Here in New England winter usually lasts a few more weeks than we’d like it to, as you may have guessed from all my grumbling lately. It snowed again last weekend, and then a little more Thursday and Friday. But truth be told I wouldn’t have it any other way, because cold winters and the slow, gradual arrival of spring make for a bountiful maple sugaring season.
In late winter as temperatures begin to rise into the 40s, stored sugars rise in the sap of maple trees as they begin to thaw. The trees are tapped, and the sap is boiled down in big steel evaporators. The season usually begins in late February or early March, though it seems to be starting earlier in recent years. The whole operation is at the mercy of the weather. The sap flows whenever there’s a thaw, but it’s only sweet as long as the trees are bare. Once nighttime temperatures start to stay above freezing, the trees bud out and the sap turns bitter. In a good year the season goes for six weeks or so.
A lot depends on the location and microclimate of an individual sugarbush. Last weekend up at Davenport’s they hadn’t even tapped their trees yet. They’re up on a hill and they hadn’t had much of a thaw. Just down the road, at the bottom of the hill, they were boiling away at Gould’s. This weekend we had our first real taste of spring, with two beautiful warm sunny days. No doubt every sugar shack in Massachusetts was boiling today. If you visit a sugar shack on a day when they are boiling, you’ll be greeted by clouds of sweet smelling steam billowing out of the vented roof. It’s the best smell in the world, especially if they have a wood burning evaporator.
My brother Tom, who lives in Vermont, likes to give me grief about Massachusetts maple syrup. Though Vermont may be more famous for its maple syrup, I think they’re missing out on the best part of maple season, the sugar shack breakfast. For six weeks or so every spring, sugar shacks in Western Massachusetts serve big plates of pancakes, waffles, french toast, bacon, sausage, and (if you’re lucky) corn fritters, with enough maple syrup to send you into sugar shock.
There’s a full list of sugar house restaurants here. These are a few of my favorites:
South Face Farm is famous for their corn fritters.
Davenport’s specialty is Finnish pancakes. The view from up there on the hill is pretty spectacular.
I would pay money just to sit in the evaporator room at Gould’s.
The Red Bucket wins points for ambiance. They have a maple tree growing right up through the middle of the restaurant.