Say good-bye to winter with a sweet visit to a maple syrup shack.
In certain winter-weary parts of the country, the real March madness has begun. Thanks to freezing nights and thawing days, sap is running in the sugar maples. From early March to mid-April, hardy folks set about tapping their trees, boiling down the sap in wood-fired evaporators, and bottling the syrupy results.
This is where you come in. Visit a sugar shack (known in some regions as a sugarhouse) and you can enjoy the entire tree-to-table experience. For my family, this means ogling the steamy boilers before sitting down to a syrup-drenched breakfast at a restaurant open only six weeks a year. Expect teetering stacks of pancakes, perhaps a traditional side of sweetness-cutting pickles, and local sausages if you're lucky. If it's all-you-can-eat, consider wearing something in an elastic-waist style, and make no mistake: this is a nap-afterwards kind of experience, not invigorating spa food.
Depending on where you are, there might be more to do -- a sugarbush tour, a maple festival, or a hands-on tree-tapping adventure. You may see farm animals and antique tractors or taste the maple-taffy treat known as sugar on snow. Or maybe the main draw is just syrup boiling in what is literally a shack, and you get to watch, a kind of Little House on the Prairie-era factory tour. Since it's simultaneously too cold, too warm, and too muddy to do much of anything else, what more could you want?
Where the Sap Runs
Find maple fun in these top ten syrup- producing states.
Vermont: There's sappy info aplenty at vermontmaple.org, including venues for the March 23-24 Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, when dozens of sugarhouses around the state open to the public to celebrate Vermont's sticky pride and joy. And don't miss the 47th annual Vermont Maple Festival in St. Albans April 26-28, with its cook- offs, contests, and plenty of un-maple fun, too (like carnival rides).
New York: Learn about Maple Weekend, which is really two weekends (March 16-17 and 23-24) devoted to sap and the people who boil it, plus find out more about the free open houses and pancake breakfasts around the state at mapleweekend.com. Sugaring Off Sundays, at the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown in March, include old-fashioned demos and rides on the beloved Empire State Carousel.
Maine: mainemapleproducers.com has all of the state's maple-flavored news and information, including a map of the 80+ sugarhouses participating in Maine Maple Sunday on March 24.
Ohio: Given that this state is home to Pancake Town, USA (also known as Burton, Ohio), you know the people here are serious about syrup. Go to ohiomaple.org to find out about tours and products, including the Maple Madness Driving Tour (March 9-10 and 16-17) and the Geauga County Maple Festival (April 25-28), which, having been held for 84 years, has the distinction of being the oldest such festival in the country. Sticky festivities include parades, candy and syrup contests, maple treats, and a "Sap Run" (both 1- and 5-mile).
Pennsylvania: At pamapleassociation.com, you can learn about the popular Taste & Tour Weekends held throughout the state. Get the lowdown on the 66th annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival, in Meyersdale, at pamaplefestival.com.
New Hampshire: Eat syrup or die. Go to nhmapleproducers.com for everything maple, including information about New Hampshire Maple Weekend March 23-24, when dozens of sugarhouses open their doors to visitors. The New Hampshire Maple Experience at the nonprofit Rocks Estate in Bethlehem provides a three-hour program about tree science and syrup history.
Michigan: The website mi-maplesyrup.com has buckets of info about the history and process of sugaring, as well as listings of events, such as the 73rd annual Maple Syrup Festival (April 26-28) in aptly named Vermontville. If the phrase maple cotton candy makes your mouth water, this is the festival for you!
Wisconsin: Check out wismaple.org, where you can learn about producers, open houses, and the state's annual First Tree Tapping event.
Massachusetts: At massmaple.org, you can find a syrupy destination simply by clicking on "find a sugarhouse restaurant." Or if you're so inclined, click on "make your own syrup" for DIY tree-tapping instructions. March weekends at Old Sturbridge Village mean Maple Days, when you can watch costumed interpreters re-create an old working sugar camp.
Connecticut: Go to ctmaple.org for a statewide list of sugarhouses open to the public. The Annual Maple Sugaring Festival, held at the Institute for American Indian Studies, connects the history of North American syrup-making to centuries-old native traditions. The festival features historic demos as well as children's crafts and, of course, pancakes.
Sample the Syrup Down South: Whistling "Dixie"? Virginia's 55th Annual Highland Maple Festival (March 9-10 and 16-17) is in one of the southernmost syrup-producing regions in the nation. Enjoy the breathtaking mountain scenery while watching demonstrations of syrup being boiled and bottled -- and taste the results on buckwheat pancakes, a local specialty.
Sugar on Snow
If your trip to the sugar shack has left you with more syrup than you know what to do with, make a classic New England treat: snow-hardened maple taffy. In a medium pot, combine 1 cup maple syrup and 1/4 cup butter and heat until the mixture reaches about 230° on a candy thermometer. No thermometer? Five minutes after the mixture comes to a boil, pour a little onto a plate that's been chilling in the fridge. If the syrup is ready, it should thicken up into a soft taffy. If it doesn't, cook it a minute or two longer. Let the mixture cool a couple of minutes, then pour it by the spoonful over bowls of clean snow (or ice cream), where it will firm into a sweet lump of maple taffy.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of FamilyFun