In case you didn't visit Vermont last weekend to tour the sugarhouses, I was your surrogate. I visited three of them, sampling syrup out of plastic cups, and eating homemade doughnuts, maple sugar everything, syrup on snow (sort of a maple slurpie), five kinds of cheese, and I forget what else.
That might make you glad you didn't come, but you missed something great, basic and incredibly real, even at the touristy places. I met people who have worked hard, rocky Vermont farms for eight generations, learning and changing their techniques to suit the times. I had a glimpse at a way of life that is tied to a seasonal rhythm, and people who are proud of what they do. It's a good life, and many of these farmers live into their nineties, still active and involved in the farm.
That's despite all the syrup and doughnuts. Or maybe because of it. Which has me wondering: is there something especially beneficial in maple syrup? Like those rare molds that live only in the rain forest...could it be?
No. That's the syrup talking.
Sugarbush Farm, Woodstock, VT
This is a very popular destination, and there was heavy traffic going up the hill to the farm. Heavy traffic for a Vermont dirt road, that is. We stopped the car to get a picture, and people from Virginia asked us if we were OK. That was so nice. I felt like part of the crowd; we followed the flow back towards the sugarhouse.
Inside, the sugarhouse is a series of dramatic extremes, as the boil continues: Darkness, brilliant light from a lantern breaking through the swirling clouds of mist, noise, silence, cold, blazing heat from the fire and the madly boiling sap.
People laugh nervously and hold onto their kids as they walk around the behemoth wood-burning evaporator that dominates the room.
Ralph Luce stands down at the business end of the machine; he is loading wood into the blazing firebox almost continually. Without meaning to, I got between him and the woodpile. I apologized, and he grinned and laughed. No problem, he's used to silly tourists like me.
Ralph's brother Jeff explained the basics of syrup production, the strange early end to the season this year, and how the farm takes young cheeses from cooperatives and ages them for sale.
Elm Grove Farm, Woodstock, VT
Down the street a couple of miles, we visited Elm Grove Farm, a smaller-scale, family operation. In the sugarhouse were three generations of the Doten family, all apparently having a great time. And a lot of homemade doughnuts, which were excellent dipped in hot syrup.
Fred Doten, Sr. beamed as he watched the three very focused teenage girls meticulously pouring us a blazing hot half-gallon of syrup out of the canner to take home. It was so hot the label wouldn't stick to the bottle. Fred tried to help. The lead girl, very businesslike, handed me a label to stick on later. OK!
I'm giddy with the idea our own jug of hot-out-of-the-vat syrup. Soon it will be burning a hole like a meteorite in the back of the BMW, propped up by maps and sweaters.
Like all the other sugar house people I met, Fred is immensely likeable. He asked whether we ever get over to the Fryeburg fair, which is in Maine. He goes there for the run each year with the clan. Note to self: go to Fryeburg fair.
I did a little research on Fred, and found that in the town of Pomfret he wears several more hats: a Deputy Fire Marshall, member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Trustee of Public Funds, Justice of the Peace, and member of the Surveyors of Wood and Lumber and Weighers of Coal.
What's my excuse? Never mind, pass the maple sugar candy.