, then it'll be time to put some money in my neighbors' pockets and take some of 2008's sweetness off their hands.

If you really want a taste of what's good about Vermont, treat yourself to the real thing: a quart of pure maple syrup is a luxury with centuries of tradition and great taste behind it.

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Susan Reid
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About Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.