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Ken Schuster
March 29, 2008

Crazy weather good for sugaring

    It was snowing lightly as I approached the intersection of Sutton Rd. and Gillingham Drive, last Thursday afternoon. Sandy Gove said she and Andy Anderson would be cooking sap all afternoon and into the evening. I followed the steam down from the trees to the big sugar house that looked brand new.  

      Inside, the large open room is supported by stout posts and beams that still smelled freshly milled-on-site from their own trees, by James, one of Sandy’s twin sons.

     About a third of the room is occupied by the evaporator, where sap is cooked for hours until most of the water has boiled out, leaving beautiful, delicious, golden syrup. The evaporator is about 20 feet long and six feet wide, mostly stainless steel. Underneath it is a horizontal black metal chimney leading from the firebox at the other end. It turns 90 degrees upward at the end of the evaporator, and feeds up to a stack about 18 inches in diameter reaching through the roof.

The firebox end reminds me of an old wood-fired steam engine, like the Mount Washington Cog Railway. The door alone probably weighs 40 pounds. Andy said that when fire really gets going, that thick steel door glows cherry red. He wore big red welding gloves with cuffs almost to his elbows when he opened the furnace door and fed part of a three-foot-long log into the intensely bright yellow fire. The draw was so strong, it roared like a jet plane taking off.

Both Sandy and Andy have been sugaring all their lives. They learned from their fathers, who learned from their fathers, and so on. Sandy said that her father brought his sap buckets when he moved here from Nova Scotia.

Back in the late 1700s, there was no cane sugar, but they had sweetener just the same. They cooked some of the maple sap to 238 degrees, which is much higher than for syrup, and it changes the chemical structure. Then they would churn it by hand, for a very long time, until it became a thick, opaque tan paste. They pressed the paste into block forms and left them to dry. When they wanted sweetener for their fresh berry pies, they’d shave-off what they needed from the sugar block.

     Today, the maple sap is still heated to the same temperature, but Sandy pours it into a machine that does all the churning. The result is the maple candy that you see in a variety of shapes such as a maple leaf. It’s the same sweet treat they had back when you could count the years of our country’s independence on your fingers.

Sandy Gove and Andy Anderson color check their latest maple syrup. Season began early with good volume and might run longer than normal.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the contents of each and every sap bucket was collected and brought back to the “cooker,” by horse-drawn cart. Of course, eventually the horses were replaced by ATVs, trucks and tractors. That made transporting the sap much easier, but it didn’t solve the problem of getting to trees that were inaccessible because of the terrain. The fairly recent solution to that dilemma was flexible plastic tubing. Now, if you can hike and climb to a stand of sugar maples, you can tap them. Instead of spending all day just collecting buckets of sap, producers attach flexible tubes to the taps.

Andy (Anderson Farm) has 2,500 taps going right up Bald Sunapee mountain. Miles of tubing takes the sap to collection tanks. The large tank at the sap house holds 1,200 gallons. Then it’s pumped up to an 800 gallon elevated tank, and piped back down into the evaporator. The sap is strained several times as it travels toward its transformation into syrup.

Tubing, stainless steel and automation might take some of the glamour and old-time character out of sugaring, but that’s also what makes today’s syrup free of mineral and other deposits (“sugar sand”) and uncontaminated by bacteria, both of which were major problems in “the good old days.” About as much time is spent on keeping everything sterile as time spent making syrup.

After the sap becomes syrup, it has to be re-heated to between 180 and 190 degrees, filled to almost brimming the bottle, and then sealed to lock-out airborne contaminants. What you get from producers like Anderson Farm is as pure and clean as anything directly from nature could possibly be. There are no flavorings, thickeners, colorants, preservatives or artificial anything in their syrups, candies, creams and other maple products.

Andy said they’ve already made 225 gallons of syrup. The season started a little early this year, and if the weather stays cool, it’ll last longer, and they’ll probably make more than 600 gallons for the season.

You can buy Anderson Farm syrup at Springledge Farm, in New London, the Newbury Farmer’s Market, and others in the area. If you can’t wait that long for them to be open, and you’d like to taste it on some great pancakes, stop in for breakfast at the Intervale Farm Pancake House, on Route 114, near the entrance to Pat's Peak. Or, if you want a couple jugs right now, and like buying directly from the source, Sandy said that she welcomes visitors, but when they’re working in the sap house, timing is critical, and she might not be able to chat.

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