Learning Sugary Secrets

There are a few things you should be sure to bring with you as you plan to participate in New Hampshire’s official Maple Sugar Weekend March 27 and 28: decent shoes (snow or mud — who can know?); curiosity (it didn’t really kill the cat); and most importantly, a sweet tooth (preferably, more than one).

Maple Sugar Weekend is an annual event that allows the maple producers in the state to offer coordinated open houses (open trees?) to give those of us who really appreciate that hardy, sweet, homegrown stuff that we puddle prodigiously on our French toast the inside track on how it’s made.

You know you always wanted to take the time to learn a little more about maple sugaring. Sure, you probably know that between 25 and 75 gallons of sap are needed to make just one gallon of syrup. And you may even know that it’s these same workhouse trees — sugar maples — that produce the most vibrant leaf colors each fall.

But admit it, there have been occasions when you’ve just been driving or walking along and, unexpectedly, you see those little plug-things and collecting buckets in the trees, telling you it’s sap season. And you were charmed. And wanted to know more.

That’s what Maple Sugar Weekend is all about. The tapping of the trees. The boiling of the sap. The sap turning into sugar and syrup. And because learning can be hard work, inns and hotels throughout the state, happily, are offering special Maple Sugar Weekend Getaway Deals.

This means that, say, after a hard day watching the sap collect in one of those old-style tree taps at Merrimack Farm and Country Store in Bradford, participating in a sap-carrying-draft-horse race at Stonewall Farm in Keene or watching a team of oxen haul the sap at the Remick Farm in Tamworth, there are rewards to be had.

Guests of Bradford’s Candlelite Inn can dig into the maple-themed gift basket presented to every Maple Sugar Weekender. Although the basket differs each year, you can count on finding some delicious scones and syrups inside. Guests of the Jefferson Inn (in Jefferson, of course) can unwind after a day of sugaring in Bethlehem by retreating to the antique-footed tubs and heather-scented soaps. If you’re staying at the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield, what better way to get into the sap spirit than a visit to the spa, where Maple Sugar Body Scrub is on tap.

Many working maple sugar producers partner up with inns and hotels throughout the state to make special, sap-centered events available during Maple Sugar Weekend. But be advised — the “official” date for Maple Sugar Weekend tends to vary slightly, depending on the area of the state. Most sugar producers easily counter any confusion by offering events throughout the month.

If you were to plan a weekend at the Riverbend Inn up in Chocorua (they’re calling Sugar Weekend the 17th and 18th), you’d start your day by rising from your mahogany bed and treading hungrily along the wide-planked floors of the 200-year-old farmhouse (joined by the dining room to another centuries-old farm-house) because, well, scents from below would be calling your name.

Chief among those scents, as you might imagine, would be maple. Co-owner and chef Craig Cox is happy to admit that he (and according to the folks we talked to, most every other chef in the state) goes a little sugar crazy at this time of year.

“You could say we incorporate a bit of that maple flavor into, well, everything,” says Cox, whose charming and slight drawl betrays the fact that he was not born to the land of changing seasons and maple syrup. “We make this fruit parfait, heavy on the maple, that’s really something. And there’s a homemade granola; it’s a mix with a lot of blueberries and a maple, buttery crunch. It’s sort of heavenly.”

After breakfast, Craig and company will ship you off to the Remick Country Doctor Museum in nearby Tamworth. (A bit of history: The Remick Family has lived in Tamworth for more than 200 years. When Dr. Edwin Crafts Remick died in 1993, he left behind money for a foundation to not only preserve the family legacy, but to create a real working farm, open to the public.) At the Remick Farm, you’ll see methods for maple sugaring that go back to the time of Native Americans.

“It’s a great, informative program. They show you how the Indians used hot stones beneath the sap to boil away the water. And they have teams of oxen pulling the sap, just like they did in the Colonial days — even if you don’t expect to be really interested, you will be,” says Riverbend’s Cox, who notes that his favorite part of the program comes toward the end. “They focus on the modern and then on backyard maple sugaring — you know, basically, how you or your neighbors might do this yourself. Then, it’s time to snack. Maple candies, maple jelly and the best — maple syrup on snow. It’s really seductive.”

Up in Bethlehem, the 1,400-acre Rocks Estate (the pride of the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests) offers “A Bucket of Fun” most March weekends. Here, too, visitors get an overview of maple sugaring through the centuries — horse-drawn carriages take you out to the maples — delectably, by samples. Franconia’s Sugar Hill Inn complements the Rocks program with a special maple-themed four-course dinner.

“It’s a fun weekend. You really do learn something and it’s interesting and it stays with you,” says Marilyn Gordon of Bradford’s Candlelite Inn, where self-guided sugarhouse tour information is offered for the 12 or so sugarhouses within easy driving distance. “Did you know that sometimes they use a touch, just a touch, of evaporated milk to test the sap? You just don’t know what you’ll remember.” NH

Victoria Shouldis is a freelance writer who lives in Concord.