At the first sign of spring, many New Englanders wait in rapt anticipation of maple syrup season, when they can once again indulge themselves with the sweet, sticky treat.
Local sugar shacks start working in earnest this time of year, tapping the trees and boiling down the sap, all to satisfy this seasonal craving.
The New Hampshire Maple Producers Association have designated March as Maple Sugaring Month, paying particular attention to The Annual New Hampshire Maple Weekend, which will celebrate its 24th anniversary on March 23 and 24. During those two days, maple producers across the state will be opening their doors to the public to demonstrate the centuries-old craft of maple sugaring.
The weekend promises to be a diversion for the entire family, as attendees can discover how these operations work and enjoy free samples of fresh syrup, maple candies and doughnuts. Some of the participating locations will also be offering pancake breakfasts, petting farms or horse-drawn wagon or sleigh rides.
As an indigenous food, maple syrup has a long and revered pedigree. Native Americans have a legend that, one day, a brave threw a tomahawk against a tree, and was surprised to see sap exuding from it in large quantities.
The man’s wife quickly gathered the fluid in a bowl and decided to boil a haunch of venison in it. Upon trying the dish, they were delighted to discover that the meat and sauce had gained a deliciously sweet flavor.
Catching on to this phenomenon, tribes began tapping maple trees every year in the spring. When Europeans arrived on these shores, they found themselves bereft of their precious sugar, which figured largely in their cooking. The tribes shared their secret with the newcomers, and maple syrup quickly became the sweetener of choice in the New England colonies.
Maple syrup producers take their vocation seriously and work long hours throughout the season to satisfy the appetite of locals. Over in Temple, Ben’s Sugar Shack has been tending to the taps and boilers for the last 25 years, employing 22 full-time employees to process the sap.
“I started doing this when I was five years old,” said owner Ben Fisk. “I was visiting a maple sugar house on a field trip while in preschool and was immediately hooked.
“After I came home from school, I told my father all about it, and we immediately got started, created our own homemade evaporator and hung 13 buckets. That first year, we only produced under a gallon of syrup, but we kept on with it, and this became a lifetime passion.”
Over the years, Fisk’s tenacity paid off. By the age of 16, he won the Maple Producers’ Carlisle Trophy for the best syrup in New Hampshire. The business has since grown into two sugar houses, and has its work cut out meeting the demand.
“We produce about 10,000 gallons of syrup a year,” he said. “To make maple syrup, you need warm days and cold nights. Ideally, it should be about 28 degrees at night and 40 or 45 degrees during the day to really get the sap running. The season only encompasses the months of February, March and a little bit of April, so we really have to move.”
Fisk said it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, which he collects through a pipeline involving 25,000 taps. From there, it is dispensed into two 10,000 tanks, which can process about 4,000 gallons of sap every hour.
Fisk said the number of retailers selling his maple syrup is extensive and in addition to marketing the syrup to local businesses, the facility also produces a variety of other products, which it sells from an on-site store.
“We have tons of treats, which we sell right here,” Fisk said. “We have maple ice cream, maple candy, maple cotton candy, maple cream and maple doughnuts."
Fisk encourages families to come out and see what this is all about, enjoy a day outside and wipe the winter doldrums from their eyes.
“This is really the best time to come out here, as we’re boiling away,” he said. “It’s a great way to enjoy the weekend and learn something in the process.”
The 24th Annual New Hampshire Maple Weekend will be observed on March 23 and 24. For more information, visit the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association website at nhmapleproducers.com. Ben’s Sugar Shack is at 83 Webster Highway in Temple and can be reached at 924-3111 or online at bensmaplesyrup.com. Open hours are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.