- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

CORRY, Pa. (AP) - Turning right onto the first dirt road after the “four-way” and then left onto the next dirt road is not how you’d expect to get to one of Pennsylvania’s most exclusive restaurants.

But so go the directions to Sweet Traditions, on the outskirts of this Erie County town in the northwest corner of Penn’s Woods about 150 miles north of Downtown Pittsburgh.

The new eatery serves pancakes — pretty much just pancakes, but with house maple syrup — and only on six weekends all year: Feb. 1-2 through March 15-16.

Given that the area is a worn notch high in the snow belt, that’s the time of year that it can be most difficult to get here on what more accurately could be described as tracks in plow-packed snow.

But that’s also the time of year that the sap starts running in the maple trees, and when it starts boiling in the Sweet Traditions’s sugarhouse, where a glowing orange wood fire inside an antique-looking metal evaporator transforms what starts out looking like water into golden maple syrup.

And that’s where the story of this unusual, temporary-for-now restaurant begins.

As he slings logs into the black cast-iron evaporator’s gaping mouth, Casey Catalfu is stoking a tradition that goes back to his great-grandfather, who was making syrup in these woods, just over the nearby border in Western New York, 70 years ago.

Catalfu, who’s now 33, used to sit in the sweet steam and the smoke and the stories of the Wiggers’ family sugarhouse when he was a little boy, sometimes falling asleep out there, deep in the woods.

Now his grandpa, John Wiggers Sr., comes to watch him keep those fires burning. You can tell that it warms him.

“You show him a tree and he makes syrup,” the old farmer quipped as he visited his grandson on Feb. 23. The young man was busy boiling down the first sap of the season, about 1,000 gallons of it that he’d collected on his own 17-acre property and from his neighbors’ woods — from a total of about 2,400 trees.

Catalfu started out small, in more ways than one. His parents moved from the farm to town, in industrial Corry, but young Casey already had the sap running inside him. At age 6, he tapped trees in the yards of his neighbors, using straws and plastic McDonald’s sundae cups to collect the sap, then boiled it down on his mother’s stove. He sold the syrup to pay for a birthday party. It was all chronicled in the local newspaper.

One of his uncles bought him his first little hobby evaporator, and over the years, Catalfu continued to make a lot of syrup — at his grandfather’s sugar camp and on this spread, where his parents moved to start an indoor miniature golf course that they eventually turned into a house.

After college, Catalfu bought the big used contraption made by the Leader Evaporator Co. in Burlington, Vt. The evaporator was born the same year he was - 1981 - but looks as old as his grandfather’s that was made in the 1930s. A lot of things about maple-sugaring haven’t much changed.

He tore down an Amish saw mill and rebuilt it as a sugarhouse, setting up the evaporator inside. He added some newfangled gadgetry such as a vacuum pump to pull sap through plastic lines from trees on the property and a reverse-osmosis filtration system to remove a good bit of water from the sap before it goes on the fire.

Still, he was making syrup mostly for friends and family, as lots of other folks in these parts do. Then, he says, he realized, “Hey, we’ve got syrup that’s not spoken for.” He decided to go commercial.

This summer, as he and his fiancee, Kerrie Clark, were making a home for themselves on this land, with the help of their parents and other family members, they transformed part of the garage adjacent to their home into a small restaurant, with a tiny kitchen. They decorated it with old maple-sugaring paraphernalia, using overturned galvanized sap buckets to hold up a timber bench, and a metal sap barrel to hold the cash register. They hung a collage of family photos on the wall, including one of the Wiggers Sugar Camp in 1939, and decorated the door jambs with artificial maple leaves.

They got inspected and got a permit allowing them to serve food for six weekends — enough to “get their feet wet,” he says. After all, they both have full-time jobs — he as a John Deere parts salesman, and she as a case manager for a Perseus House adolescent residential program.

Aiming for the heart of sugaring season, they opened the first weekend in February, which was so cold that no sap was yet moving from the roots into the trees as it does on late-winter days when the temperature rises above freezing.

But people flowed in for their all-you-can-eat pancakes, served with sausage, maple-tinged apple sauce, and a drink, for $7 for adults and $4 (cash only) for children 7 and younger.

And they’ve kept coming, thanks in great part to how warm and welcoming the whole family and their friends are. Many of them volunteer to help out. “They want us to be successful,” the 27-year-old Ms. Clark says.

On that Sunday, Feb. 23, she was helped in the restaurant by her brother Kevin, father Drew and “Gigi,” or grandmother, Patricia Dougherty, while her fiance was out in the sugarhouse. All the maple heritage is his, she said with a smile, but “slowly he’s dragging my family into it.”

Her dad, a meat-cutter at a local grocery, explained how he makes the sausage and soaks it in a maple brine. As for cooking experience, he’s had plenty of that doing Little League fundraisers and the like.

They had plates of steaming ‘cakes placed before patrons before they even got their coats off, and kept them coming:

“One more? Two? Three?”

“I think the record is 15,” said Kevin Clark with a grin as he moved between tables and folding chairs that can seat about 50. If they get more diners, they can seat some at the table in the adjacent overflow room, which is still a garage.

With its fluorescent ceiling lights, concrete floor, and disposable tableware, Sweet Traditions is nothing fancy.

But if it continues to go well, the young couple — getting married July 5 — say they will open for longer next season, and maybe grow the business into a year-‘round restaurant.

But first, they have to make it through this syrup season, which will include being a new stop on the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association’s 11th Maple Syrup Weekend. On March 15 and 16, Sweet Traditions and 16 other maple producers in Erie, Crawford, Venango and Warren counties will open their doors to the public and give people a taste of how maple syrup is made as well as tastes of things they make with it.

Sweet Traditions sells not just syrup, but also maple cream, maple nuts, maple popcorn— even maple cotton candy.

What’s appealing to many customers, some as far away as California, is that maple is a natural product and one that’s made by hand. But the big draw for lots of locals is that this young couple are continuing a sweet tradition that is a particular part of this place, as rooted as the sugar-maple trees.

As Catalfu puts it, you can raise a dairy cow and make milk just about any old place, but, “You make syrup here.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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