A Chilly Day then a Stellar Day for Vermont Maple Weekend

IMG_0177Last weekend was Vermont Maple Weekend. Sugarhouses across the state were open for visitors. We started the day Saturday at Shelburne Farms, with their annual pancake breakfast, a fundraiser for the local 4H. It was not especially crowded. We have attended several years in a row and it is often so crowded that seats at the long tables are scarce and the line for pancakes is long. Not so last Saturday. It was too cold.

The temperature when we arrived was maybe 21, 22 degrees, but the wind was whipping. The wind chill was easily in the single digits. Lots of people there were ready for spring, but pushing the season with a lighter jacket does not make it any warmer. My parents were visiting and they were not the only ones to turn back before exploring the sugarhouse. No steam was coming from the sugarhouse roof, so it looked like that refuge would not be all that warm. It turns out they were boiling but they had just started; a head of steam had not built up yet.

Steam just making its way out of the sugarhouse

Steam just making its way out of the sugarhouse

Inside the sugarhouse

Inside the sugarhouse

We watched some boiling and sampled some syrup (it had a hard time flowing from the small paper sample cups given the temperature). We walked up into the sugarbush and had some sugar on snow. We checked out the live bird demonstration. We had fun but we did not last as long as other years. We got chilled.

Sap lines running downhill but mostly frozen

Sap lines running downhill but mostly frozen

IMG_0158

One-eyed Screech Owl

The next day we went skiing. The sun came out and we had a perfect spring skiing day. It had snowed the night before so up high enough the snow was powdery. Once the sun warmed things up a bit, the lower snow was corn snow–loose, large grains. We were warm in the sun and skiing down fast. It was a treat. So we started off cold but ended the weekend feeling like spring was ready to really hit us.

We made a stop at Shelburne Sugarworks as well, but they were so busy it would have taken a good chunk of time to fill our glass gallon jug. So we put that off. We will need to get over there soon to get that filled up. We will want that sweet liquid over this next year. Those awesome buttermilk pancakes just are not as good without it.

Perfect day for skiing

Perfect day for skiing

Maple Sap Syrup Sugar

Maple Sugaring 2014

This weekend is Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, where maple syrup producers across the state open their sugarhouse doors to visitors. The past few years we have enjoyed starting off the weekend with a trip to Shelburne Farms. They offer a pancake breakfast to support Shelburne Explorers 4-H. The kids who participate are really involved in the breakfast, taking payments and serving pancakes and helping to make sure syrup and coffee are stocked. To be sure, lots of parents and other adults are there to help as well, but I love that the kids are right in there getting their hands sticky.

This pancake breakfast is so popular that in the past we have had to wait in a pretty long line to get in. Pancakes were slid onto compostable paper plates as fast as they came off the griddle. Coffee ran out and seating was scarce. It was still a blast for us as a family, including my parents up for the weekend several years in a row. This year, however, I guess we timed it right–no line, no waiting, plenty of coffee and syrup. I think getting there a little later made the difference.

No wait for breakfast but the place was still super busy

No wait for breakfast but the place was still super busy

One of the great things about this event is that the sugarhouse is so accessible. It is designed for education so there is a platform in the sugarhouse to stand on and watch. While sap flows have been meager so far this year, they had some on hand to demonstrate the boiling process. They also scatter small discs cut from maple saplings in the area around the sugarhouse–find one and hand it in for a maple candy. Find one with a maple tree drawn on it and get a large maple candy. Find one with a red maple leaf and hand it in for a pint of maple syrup. My daughter was determined to find that red maple leaf, as she is every year. And this year she did! The mother lode baby.

They also have other activities. Help tap a tree. Try sugar on snow. See a live bird demonstration with an owl. Check out the farm animals. It is good fun indeed.

Heating maple syrup for sugar on snow

Heating maple syrup for sugar on snow

Pouring the hot syrup onto fresh snow

Pouring the hot syrup onto fresh snow

Now wait a few minutes for a chewy and sweet maple treat

Now wait a few minutes for a chewy and sweet maple treat

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Are these lambs the cutest critters around or what?

Are these lambs the cutest critters around or what?

We didn’t end there, however. We wanted to purchase some fresh syrup. Despite the new pint we are close to out of maple syrup at our house. Last year we probably went through about three gallons for the year. Assuming we get some from our farm share I figured we would need about two gallons. We stopped by Shelburne Sugarworks, right nearby, for our supply. We got a couple of gallons from them last year and so brought in the empty glass jugs. They said they would refill them if we were willing to come back later in the day, so we enjoyed some maple cotton candy, purchased some maple sugar (looks like brownish cane sugar but made maple sap–put that in your   coffee!) and watched the band set up. We left before the bluegrass started.

My dad and I headed back at the end of the day. We had a to wait a half hour while they filtered and pasteurized it. When we walked out of the sugarhouse I could barely hold the glass jars it was still that hot. I was careful not to slip on the ice. Busting open one of those on the frozen ground would have been a sad situation.

Amber treasure

Amber treasure

 

 

Sap Rising?

Sun shining through onto the maples and sap buckets

Sun shining through onto the maples and sap buckets

I got the word yesterday that Shelburne Sugarworks, just up the road, will be holding their first Sugar on Snow Weekend this weekend. This means watching sap get boiled into syrup, plus tours of the sugarbush, samples, and sugar on snow complete with pickle and donut. I learned this on a morning that started at 9 degrees below zero.

Then I read that afternoon that the annual statewide Maple Open House Weekend is happening on March 22-23. This is great weekend to see sugaring in action and to get some syrup for the year. Last year I bought two gallons from Shelburne Sugarworks. It was not at all enough. We supplemented that throughout the year with over a gallon from other local sugar makers. This year we may need to stock up more earlier. In past years we also have attended the open house at Shelburne Farms on this weekend. They have a pancake breakfast and, well, the whole awesome farm to check out.

It was hard to believe yesterday that spring is close enough that sap will be running soon. We had several nights of below-zero temperatures. The snow is crusted right over. The wind has been blowing the loose snow into drifts. It has been downright wintry. Then today I left work and it felt sort of warm outside. The thermometer in the car read 32. Almost springlike?

I took a short walk after hanging out and sitting all day, at Wheeler Park in South Burlington. It was an easy walk on the packed snow, across a field and then into the woods. The cedars were thick at one point and then just ended with an abrupt transition into a hardwood stand, with a mix of young and old trees. Hanging on the larger maples were galvanized sap buckets. Someone clearly is anticipating some thawing. The sap run requires nights below freezing and days above freezing. There could be some sap running this weekend.

Spring might not be far off after all.

Ready for Sap to Run

Ready for Sap to Run

Chilled Bluebirds

Bluebird Pondering Making a February Nest?

The site of bluebirds has been pretty common lately. Robins have been around as well. I am not sure if they never left, or if they have just returned way early. I suppose I didn’t see any for about a month, but for the past month they have been hanging out in the maple tree, on the birdhouses, in the pines. It has been mild enough, with little enough snow, that apparently they have enough to eat.

Walking down to meet the school bus the other morning I heard a bird singing. Up in a white pine next to the driveway a bluebird was trilling away. Seriously? Early February and a bluebird is not only hanging around but singing? Not even just a simple call, but a song? Too weird.

We have lived in this house five winters now and I have seen bluebirds late in winter, but never this early, or as late in the fall, as this season. It has been so warm that we have speculated that the sap is running. Last week we had a stretch of days with highs in the forties and nights with lows in the teens–perfect sugaring weather. Except it is early February.

I love bluebirds. I love maple syrup. I love spring. But we have yet to have one big snowstorm. Let me say that again: We have not yet had a major snowstorm. Our driveway was plowed once, twice if you count the sanding when it was super icy. I am not yet ready for bluebirds and sugaring. I am ready for snow.

I don’t want to harp on this weather thing, but criminy, can we get some snow already? Today was cold at least. Our high temperature was 12. Yesterday it was 15. If it had been really windy, and we had gotten two feet of snow, it would have been a blizzard. Then I would have been able to say “Poor bluebirds.” Instead I can feel bad for the guy who plows our driveway. So much for that extra income on his part.

It was warm again this coming week. I guess those thrushes will have plenty of reason to stick around until spring really does come. And maybe we will get a bumper crop of maple syrup. I mean, heck, why not look on the bright side of this? I can do that for one winter. For one winter. Another winter of this would make me loony.

Sugaring

Spring is definitely around the corner when open house time comes to sugar houses around the state. This weekend was it. My daughter and I hopped over the hill to Shelburne Farms for their event. We got there late in the morning and started things off with their benefit pancake breakfast. We ate pancakes with, duh, maple syrup and sipped hot beverages (cocoa for her, coffee for me) before wandering about the animal barns. There was a passel of new lambs we oohed at for a while, guarded by a llama (it sported a hand written sign that read “I Spit!”). Then we made our way up the muddy trail to the sugar house.

Pile of Fluffiness

The sugar house was a busy place–lots of visitors and lots of steam. The sap was running and syrup was in the making.

Boiling Under Way

Formerly Maple Sap

A Lesson at the Steamer

We had the opportunity to taste the generous doses of fresh syrup that volunteers were handing out and we walked up the hill to see the lines–tubes that catch the sap and run it down to the collector to be boiled down. They tap about 500 trees (I paid attention during the lesson) so they make a fair amount of syrup, most of which gets used the in restaurant on site. I will have to head back over there at some point for breakfast.

We tried to stop at Palmer’s Sugarhouse on the way home to purchase some syrup even closer to home. We stopped and headed inside but that place was so packed we would have had to wait at least a half hour in line. Forget it. They were boiling like mad with their oil-fueled system–bigger and faster than the system at Shelburne Farms, no doubt. I’ll go back to Palmer’s some time this week and buy a couple gallons.  If they still have it.

We have enough maple syrup to get us through for a little while, but that stuff is just plain old good. Makes me want to whip up some yeasted waffle batter tonight so we can have them in the morning. But maybe I’m not quite that ambitious. The ideal situation would be if someone else made the waffles. That however, ain’t happening. Maybe next weekend.

Packaging

I recently ordered some syrup. I’m talking flavored syrups to jazz up my espresso drinks. I like to add some flavors here and there, mix it up a little, go for something different. I know some folks are purists and just don’t like to add flavors. I can go with straight up but I also like to add some zing. I was out–I had been for a while–so I ordered some more from Amazon.

When you order from Amazon, as you may know if you have ordered from Amazon, you often have the choice of getting things from outside vendors. I had lots of options, and I went with the two syrups I wanted from two different sellers. I received them on the same day.

I received a bottle of Monin hazelnut syrup from CoffeeAM. It was just what I ordered and was shipped intact. It was packaged well, in fact. I can’t imagine it would have broken. The packaging was pretty cool, actually. It was a self-inflating tube of plastic. The problem is that it was all plastic. Plus it was packed in polystyrene peanuts–more plastic.  Here is what it looked like:

Glass in Plastic in Cardboard

Glass in Plastic in Cardboard

I received a bottle of Monin coconut syrup from Boba Tea Direct. It also was packed well enough that it would have taken a lot to have broken. Again, I was impressed by the packaging–even more so than the other shipment. This was all paper packaging. There was no plastic except the tape on the box. It looked like this:

Glass in Paper

Glass in Paper

The prices on the two bottles were about the same. I only ordered from two sellers because they were not both available from CoffeeAM and the hazelnut syrup at Boba Tea Direct was a lot more pricey (not sure what that was about). But because of the paper packaging, rather than plastic, I will order from Boba Tea Direct in the future. The bubble tube was cool, but I can’t toss that in the compost bin, or even recycle it. The world could use a little less plastic. It isn’t huge, but at least I can take one small action.  You?

Too Much Sugar

Crowd at the Shelburne Farms Sugar House

Crowd at the Shelburne Farms Sugar House

The first dose of sugar at least came from natural sources. We visited Shelburne Farms for their pancake breakfast, complete with real maple syrup. The cakes were complemented by juice and then hot chocolate. It was a great breakfast, a fundraiser for 4H. But sweet for the children.

We visited the sugar house, watched them boiling down the sap into syrup. Of course, they handed out free samples, small for an adult but large for the tykes. In the sugarush they had hidden small wooden disks, sliced from small maples. Those could be handed in for hard maple candies, one for one. So the children each had one of those.

My parents, visiting for the weekend, wanted to puchase some maple syrup, so we stopped at Palmer’s Sugarhouse, a little closer to home. We watched them boiling as well and got, again, free samples. These samples were much more generous. And my wife also bought some cotton candy and–how could she not?–shared that with her progeny.

Back at home we had lunch. That was a little healthier. Even the afternoon snacks were decent. The problem came later. My children, with their cute wiles, convinced my parents to take us all to Friendly’s for dinner. Friendly’s is fun but doesn’t exactly serve health food, if you know what I mean. After a dinner a little too concentrated in the fried genre, we had ice cream sundaes. The sundaes were part of the point of dining at this particular establishment so they were not to be denied, but whew, it was good that have that over.

Too much sugar today. Normally I would not allow all that crap to enter the system of my small and precious youngsters, at least not all in one day, but it seemed a tricky one to navigate, what with the pre-planned pancake breakfast and the grandparents and Friendly’s. It is only one day, however. Tomorrow we get back to cracking down. Apples and yogurt will rule over treats.

It was a fun day. The children settled down and fell asleep without too much trouble. We had a fine hike while we were at Shelburne Farms and they ran around a lot today. It was pretty much perfect–sunny and in the 60’s. So hopefully they managed to work the sweet out of their little systems. Maybe it evened out. I ran eight miles this afternoon, so I’m not worried about myself too much. Except that I need a haircut something fierce, but that is off the topic.

All in all we enjoyed our maple sugaring open house day, even if it meant too many sweets. What’s one day? It is a good thing sugaring season only lasts a short time. And that the kids get sick of pancakes. Plus, I won’t have the clean the griddle tomorrow morning. That will give me more time to run off the ice cream I ate with dinner.