March 30, 2008
Elaine Meinel Supkis
Instead of worrying about the world, I went off this lovely Sunday to visit one of my neighbor's businesses. Kent's Sugar House produces all the maple syrup we use at home. We love this product and are always fascinated to visit the Kent family as they manufacture their syrup the old fashioned way. They also are a part of Americana that we all adore: hard working people who make wonderful things, often, by themselves. So sit back and enjoy one of the most wonderful things in spring in the Northeast. Mud season is bearable if we can have maple syrup the rest of the year.
Note: click on all images to enlarge.
Our road up the mountain turns to mud. Mud as bad as that which bogged down Napoleon and Hitler's armies in Russia. When the snow melts and runs into the ground, it turns to mud. Mud deeper than the axels of our one ton truck. But when we look out at all this mud which covers our boots and the paws of the dogs and which discourage the cats who look in disgust at the mess, we see the first signs of spring. The trees 'thicken'. Instead of thin, delicate branches waving in the howling winds, covered with snow or black against the snow, the filigree of the forest blushes pink and the trees look fatter. For the sap is rising!
Being smarter than humans, the trees know to retreat in winter. They shed their leaves swiftly after a lovely display of amazing colors which are all the colors of the rainbow, they then hunker down for winter. The sap leaves the branches and travels down into the roots which dig deep under the rocks left behind by glaciers. There, under the earth and snow, the sap sits and waits and waits. While it waits, it gets concentrated. Unlike in summer, when it rushes to the outermost leaves to feed the chlorophyll in the leaves, it is very thin. But the concentrate that flows in the spring is rich!
This sweet sap is sweetest in the sugar maples. These splendid forest dyrads put on the prettiest dresses in fall and turn brilliant red and orange. Or gold. In spring, this sap flows fastest and hardest with these trees. And the people of the Northeast figured out hundreds of years ago, how to capture some of this sap by tapping the trees. And if this sap is boiled down, it makes the sweetest yet most subtle of sugars! A complex bouquet of taste and scent, a memory of the entire spring, summer and fall, like a fine perfume.
My neighbors who run a sugar house have built a fine business over the years and I have watched them at work as they figure out how to do business. And it pays to look at people at the lower levels of our economy to see how enterprise, hard work and faith can create and grow a business without any tricky things that are not healthy or good. The Kents are rock-ribbed Yanks who embody all the virtues of these people.
The sugar house is on a steep mountainside about a mile from my own hillside farm. It is right next to Plank Road. This road is one of the first toll roads built in America. It connects Troy, New York, to Williamstown, Mass. The road runs right past my own farm and up into the mountains where it has now dwindled into a track. Abandoned since the 1940's, for a while, a hermit lived up there with 'No Tresspasin'' signs.
The Kents have lived here for generations. They owned various farms about this region. My own ancestors lived out here, too, in the 1600's. People seldom hold the same farms, though. Only a very few have had the same land for 10 generations. Most moved about the region, buying and selling or being tenants on various plots of land, large or small. Many made money over the centuries doing various seasonal things. And rendering down maple syrup has a very long history here. It is a good money maker just like making
The person in charge of changing Kent's Sugar House into its present incarnation is a dynamic and intelligent man. He loves the woods, he loves nature. He also loves this region. The changing seasons bring pleasure and makes one energetic. He wishes to stay here and he has worked hard to find ways to increase his profits as he does his seasonal work that his family has done for hundreds of years. He has been open to new ideas for marketing his produce and making maximum value from his labor.
He and a number of farmers here in our valleys and mountains has figured out that many people want to be entertained while learning about food. So over the years, he has improved his sugar house and his systems so it attracts a big crowd. This operation is very genuine and straight forward. People can watch real people make real maple syrup and then can buy it literally hot off the presses. They learn about the many grades of maple syrup while watching it being made.
Greatgrandpa is pushing 90 years. I met a number of old men and women like him when I came to Berlin. They all had endless practical information to pass on. We learned many things from them. Such as how to run and train an ox team, for example. The Kents have oxen just as we did. These gentle giants are Brown Swiss.
These boys are babies compared to our oxen. They are only half the size our team reached when they both died of old age. Oxen have big, brown eyes. They are very patient and quite gentle. When one wishes to work with them, a kind voice and a good relationship can work wonders. 'Gee' and 'Haw' tells them which way to turn and a hearty, 'Come on UP, boys!' gets them to put their huge shoulders to work and heave-ho, they pull the sledge in the woods. For the best maple syrup comes from trees on mountains. The steeper, the better! And you can't tear up the roots with tires, either. But the oxen can pull a sledge deep into the woods, straight uphill!
When the trees are tapped, the flow of juices used to go into buckets but now they flow through tubes to big tanks on sledges. Here is an old poster at the Kent Sugar House showing how maple syrup is made:
The temperature and timing of all this is very important. Usually, the old men stand about and look at the snow, look at the sun, look at the streams to see how they are running. They sniff the air, look at the trees 'thickening' and then proclaim, 'Time to go sugering!' and off they go, into the woods. The ideal weather is very cold at night, the colder, the better, then warming in the sun to above freezing but not too warm. If it is over 40 degrees F in the shade, moulds and other things begin to grow in the holding tanks and the sap has to be dumped. So the people with the longest memories of weather are the experts here. They can tell, in their bones, when it is the best time to tap the trees.
One of the tragedies of modern life is the loss of this body of knowledge. We are happy some of our neighbors still can pass this lore on to the next generation. It is very valuable knowledge. In the future, perhaps life and death.
This last week has been perfect, by the way. Several snow storms blasted in with thaws in between. Most days, the temperature has risen above freezing but not above 40 F. So the maple syrup makers are happy. Signs went up around our village this week warning us, the Kents were going to be making syrup day and night and time to PARTY! And party is the correct word here. This would be mere hard work except the Kents invite everyone over. And they make money doing this as they ought.
The syrup has to be cooked for many hours. Reduced by 90%. Watched the whole time, like the hawk watches our chicken pen from high in the sky these days! Being practical New Englanders, the Kents use their oxen to haul in many cords of firewood. This has to be cut up, split and stacked. Hard work, yet Great-grandpa sets to work, doing all that. The cooker has a big iron door at the base. The wood is popped into the box and ignites. The temperature of the fire has to be carefully controlled. If it is too hot and the sugar burns, the syrup is ruined. Great-grandpa watches for this and he tastes the syrup to see if it is correct. The other family members check the gages and controls and adjust the cooking pans. The whole family does this with few words for everyone knows how the steps of this elaborate dance!
The grades of syrup are determined by taste and color. These jars are a guide and are set in the window to catch the sun. Samples from the cooking today are checked against these jars and put in the appropriate containers. I happen to love the super-dark flavors. The Kents are partial to this, too. But many people may find the flavor to be too powerful. So there are many permutations of flavor which the consumer can pick and choose. The Kents even have taste-tests for customers.
They even keep a chart tracking the business. The amount they can make varies greatly from year to year. The window of opportunity to tap trees varies greatly due to weather conditions. Warm springs are terrible. We had several years where spring was literally only a few days long, summer roaring in nearly instantly right after the snow melt! This is bad. Other winters ended with long, cold, slow springs. This drives people nuts but is a joy for all maple syrup makers. Because they can track production and see how much their average is, they can make forward financial plans. They understand the need to be realistic. They know that there will always be significant variations year to year and they plan for this. We hope other humans figure this obvious lesson out and cease desiring always to have a bumper crop, so to speak. Heh.
Hewitt's is one of the last of several local grocery stores we used to have. Berlin has lost a tremendous amount of commercial business over the last 100 years. It is on the verge of vanishing entirely. A terrific loss, I say. But Hewitt's hangs in there and like the Kents, the owners are locals who have been here a long time and love this place. They sell local produce and production. This is where we usually buy Kent's maple syrup. One hand helps the other. And this is what we call 'community' and it is the bedrock of any nation on earth: the daisy chain of villages and towns surrounding the larger industrial/commercial centers. Each supporting the other. And this is why I often talk about international trade and politics. Free trade has rapidly decimated Berlin, NY. Many industries that have been here for over 100 years, some of them very big, employing hundreds of people, have vanished in less than 20 years! The place is increasingly deserted. Abandoned houses dot the town's landscape and empty businesses are everywhere and closing, one by one.
The fact that a few hang on is a miracle and we can thank the hard working people who believe and love in our town, still keep on going. And may they go on for another 300 years!