Tapping the maple trees: sugarin' off in New England

When Travis Shattuck bakes blueberry muffins or date bars or pumpkin pie or just about anything, she's likely to use a dash of maple syrup instead of molasses, honey, or sugar.That's not too surprising as the Shattuck family has been tapping and boiling the amber-colored nectar for seven generations.

Their early spring ritual is an unpredictable one at best. Last year was a poor one for the Shattucks, with the hundreds of trees they tapped yielding only 150 gallons. But this year, with plenty of warm days and cold nights to stimulate the sap flow, they are producing especially sweet syrup in much greater quantity.

On a recent weekend I went out to the Shattuck farm in southwestern New Hampshire to see just what is involved in getting the syrup from tree to breakfast table. After seeing all the work involved, I will never against think that the high price of syrup (anywhere from $20-$30 a gallon) is unreasonable.

Tapping for sap, I discovered, is hardly as romantic as the drawings of horse-drawn wagons and wooden sap buckets suggest. While a few buckets are used , of galvanized steel, not wood, it is mostly done by drilling holes in the trees and running the sap down in plastic tubing to a big metal drum.

After hammering in about 150 taps, we headed down to the drum where the collected sap was pumped into a holding tank on the back of the Shattucks' pickup. Once back at the farm, the tank was drained into another drum and then into a hose running right down to the sugarhouse.

Opening the door to the sugarhouse was akin to stepping into a maple-scented sauna. Clouds of steam rose from the evaporating machine as the bubbling sap was boiled down into syrup, about 40 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup.

The following are a few recipes in which maple syrup adds its own unique flavor. The recipes for baked beans and maple icing are from "Vermont Maple Recipes," a now out-of-print cookbook by Mary Pearl, Vermont radio food comentator and home economist. Vermont Maple Cake 1/2 cup molasses 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup maple syrup 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 eggs, well beaten 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 cup milk 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cream together sugar and molasses and add the maple syrup, a little at a time, and the vanilla. Mix well. Add the eggs and mix again. Add the flour, salt, and baking powder alternately with the milk to the creamed mixture. Stir in the walnuts. Pour into two greased 8-inch cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes. Cool and frost with maple icing and sprinkle with nuts. Maple Icing 3/4 cup maple syrup 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg white 1 teaspoon vanilla

Boil syrup and sugar until it threads when dropped from tip of spoon. Pour slowly into the beaten egg white, beating constantly until it holds its shape. Add vanilla and spread quickly over cake. Country Style Baked Beans 2 cups yellow-eye beans 1/2 pound salt pork with rind 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 1/2 cup maple syrup

Soak beans in water overnight and drain. Place half of the salt pork in bottom of bean pot, rind down. Cover with beans, add mustard and syrup and top with remaining pork. Bake in a slow over at 325 degrees F. for four hours, covered. Remove cover and bake 1/2 hour more to brown beans.

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