- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

It seems fitting, somehow, that on one of those cold, crisp mornings most often associated with New England, folks start gathering early at the Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton. This is, after all, Brookside’s annual Maple Sugar Festival, when maple lovers from near and far converge for a time-honored end-of-winter rite.

“I like to taste the syrup,” says Brian Cruz, 6, of Silver Spring, who came to the festival last year and talked about it for days afterward.

“He took us through every step of the process,” says his mother, Anne Conklin. “By the time he was finished, I wanted to go, too.”

Long associated with places like New England and New York, maple festivals have been popular in the Mid-Atlantic states for a couple of decades. It hardly matters that the real maple-syrup-producing activities tend to happen farther north. What takes place here has far more to do with real-life lessons than real-life manufacturing.

So get ready to tap some trees, watch the syrup simmer and, yes, sample some locally produced maple syrup, along with a pancake or two.

Coming up today through Saturday is the Maple Sugaring Down on the Farm festival at Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville. Sunday brings the Bear Branch Nature Center’s syrupy party in Westminster, Md.

In fact, every weekend through the end of March will see sugaring celebrations — including the famed Highland County Maple Festival in western Virginia, a double-weekended dip into the sweet stuff.

“It’s such a great experience,” says Katherine Niederhelman of Gaithersburg, who has come to the Brookside festival with daughter Raisa, 6, and husband Joe. Brookside’s syrup samples are a big hit, although Raisa says the pancakes “aren’t as good as Daddy’s.”

• • •

The sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) is indigenous to North America, which is why maple syrup is a homegrown product. Optimal sap-collecting conditions occur in the late days of winter, when evening temperatures are still below freezing and daytime temperatures hover in the mid- to upper 40s.

This allows the gas bubbles within the cells of the tree to expand, forcing the sap up and out. As the weather becomes colder, the cells contract, forcing up liquid from the soil and pulling the sap back in.

“The weather, not the climate, determines when sugarin’ time has arrived each year,” writes Loren Lustig, a park naturalist long associated with various maple festivals in Maryland. Her pamphlet on sugaring is distributed at Bear Branch Nature Center.

The idea of a festival associated with sugaring off is hardly new. American Indians associated the period of flowing sap with “maple moon,” a time for festivals, dances and other celebrations marking the passage of time.

One old story has the Algonquin earth mother, Nokomis, fleeing into a stand of maple trees from a horde of evil woodland spirits who were bent on eating her. Upon seeing the blazing red leaves, the cold-loving spirits retreated, fearing fire. In gratitude, the gods granted to the maple trees the sweet water of life that would sustain them and millions of people ever after.

• • •

There’s a lot to be learned in studying a maple tree, says Brookside naturalist Lynette Scaffidi, who makes sure that even older festival-goers get a mini refresher course about maples.

“You can learn a lot of science from the maple-syrup-making process,” she says. “And you can learn a lot of history as well.”

Records and diaries from early explorers in the 17th century have documented maple-syrup and maple-sugar-making among the Indians of the northeastern woodlands, whose women typically took charge of the boiling-down operations in family-owned sugar huts scattered around the forest.

Mrs. Scaffidi is particularly fond of one Iroquois tale that explains the origins of the industry.

“There was a man who put his ax in the tree just to hold it for the night,” she tells the assembled group. “The sap collected in a pot underneath, and the next day, one of the women used it to cook a stew in. By the time she was finished, everybody thought they had a pretty good stew, thanks to the sweet stuff it was cooked in.”

Whatever the actual origins, Mrs. Scaffidi’s tale is enough to make the syrup lovers at Brookside speculate among themselves.

“You wonder how they figured out how to make it into syrup,” says one man. “And how they knew how to use a particular kind of tree.”

Whatever its origin, the woodland Indians passed on their knowledge to the early European settlers, Mrs. Scaffidi says. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the annual maple operation often involved the entire community. Even now, folks who start out as strangers at local festivals end up tapping, toting and sampling together.

• • •

Tapping, the first step of the maple-sugaring process, involves making a hole in the maple tree and collecting the sap.

Early indigenous groups tapped their trees by making Y-shaped slashes with their axes. Often, this technique ended up killing the tree. By 1790, European settlers were boring smaller holes that allowed the sap to flow without endangering the tree. (At most, just one or two holes are bored into a tree each year.)

The American maple sugar industry grew quickly in the early 19th century, thanks in part to a restrictive tax on cane sugar imported from the West Indies. Growing abolitionist sentiment in some areas also meant that the maple product was favored over cane sugar because the cane product was produced by enslaved people.

At Brookside Nature Center, they’ve been boring holes in the sugarbush, the stand of maple trees on a hill just past the old sharecropper’s cabin, since January. That month’s warm weather meant the sap was flowing quickly at an end-of-the month tree-tapping event a few weeks ago.

“The trees think its spring because it’s been so warm,” says park naturalist Sara Lustbader, collecting the sap in plastic buckets.

• • •

Early Indians used containers of birch bark, called mokuks, to collect the sap. Some mokuks were large enough to hold 20 to 30 pounds of sap. For its festival this weekend, Bear Branch Nature Center will have youngsters make miniature mokuks out of paper.

Whatever the container, someone still has to carry the sap down to the fire so it can be boiled down to syrup.

“It’s pretty heavy, but I can do it,” says volunteer Brendan Allison, 13, in a shoulder yoke, lugging buckets down the hill from the sugarbush at Brookside.

That should be no surprise, because sap is heavier than water. (Today’s maple industry makes use of plastic piping to carry the sap to the evaporator unit. It’s less picturesque than a shoulder yoke but a lot more efficient.)

Tree tappers use a kind of metal pipe called a spile to direct the flow of sap into a bucket. Early spiles probably were made by removing the pith from a branch of a shrub or small tree to create a channel, says Tina Shupp, an outdoor recreation specialist at Bear Branch Nature Center.

“You can take out the soft pith from sumac pretty easily,” she says. “We have the kids do that in our children’s area.”

Attendees at Brookside Nature Center use the newer metal spiles, but the result in either case is pretty much the same: the drip, drip, drip of maple sap into a waiting bucket.

• • •

To get that old-fashioned maple flavor, the sap is going to have to take some boiling — a lot of boiling. It takes about 40 gallons of sugar-maple sap to produce just 1 gallon of maple syrup.

In settler days, the sap was boiled in cast-iron kettles, which became a prized currency of exchange when dealing with local people. Previously, native tribes had used wooden troughs from hollowed-out logs, dropping in red-hot stones to make the sap boil.

“We tried to do it the Native American way in a hollow log,” Miss Shupp says. “It must have been quite a job — the rocks kept exploding. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”

By the late 19th century, syrup producers were routinely boiling down their sap with an evaporator, a massive flat pan set over a closed fire, which allowed for higher heat and more uniform temperature control.

At Brookside, the evaporator is manned by Rick Allison from Olney, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group dedicated to the re-creation of arts and crafts of pre-17th-century Europe. He and his family have been hosting interpretive history programs and participating in historical re-enactments for more than a decade.

He stirs the sap with a metal ladle and adds another bucket of sap every few minutes. He’s waiting for the sap to become syrup, when it will “apron” the ladle; that is, cascade down the sides of a ladle held upright. Mr. Allison says he is looking for a consistency like that of latex paint.

“Is it syrup yet?” asks the District’s Janette Woodyard, 7, watching the sap boil and foam. “I want to taste some.”

“This is going to take a while,” Mr. Allison says. “This is something that takes all day.”

For impatient tasters like Janette, there’s a sampling station with red- and sugar-maple syrups located nearby.

Indians and early settlers continued the boiling-down past the syrup stage to create blocks of pure maple sugar, which was easier to transport. After the tariff on imported cane sugar was removed around 1890, the maple sugar industry virtually disappeared, concentrating instead on maple syrup.

In the 1940s, modernization took hold, with mechanized equipment, sanitary standards and precision instruments replacing time-honored methods of producing syrup.

• • •

Of course, at Brookside Nature Center, things are done the old-fashioned way, for the most part. Mr. Allison’s son Brendan says he has been involved in the maple festival “since before I can remember.”

“I do the fires, chop wood, take care of things,” says Brendan, dressed in a blue 19th-century jacket of boiled wool. “And every year I get to have some of my mom’s pancakes.”

Brendan’s mother, Nancy, is inside the old cabin cooking pancakes over an open hearth. A longtime lover of historical re-enacting, she’s in period costume, which adds to the atmosphere and makes her presence in the cabin as natural and expected as the rope-style bed tucked away in a corner.

Things look so authentic, in fact, that a number of the folks who have sampled Mrs. Allison’s pancakes request her recipe, figuring it’s some old-time concoction from a 19th-century housewife.

“I show them the box,” she says, waving the Giant instant pancake mix, “but some of them still won’t believe me.”

Still, most visitors to the Brookside Nature Center are grateful to have the chance to sample something of the past as well as to participate in the age-old process.

“It’s really wonderful that they do this,” says Gwendolyn Stansbury, who has brought her two children and two of their friends to the festival.

“I think it’s really important to keep abreast of some of these culinary traditions. We need to show kids where our food actually comes from.”

Sappy times for one and all

Brookside’s maple festival may be finished for this year, but the center has plenty of activities to carry you through the rest of the season. Find Brookside Nature Center at Wheaton Regional Park, 1400 Glenallan Ave. in Wheaton. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 301/946-9071 or see www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/nature_centers/brookside/index.shtm

Meanwhile, the sugaring season elsewhere is just beginning, with festivals ranging from modest demonstrations of the process to large-scale multiday events. Here’s a sampling:

m Bear Branch Nature Center: 300 John Owings Road, Westminster, Md. Maple Sugarin’ Festival 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 5. Maple syrup and pancake platters, demonstrations, food concessions, maple-pit ham and pit beef, children’s activity area. 410/ 848-9040 or ccgovernment. carr.org/ccg/releases/hashawha.pdf

m Cunningham Falls State Park: Thurmont, Md. Cunningham Falls Maple Syrup Festival 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 11 and 12, 18 and 19. Pancake breakfast, syrup-making demonstrations, other family activities. Donation. 301/271-7574 or www.dnr. state.md.us/publiclands/west ern/cunninghamfalls.html

• Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls state parks: Oakland, Md. Sap Into Syrup Festival 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 11 at Swallow Falls, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 12 at Herrington Manor. Pancake breakfast, tree tapping, maple syrup for sale. $6 adults, $3 children younger than 12. Call Swallow Falls at 301/387-6938 or see www.dnr.state.md.us/ publiclands/western/swallowfalls.html. Call Herrington Manor at 301/334-9180 or see www.dnr.state. md.us/publiclands/western/herrington manor.html

• Highland County Maple Festival: Monterey and McDowell, Va. March 11 and 12, 18 and 19. Craft shows, maple queen pageant, family activities, sugar tours of syrup-making camps throughout the county. One-time-only admission $1.50. 540/468-2550 or highlandcounty.org/maple.htm

m Meadowside Nature Center: 5100 Meadowside Lane, Rockville. Maple Sugaring Down on the Farm. Sugaring breakfast 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 4. $8. Other sugaring events: 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. March 2 at the Nature Center for $4; 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 2 and 3 and 1 to 2:30 p.m. March 3 at the Agricultural History Farm Park, 18400 Muncaster Road, Derwood, for $7. 301/924-4141 or www.meadowsidenature.org

• Pickens Maple Syrup Festival: Pickens, W.Va. March 18 and 19. Tour of maple-syrup camp, pancake feed, crafts, antique show, wood carving, square dancing, wine sampling, other events. 304/924-6288 or smiling country.com/pickenswv/maplefest.htm

• Pennsylvania Maple Festival: Meyersdale, Pa. March 25 and 26 and March 29 through April 2. Pancakes and sausage, car shows, historical pageantry, horse pull, quilt show and maple queen contest, among other events. Admission. 814/634-0213 or pamaplefestival.com

• Whitetop Mountain Maple Festival: Whitetop, Va. March 25 and 26. Pancake meal, storytelling, tapping tours, other activities. 276/773-3711 or grayson countyva.com

Making syrup yourself

Want to make maple syrup? Here’s how to do it, courtesy of the folks at Bear Branch Nature Center in Westminster, Md., whose sugaring festival comes up on Sunday.

First, find the right tree …

That may sound like a joke to people accustomed to just stopping by the market, but it’s true: Find the right tree.

You can recognize a maple tree by looking at the way buds and branches grow. They are always opposite each other in maples. You can remember which trees have opposite branching by using the expression MAD HORSE, which stands for maples, ashes, dogwoods and horse chestnuts.

Then find the right kind of maple. Sugar maples have brown buds on brown twigs. Red maples have red buds, and silver maples have red buds with a fetid odor when crushed. Sugar maples have smooth silver-gray bark when young and large, irregularly gray corky plates when old.

Tap the tree during winter’s first thaw. A tappable tree should be at least 3 feet in circumference. (Remember, if you can hug the tree, it’s too small to tap.) Using a brace and a 3/8-inch or 7/16-inch bit, drill a hole 2 inches deep at a slightly upward angle on the south side of the tree at waist height. Do not drill holes one above the other.

Hint: If a hole is at waist height and vertically below a large branch or above a large root, more sap seems to flow.

Boil the sap until it “aprons” your spoon or ladle. Filter the syrup, and you are ready to pour it over pancakes or waffles.

• • •

To go a bit further and make maple sugar from your syrup or even from syrup bought at the market, start with about a pint of grade B maple syrup.

In a large pan, bring about 1 inch of the syrup to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and then simmer for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, drop ½ teaspoon of the syrup into a glass of cold water. If it forms a firm, slightly flattened disk at the bottom of the glass, it’s ready.

Take the mixture off the heat and stir until the sugar sets. The more you stir, the finer the crystals will be. Once the sugar sets, put the mixture back on the heat for about 30 seconds until liquid. Heat, stirring, for another 30 seconds.

Pour the liquid sugar into molds. You also can use aluminum foil or a shallow pan for cutting the sugar into squares. Glaze the sugar with hot maple syrup and cover with clear plastic wrap to preserve its softness.

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