IF you want to eat at Davenport's Restaurant, timing is everything. It's open only six weeks out of the year during March and April, and only on weekends from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. If that sounds like an odd way to run a restaurant, it's not.
Davenport's is a maple farm restaurant, and it's open, appropriately, only during sugaring season. And tourists love it.
Over the years, people have come from 47 countries to Russ and Martha Davenports' 400-acre dairy and maple farm nestled on Mt. Massaemet in northwestern Massachusetts near the Vermont line.
For longtime maple-syrup producers, sugaring season - currently in full force here - is a welcome harbinger of spring.
"Warm days and nights that freeze" have been magic words for the Davenports since 1913, when Mr. Davenport's Grandpa Walter started sugaring with wooden buckets and horse-drawn wagons.
Technology changed all that when tubing came along. Here on the Davenports' land, most of the collecting pails have been replaced by a system of plastic tubes.
The process is almost like reverse irrigation: Pipelines transport the sap from the trees to a central tank. Pure maple syrup as we know it is basically boiled-down, filtered sap. That all happens in the sugarhouse, and it is quite a steamy affair.
The average sugar-maple tree, acre saccharum, produces 10 gallons of sap a season. Those 10 gallons translate into only one quart of maple syrup, when all is said and done. Put another way: It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
"When people want to know why it costs so much, I say 'Come and work a day!' " says Mrs. Davenport as she gives a visitor a tour of the farm, restaurant, store, and "museum." A good season would produce 1,500 gallons of syrup, she says.
As a nation, the United States produced 1.1 million gallons of maple syrup last year. And industry-wide, exports are up, according to Tom McCrumm, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.
"The overseas market has really broadened in the past few years," he says, mentioning Israel, Japan, Germany, even Indonesia and Iceland.
Beyond syrup, maple-sugar producers like the Davenports have branched into other products, such as granulated maple syrup (maple sugar), maple cream, and maple candy.
Mrs. Davenport has been cooking and compiling maple recipes for more than 20 years. They are enjoyed not only in the restaurant but also by her five children and 14 grandchildren in their own homes.
Following are recipes adapted from her booklet, "Massachusetts Favorite Maple Syrup Recipes," available for $4.25. To order, call (413) 625-2866.
Maple Salad Dressing
1 teaspoon flour
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup whipping cream
Mix flour with lemon juice. Stir mixture into syrup. Cook in saucepan over low heat, stirring, until thick. Chill. Whip cream, and fold into cold mixture. Serve on fruit salad. Makes 1-1/2 cups.
Mapled Pork Chops
6 pork chops cut 1-inch thick
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Flour for thickening sauce
Mix ingredients and pour over pork chops. Cover and bake 45 minutes at 400 degrees F., basting occasionally. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more. Place chops on platter. Thicken sauce with flour, pour over meat. Serves 6.
Easy Maple Squares
3 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup cooking oil
1 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips (more if desired)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Mix ingredients in order listed. Pour into greased 13-by-9-in. pan. Bake at 350 degrees F. for about 30 minutes. Test for doneness. Let cool, and cut into 36 small squares.
5 cups quick oatmeal
1-1/2 cups wheat germ
1 cup shredded coconut
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 stick butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup raisins and/or chopped walnuts
Mix first five ingredients in large bowl. Add maple syrup, mix well. Stir together melted butter and vanilla. Add to mixture. Mix well. Bake in large shallow pan for 15 to 20 minutes at 325 degrees F. Stir after 10 minutes. Cool, add raisins and/or nuts. Store in air-tight container. Makes 8 cups.
Budding: Warmer weather in the late spring causes leaf buds to swell, and syrup takes on a strong molasses flavor. Signals the end of the season.
Grading: USDA Grade A light, medium, and dark amber are considered table grades. USDA Grade B is a dark strong-flavored syrup, often used in cooking. All are the same density. Light amber, available early in the season, is used for maple candy and maple cream.
Sugarbush: The maple grove where trees are tapped and sap collected. A sugarbush is measured not by the number of maple trees, but by the number of spouts or taps set. Some old maples drip sap from as many as four spouts. Young trees, at least 40 years old, have one tap. Each tap yields about 10 gallons of sap over the season, which makes one quart of syrup.
Sweet trees: Some sugar maples have sweeter sap than others. It takes fewer gallons of the sweet sap to make a gallon of syrup. Efforts to genetically reproduce sweet trees have failed so far.
Tapping: The first step in sugaring, when small holes are drilled about three-inches deep into tree trunks. Many old trees have been tapped this way for more than 75 years.
Tubing or pipeline: Increasingly used in hillside sugarbushes, plastic tubing conveys sap directly from each tree to holding tanks. Some lines are a mile or more long and may connect 500 or more taps to a single tank.