The Sweet Life
Images, top to bottom: The Chesterfield Inn, the view from the Inn’s pond, a sugar shack, evaporator steam, stoking the fire, fuel for the flames, sugaring buckets, Arnold Coombs shows us how it’s done, Jen Yu tapping a tree, gallon upon gallon of the sweet stuff, checking for color (which determines grade), Joy Wilson considering a maple, tubing (the method preferred by large-scale operations), bottles at the ready, maple goodness, jars for purveyors to select from, maple tins, maple candy molds, cocktail hour with New England nibbles (including venison sausage!), a maple-inspired meal at the Chesterfield Inn, and take-away gifts courtesy of Coombs Family Farms.
The older I get, the more I find myself wanting to stand behind my food. Which is to say, peek over its metaphorical “shoulder”, poke my head behind its curtain, and learn exactly how it’s made/grown/processed. I’ve done this with eggs, and honey, and butter, and pickles, with jam, and yogurt, and ice cream, and chocolate (it’s rather handy having friends that own both an all-natural, organic chocolate shop and a chocolate factory). A few weeks ago, I turned my compass north and got to stand behind maple syrup, officially.
We three Englishes hopped on two flights, rented a car, and then braved the (One-way! Everywhere! Busy!) streets of Boston to rendezvous with the rest of our group at The Butcher Shoppe. It was there that we had the pleasure of meeting Sharon Kitchens (the group’s coordinator and all-around Girl Friday), Matt Armendariz, Joy Wilson, Rebecca Crump, Jen Yu, and Ellen Daehnick. At a tall, long, wooden table inside the restaurant, we enjoyed antipasti spreads (including Prosciutto, Mortadella, Sopressata, Rosette de Lyon, Finocchiono, Petit Jésus), pâtés and terrines (Duck Liver Mousse, Gamebird en Croûte, Pâté de Campagne, Rillettes du Jour), and housemade sausages. A variety of Cheeses, a beet salad, hummus, pickled vegetables, marinated olives, Marcona almonds, breads, mustards, and honey rounded out the meal and greatly filled our bellies.
We then caravanned over a 2-hour, snow-filled trip to New Hampshire, arriving at the Chesterfield Inn right around 11 p.m.. Huxley slept the entire way, which was the best gift he could’ve ever given us! The next morning, after a delicious, robust, homemade meal in the Inn’s lovely private dining room, my boys headed to look for fun things to do in Brattleboro, VT while the blogging crew headed to a sugarhouse in Guilford, VT run by a Ted, a cousin of Arnold Coombs. Arnold is the director of sales and marketing at Bascom Family Farm and served as our tour guide (He’s also a 7th generation tapper! Pretty cool, right?).
Here we saw an evaporator in full action, sampled “sugar on snow” (reduced maple syrup over fresh snow, balanced with a sour dill pickle spear!), enjoyed maple syrup donuts, learned how to hand-drill a hole and tap a maple syrup tree, and otherwise reveled in the setting and scenery and newly acquired maple knowledge. Arnold and his business partner Bruce Bascom (another 7th generation tapper!) are on the forefront of sustainable, organic practices in maple tapping and production. This fantastic interview answers a great deal of questions about what constitutes “organic” when it comes to maple syrup, and why it matters.
We then stopped into Brattleboro to tour a small maple candy factory. As a long-time baker, and sometime confectioner, my mind was blown that such incredible sweetness can be born of just one ingredient. Nothing whatsoever is added to maple candy. It’s pure %100 maple and nothing else.
The group then popped into the imminently delightful Brattleboro Food Coop for lunchables, and made our way north, on an hour’s jaunt up to Alstead, New Hampshire. Here we met Bruce (whose steel-trap memory for dates, places, and names was truly remarkable) and toured their state-of-the-art production and storage facilities. Bottles destined for domestic and international clients were stacked high, while energy-reducing technologies were on witness in each area of the facility. We also stopped into the Bascom Family Farm sugaring equipment store. Everything from antique taps and storage vessels to evaporators, bottles, labels, cookbooks (we were each permitted to pick one-I’m pumped about my selection), candy molds, and so much more was on hand for the sugaring community.
After a brief sojourn to L.A. Burdick‘s flagship store (so, so good-I treated myself to their St. Patrick’s Day sampler, filled with whiskey-YES!), we made our way back to the Inn. Cocktail hour included delectables from some of New England’s finest food purveyors, alongside maple-riddled cocktails. Later, in the private dining room, we gathered together for a maple-inspired meal, including: A green salad, Maple Walnut Bread & Savory Muffins, Grilled Salmon with Maple Sugar Dry Spice Rub & Cinnamon Maple Butter, and, for dessert, Maple Creme Brûlée with Walpole Creamery Vanilla Ice Cream in a Chocolate Cup with Chocolate Maple Sauce. I die, folks. I die.
My maple sugaring foray was remarkably informative. Did you know sugar shacks are called that (and not “syrup shacks”) because, up until the 1900’s, all sap was rendered into sugar? It wasn’t until preservation methods enabling syrup to be stored without going bad were developed that sap could be turned into syrup, too. I also learned that larger producers use plastic tubing and vacuums to (gently) extract sap from the trees. Romantic though the image of horse-drawn sleighs gliding along freshly fallen snow, gathering sap bucket-by-bucket may be, such collection methods are intensely laborious. Tubing allows the lion’s share of work for those in the sugaring business to happen later, once the sap is collected downhill, and rendered into sap.
Knowing what I now know about maple syrup and how it’s produced, I’ll never look at the glorious amber fluid quite the same. It’s liquid gold, it really is. So many hands are involved in getting it from the tree to your table. So much sun and snow and sap, in every drop. I’m thankful beyond measure to have been invited to learn about its production, and will count my lucky stars each time I twist off the cap on a bottle and pour it (judiciously, these days!) over pancakes or tuck a bit into a batch of scones.
What about you? Do you cook or bake with maple syrup? Tap your own trees? Have a maple tale to tell? I’d love to hear it. The sweet life, it’s a good one!
*Want to see and read more? Jen’s got a great post up about the trip.
**Just so you know: My air fare, lodging, meals, and activities were covered by Coombs Family Farm with no expectation on my end. All of the images and words you just viewed are my own.