Chances are likely that if you've poured a bit of maple syrup onto your pancakes or French toast -- and we're not talking Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth here, but artisan maple syrup -- you don't have a clue of how it's made. At least I didn't!
Then I met Bill.
Bill runs the Mill Brook Sugar House in Pittsfield, MA -- but Rick's brother Randy calls it the Sugar Shack and that works for me! After we bought some fabulous syrup in the morning, we returned later in the day to watch Bill work his magic!
Rick and I decided Bill maybe one of the smartest guys we've ever met -- and one of the most ambitious and hard working. It would be enough that he makes absolutely delicious maple syrup, but he also -- more or less singlehandedly -- taps his own trees, harvests the sap, and does the packaging.
He also built the "Sugar Shack." Well, at least half of it! He expanded the old building by about a third or so, repairs his own equipment, built the doors, installed the windows... the guy is amazing!
He was also generous with his time as he let us watch the process and explained some of the mechanics of making the syrup and determining its grade and color.
Did you know there are several colors of syrup, ranging from golden to dark. And the dark (or Grade B, if you find a grade) is what you want for cooking -- and for the richest flavor!
Bill has trees all around Pittsfield but those closest to his property have "tubes" or hoses that run down the hill, delivering the sap in the easiest way possible. Otherwise, he takes a huge bin with him to the trees! Bill, I might add, is very strong!
I can't begin to tell you the whole process, but when we walked in this machine was filled with boiling sap -- think seriously hot sugar! -- and it smelled fabulous. When it reaches a certain temperature (219 degrees, which he can now monitor with a digital thermometer, and not have to check the way he used to when he was heating it up on a wood fire), it runs out into a bucket.
When the bucket is full, he puts a "shovel-like thing" under the streaming syrup, lifts the bucket away from the spigot, puts another in its place and dumps the "shovel" into the new bucket.
The full bucket is dumped into a big vat. I can't remember the next step but there are another one or two before it goes into the jugs you'll see at the market.
Of course, the care of maple syrup is important too. Once it is opened, don't keep it in the cupboard! Refrigerate, please!
We asked Bill about the unusually warm weather in the region. He said that usually the sap is still running now, but it has started to slow down with the weather warming up. I wish I'd asked him if that was going to cut production enough to change prices.
That won't matter much to us! We're loaded up for the year! And I'm just waiting for serious maple moments!
I'm imagining French toast made with Rick's challah bread on Easter with Bill's syrup. Yes, it was a terrific breakfast -- and a great memory!
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