MORNING is bitter cold as a bright sun cuts through the trees here at Parker's Maple Barn and Sugar House in southern New Hampshire. For 20 years they've been making maple syrup and serving breakfast to visitors, and this week they're gearing up for another season. ``Yes, the sap's gonna run today!'' says Terry Denehy, keeper of the sugar house, squinting into the sun-drenched woods outside. He smiles at the thought. But so far, this sugaring-off morning is still. Yesterday was too cold for the sap to run. Today workmen are out tapping more trees - putting in spigots and hanging pails. The barn is warm inside. It smells of wood and maple syrup from the week's work.
Yet what looks like a perfect beginning for the maple sugar season - earlier here than in more northern Vermont and Canada - might not continue to be. ``Everything depends on the weather,'' says Mr. Denehy. ``We need cold nights and warm days to make the sap run best.'' That's 25 degrees F. at night; 40 degrees F. in the day. If the days are too warm, trees will use their sap to make leaves. If it's too cold, the sap won't melt enough to run.
Denehy shakes his head as he recalls the past four years, when syrup production hit an all-time low because of warm winters, damage from acid rain and - in other areas - the pear-thrip insect pest. In 1981, says Denehy, Parker's produced a record 2,500 gallons of syrup; last year they made only 400.
But while sap just trickled, more than 12,000 tourists poured in - from Texas to Tokyo - to watch the making of maple syrup at Parker's. Fifty miles northwest of Boston, Parker's is nestled into a peaceful slice of New Hampshire hill country. The site includes three buildings - sugar house, gift house, and restaurant. Antique farm implements, strewn about, date back to the days when horses pulled sleighs through the woods at collection time.
In the sugarhouse, the sap - usually only 2 percent sugar - is first cooked in an open evaporator vat to boil off water. Wood is burned for fuel. When the sap reaches 67 percent sugar, a white powder called diatomaceous earth is added to help catch carmelized sugars and sugar sands as the mixture is squeezed through a filter press. The final syrup runs into a 3-gallon coffee urn, and is then poured into plastic jugs and metal cans labeled ``Parker's.'' On a good day, workers can fill 80 gallons.
At the final stage, the syrup is graded. Denehy holds a sample to the light to determine if its hue is light, medium, or dark amber. The sweeter the sap, the lighter the color of the syrup, the more delicate the flavor, and the higher the price. The pale syrup is called ``light amber'' in New Hampshire and ``fancy'' in Vermont. This year it's fetching $40 a gallon; the darker syrup sells for less. Dark, stronger-flavored ``cooking grade'' syrup is made from sap lower in sugar content, usually from the end of the season. The ``blackstrap'' or ``grade C'' syrup is used in commercial ``maple-flavored'' syrups.
Parker's traditional methods are anachronistic compared with bigger high-tech operations. Today's sugarmakers are exchanging their gray metal pails for sleek blue plastic tubing, which connects all trees and carries the sap right to the sugar house, usually with the aid of a vaccuum pump. A reverse osmosis machine helps to cut boiling time in half by expelling the sap at high pressure through a membrane to remove much of the water.
``But you've got to have 5,000 or 10,000 taps to invest in that,'' says Ron Roberts, owner of Parker's. His operation is small, and mostly for show. Parker's has only 3,500 taps on trees belonging to 100 or so neighbors.
But all sugarmakers comply with the new state rule that aims to reduce stress on the sugar maple trees. Taps used to be placed 14 inches apart, but that has been increased to 18 inches. Trees must be at least 10 inches in diameter - about 40 years old - to be eligible for tapping.
Down the hill from the sugar barn is the restaurant - a renovated 1850s dairy barn moved beam by beam from a town 10 miles away. Diners choose how they want their fresh syrup: drizzled over whole-grain pancakes and waffles, glazed on ham, baked into beans, or over steamed squash.
On this Friday morning there is no line. Jeanette Wye of Falmouth, Mass., says ``We've waited a year for this!'' as she leaves the restaurant with her family, video camera aimed at the grandchildren.
Roger Beaulieu of Nashua, N.H., is a satisfied customer. Lingering over buckwheat pancakes and coffee, he says, ``This is one of the only times you can enjoy maple syrup and not worry about the price.'' At $40 a gallon, it's a luxury he can't afford. He shakes his head. ``I remember when it was $12 a gallon!''