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Off the top

A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Maple Weekend

My family and I enjoyed a taste of an area tradition yesterday during the 11th annual Maple Weekend. "Sugar shacks" all over New York State opened their operations to the public, offering tours of the sugaring process and passing on their love of a great tradition and a great product. (Sorry, Aunt Jemima -- you weren't included :-) ). Maple Weekend occurs every third weekend in March, regardless of the weather.

At Gustafson’s Maple Country USA in Falconer, NY (Chautauqua County), we dined in a charming, newly-built restaurant/Christmas shoppe where pancakes are served hot off the griddle all day long, with piping-hot syrup fresh from the evaporator!

Join me in a photo walk-through of Gustafson's:

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First, we sampled various spreads sold in the shop, including maple cream, maple pumpkin butter, and spicy maple mustard. Note the spectacular display case – personalized syrup bottles are available by order.

Then we got in line for breakfast.

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Makin’ cakes

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Hotcakes with butter and fresh (and I mean fresh) syrup, sausages, and homemade applesauce.

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Mmm, mmm.

Next we toured the sugar house itself, where the syrup is made.

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Bath, anyone?

Apparently the sap isn’t always this cloudy or dark. Sap ranges from 2-4% syrup; at 2% the maple odor can barely be detected; it becomes noticeable above 3-1/2%.

Sap generally runs from the middle of February through early April. As long as temperatures drop below freezing at night and warm up considerably during the day, the sap will run. Sap is collected via tubing nowadays; few operations still use metal buckets. A large tree (larger than 12" diameter) can have more than one tap.

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The evaporator

It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. 3000 30-40-year-old trees are needed to have a year-round business.

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The fire must be frequently stoked.

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Drawing the syrup

When the syrup reaches 219 degrees Farenheit, the evaporation process is finished. At this point it has a sugar (syrup) content of at least 66%. After it is filtered, it is ready to be bottled.

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The pride is inside

Syrup is generally produced in two grades, A and B, with grade A being divided into light amber, medium amber, and dark amber sub-grades. The lighter syrup is generally preferred. Darker grades are made later in the season and have a stronger maple flavor.

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Syrup is evaporated further and poured into molds to make maple sugar candy.

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“Jack wax,” or thickened syrup on snow, is a favorite treat.

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Served with a pickle, it’s sweet-n-sour jack wax :-)

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And if that's not enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, there’s maple fluff too.

Some sugar houses offer wagon tours of the sugar bush (the area where the trees grow), but, in case of mud, provide road excursions instead. We enjoyed a tour of the lovely local woodland despite bitter cold winds. Our hosts graciously supplied us with blankets!

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View from the wagon

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Chautauqua Gold!

additional note: This outing is representative of our family's homeschooling philosophy in that we favor "whole-life" learning together as a family unit. Just about everything we do is a learning experience of some kind. Our tour experience was supplemented with books on maple sugaring (like the beautifully illustrated Sugarbush Spring by Marsha Wilson Chall) and a booklet picked up at Gustafson's.


  • Awesome post!!!!! Thanks for taking the time to photograph and post the images.

    Everything looks so delicious... what a great learning and culinary experience (being from the south end of the Left Coast, we have nothing like this).

    You should submit this post to the next Carnival of Homeschooling (it's a great little primer on the process of making maple syrup).

    I hope those pickles are sweet ones (can't imagine eating a garlic-dill with maple syrup). What is Maple Fluff, btw?

    Lastly, it's always nice to see at least one patron show up with an IN-N-OUT Burger baseball cap!

    By Anonymous Rusty, at 12:26 PM  

  • Great Post. I learned a lot/
    When I was in grade school, our teacher explained to the class about how the trees are tapped and the sap collected. She even brought a box of Maple Sugar Candy for us to sample.
    We have maple trees here in the Pacific Nortwest, but not the right kind to make such delightful treats.

    By Blogger Mountain Mama, at 3:13 PM  

  • Thank you, Rusty and M. M.! I had fun creating this post.

    It is so encouraging to me to see people doing something worthwhile just for the love of it. The syrup makers are wonderfully hospitable, eager to share and to answer questions.

    What's also interesting is that no two sugar houses do things exactly the same way.

    Thanks for the suggestion about the Carnival of Homeschooling, Rusty -- do you have the info on that?

    Maple fluff is maple-flavored cotton candy. (those bags were huge!)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 8:07 PM  

  • Terrific, Bonnie. I never knew how all of this was done. Your photos and step by step explanation is great.

    I love maple syrup, but I'm guessing that demand outstrips supply, which is why we mostly see artificially flavored syrup in stores. Is most maple syrup produced in small family operations like these, or are there also large commercial "farms"?

    By Blogger Charlie, at 6:13 PM  

  • Thanks, Charlie. You ask a good question; I don't know for sure but I think that most operations are family ventures. These do vary in size, though. Gustafson's has 1200 trees and one (commercial) evaporator.

    I think a major factor in artificial syrup supply is cost -- the real thing isn't cheap, but oh, it's worth it!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 12:27 PM  

  • Thank you for the great review of our maple operation. Please contact us as we would like to thank you properly! Please call (716)665-6373.
    George Gustafson

    By Anonymous George Gustafson, at 2:34 PM  

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