ONE sign of spring that arrives well before the first robin is the sight of the buckets on the sugar maples. Snow may be on the ground and the trees still bare, but spring's very first crop, maple syrup, is on its way. A purely North American delicacy, maple syrup is a natural product that can be made only from the sap of four types of maple trees found in 14 Northeastern states and in the Eastern provinces of Canada. The best sources of sap are sugar maple and black maple, but silver maple and box elder can also be tapped.
Maple syrup is one of the oldest agricultural crops and has special links with the traditions of the early settlers of the country. The first harvesting took place in Virginia during the 17th century. In many areas, the winters were long and hard and the people looked forward eagerly to the ``sugaring off'' parties that marked the end of winter and the coming of spring.
In the 1700s, maple syrup flavored most foods for which we use sugar today, and each family consumed 15 to 20 gallons a year. Today syrup is a luxury that is used more sparingly and to the best advantage.
At many sugarhouses, visitors can see the various sap-gathering methods in operation, ranging from the traditional buckets to plastic tubes running directly from the sugarbush (a grove of sugar maples) to the sugarhouse.
While the season usually runs from late February through March, it is always a good idea to call the local agricultural extension service to make certain the sap is running and that production is under way.
Aside from syrup, sugarhouses often produce other sweets such as maple cream, a delicious spread for toast, and crystallized maple sugar candy. Although some people say pancakes, waffles, or hot biscuits are the best uses for maple syrup, recipes range from barbecued ribs to muffins, cakes, and cookies and elegant desserts, ices, and sauces.
The following baked bean recipe comes from ``A Vermont Cook Book,'' published about 30 years ago at White River Junction and later reprinted in a pamphlet published by the Maine Bureau of Agriculture Marketing. Maple Baked Beans 6 cups dried pea (or other favorite) beans, picked over 3/4 to 1 pound lean salt pork or slab bacon on the rind 1 tablespoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper 1/3 cup pure maple syrup 1 medium-size onion, peeled and stuck with 2 whole cloves
Cover beans with boiling water. Soak 1 hour, then drain. Cover beans with cold water. Bring to a slow boil and cook until skins split when beans are blown on. Drain, saving liquid.
Drop the meat into a pan of boiling water. Turn off heat and let sit 5 to 10 minutes to remove excess salt. Drain and cut meat in half.
Put half of meat, rind down, on bottom of bean pot. Combine 1 cup bean liquid with the mustard, pepper, and syrup, then mix it into the parboiled beans.
Transfer this to the bean pot and bury the onion right in the middle. Pour in just enough additional bean liquid or water to barely show through the top layer of beans. Cap with the remaining meat.
Cover and bake 6 to 8 hours in a very slow (250-degree F.) oven. This slow cooking is important. Add boiling water if necessary to keep beans from drying out. Uncover pot for the last hour so top of beans can get brown and crisp. Serves 8 to 10. Sweet and Sour Maple-Mustard Basting Sauce 2 tablespoons Dijon-style prepared mustard or other strong mustard 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 garlic clove, crushed 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crushed 1/3 cup maple syrup 1/2 cup peanut oil or other bland oil
Whisk together all ingredients in order listed. Serves 4. Recipe can be doubled. Sauce can be used for grilled chicken, pork chops, and spareribs.
The last place you would expect to find maple syrup is in a fish recipe, yet all who have tried the following recipe say the syrup enhances the delicate flavor of the fish without overpowering it. Baked Fish With Maple-Sour Cream Sauce 1 1/2 pounds fresh haddock or scrod 1 cup dairy sour cream 1/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons pure maple syrup 1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice Paprika
Wipe fish with damp cloth. Place in a well-greased, 1 1/2-by-6-by-10-inch baking dish. Combine sour cream, bread crumbs, salt, maple syrup, and lemon juice. Blend well and spread over fish.
Bake in 400-degree F. oven for 25 minutes or until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork and sour cream is lightly browned. Sprinkle with paprika. Serves 4 to 6.
The following recipe comes from ``The High Maples Farm Cookbook,'' by Edna Smith Berquist. Maple-Candied Sweet Potatoes 4 medium or 6 small sweet potatoes, scrubbed 1 teaspoon salt Water to cover 2 tablespoons butter 1/3 cup pure maple syrup
Place potatoes in salted water and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes. Cool. In a baking pan, melt butter and maple syrup.
Peel sweet potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange slices in two layers in the baking pan. Soak each slice well with the melted butter-maple syrup mixture. Cover pan with aluminum foil. Bake in a preheated 450 degree F. oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15 minutes. Serves 4.