Maple syrup: tapping nature's sweetness

On a bluff in Shelburne Falls, Russell Davenport glories in the weather. ``Best day of the year. It was 6 degrees at 5 o'clock this morning. Gone up 15 degrees already,'' he says, beaming. ``See those icicles against the barn? Just starting to drip now that the sun's on `em. Perfect day for tapping. Mother Nature's the boss around here. We can't make the sap run; it's up to her,'' he continues, as we head for the sugarhouse led by Gus, a black and white border collie, and followed by a biting tail wind.

Mr. Davenport has no idea exactly how many maple trees are on his 400-acre farm. ``We don't count trees, only taps. We'll put out 4,500 taps this year,'' he explains as we take shelter from the wind in the sugarhouse.

``On a good tap day a 15-quart bucket will fill in 10 hours. On a bad day you'll only get an inch of sap a day. And you have to watch the weather. If it gets into the 50s the sap will begin to spoil.''

It can take as much as 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Maple syrup is ``pure'' when it boils down to 66.5 percent sugar.

``Sweetness is what it's all about,'' says Mr. Davenport. ``You can make syrup out of birch sap. It's just not very sweet.

``Some of the big maples can take five taps. It all depends on the size, health, and vigor of the tree,'' he adds. ``We have trees here that go back three to four hundred years, and some of them are still giving sap.''

Back inside the house, Martha Davenport serves us coffee and freshly baked maple-oatmeal cookies in the kitchen. She comments on her favorite maple recipes. ``The baked beans are a weekly affair around here,'' she says, looking for the recipe in a booklet she has compiled and edited. ``Here it is on Page 27. Only there's a couple of mistakes. Only use a teaspoon of salt, not a tablespoon. And grate an apple into the beans, too.''

Although Vermont and New York produce more than two-thirds of the country's maple syrup, the belt of maple trees reaches from Maine across to Minnesota and from West Virgina to Ontario.

Adin Reynolds, owner of the Wisconsin Maple Farm and Antique Museum in Aniwa, Wis., is getting ready for a maple syrup festival on May 26.

``Started out with just a few locals some 35 years ago,'' Mr. Reynolds comments. ``Now we get a few thousand folks from all over. Even Canada. Wisconsin is the third-largest state producing maple syrup, after Vermont and New York,'' he adds. ``But Quebec produces maybe three times the maple syrup as all the US states combined.''

At the festival, they expect to have the usual feed of pancakes, sausages, and syrup, as well as the selection of a Maple Queen and maybe even a horse-pulling contest.

The Geauga County Maple Festival in Ohio is held the weekend after Easter. This year it runs April 11 to 14. There will be a race, pie and baking contests, and a pancake-eating contest, plus a Maple Ball Sunday night.

Fern Bearhard of Charlotte, Mich., runs what she calls the ``the largest home-grown maple sugar bush in the country. I don't rent a single tree. We set out 5,000 buckets by hand every year on 70 acres of hard [sugar] maples.'' Their maple festival is held in neighboring Vermontville and has been going on for about 45 years.

``Started sometime during the war when sugar was rationed,'' says Ms. Gearhart.``Now the festival draws about 20,000. I really think people come because it's the first outing they go to in the spring. We'll have a carnival, talent show, and, of course, pancakes and waffles with maple syrup will be served throughout Saturday and Sunday.

``We'll even have an evaporator going. Of course, there won't be any maple syrup in it -- that will be finished -- but we will have water and people will get the idea of what it's all about.'' Maple Waldorf Salad 3 cups apples, cubed 1/2 cup chopped walnuts 2 tablespoons mayonnaise 3/4 cup raisins 2 tablespoons maple syrup Lettuce leaves

Toss all ingredients in a large bowl until all fruit is covered. Chill 1 hour before serving on lettuce leaves.

This recipe for pickles came from Russell Davenport's grandmother. Maple Bread and Butter Pickles 1 quart medium cucumbers sliced (not peeled) 2 onions, sliced 1 cup maple syrup 1 teaspoon mustard seeds 1 cup vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Combine all ingredients in stainless steel saucepan and boil 20 minutes or until cucumbers are transparent. Pack in sterile jars leaving 1/2 inch at top and seal immediately. If everything is hot no further processing is necessary. Maple Pea Beans 1 pound Navy pea beans 1/2 pound salt pork, cut in 1/2-inch slices 1/2 cup molasses 3/4 teaspoon prepared mustard 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1/2 cup maple syrup 1/8 teaspoon paprika 1 teaspoon salt 1 apple, cored and grated

Soak beans overnight in cold water. Rinse and cook with enough water to cover until skins start to crack. Pour beans and liquid into 2 1/2-quart covered casserole or bean pot.

Fry salt pork to render some of the fat. Drain, and add with remaining ingredients to beans. Mix well. If needed add enough water to cover. Cover and bake 5 to 6 hours at 300 degrees F.

For a quick version of beans Mrs. Davenport suggests using canned beans without tomato sauce. Drain, add maple syrup to taste, and bake until brown on top.

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