It was not long after my trip to Maine last summer when Sharon asked if I would be willing to come out to Vermont in March to learn about organic maple syrup farms. My reply was, “That’s prime ski season in Colorado.” Sharon convinced me that this would be a worthwhile adventure and she has never steered me wrong.
To be honest, I am not much of a syrup person. Most likely this is because I’m not a sweet breakfast person (or a breakfast person for that matter). However, years ago I did make the switch from “syrup” to pure maple syrup in my house because I realized how much junk there is in “syrup”. By junk I mean highly-processed, manufactured, chemical-laden ingredients. Pure organic maple syrup (what I use) has one ingredient and it’s all natural and minimally processed. It should come as no surprise that someone who titles her blog use real butter would insist on using pure maple syrup. But I wanted to learn more. It was enough to pull me away from my ski season for a weekend.
I wrote back to Sharon, “I’m in.”
A Song of Ice and Sugar
The Hand: Sharon Kitchens
Master of Coin: Arnold Coombs (Coombs Family Farms Facebook page)
The Small Council: Matt Armendariz, Rebecca Crump, Ashley English, Joy Wilson, myself, and Ellen Daehnick (my guest). [I realize The Hand and Master of Coin are both part of The Small Council, but just work with me here.]
Full disclosure: My transportation, lodging, meals, and activities were sponsored by Coombs Family Farms with no obligation on my part. All photographs, words, experiences, and opinions are my own.
Day 0: Boston to West Chesterfield: The Butcher Shop, Chesterfield Inn
Day 1: Guilford (VT), Brattleboro (VT), Alstead (NH), Walpole (NH): Ted’s Sugarhouse, Coombs Candy Kitchen, Bascom Family Farms, Burdick Restaurant, Chesterfield Inn
Day 2: Norwich (VT): King Arthur Flour Mothership
Day 3: West Chesterfield to Boston: fly home
Day 0: It took 9.5 hours to go from my house in the Colorado Rockies to a car to a bus to a plane to a car to dinner at The Butcher Shop in Boston. There, I met up with my partners in crime for a lovely reunion over multiple boards of antipasti (Prosciutt, Mortadella, Sopressata, Rosette de Lyon, Finocchiono, Petit Jésus), pâtés and terrines (duck liver mousse, gamebird en croûte, pâté de campagne, rillettes du jour), and housemade sausages. Servers loaded our table with cheeses, beet salads, hummus, pickled vegetables, marinated olives, Parmesan, Marcona almonds, breads, mustards, and honey while we did our best to clear plates and make more room. It was a divine welcome to New England and a great way to kill time waiting for the rush hour traffic to abate. Sharon navigated Boston traffic and a snow storm in New Hampshire to deliver us safely to the Chesterfield Inn in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, our home base for the next few days.
three types of housemade sausages
matt and joy contemplate where to begin
this was just our half of the table
nighttime at the chesterfield inn (the night we arrived, it was snowing)
Things I really liked from Day 0
Dinner at The Butcher Shop.
Catching up with friends on the long drive to West Chesterfield.
A good night’s sleep at the Chesterfield Inn.
Day 1: The Chesterfield Inn is a quaint establishment nestled near the Connecticut River, which dictates the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. In the morning, I could get a better sense of the layout of the property and the neighboring woods. I met Yoda, the resident kitty who likes to perch (or curl up) in the mail tray and lazily observe guests as they come and go. We all convened in the sunroom for breakfast with our host, Arnold Coombs, a charming seventh generation maple farmer who produces organic maple syrup, organic maple sugar, and pure maple candy.
the inn by morning light
feels like new england
the inn’s mascot, yoda
yoda runs the place like a boss
every breakfast had a selection of maple syrups (and maple butter)
cinnamon maple french toast
After an energized and animated breakfast conversation, everyone piled into the Suburban and hit the road for (Arnold’s) cousin Ted’s sugarhouse (also known as a sugar shack or a sap house) across the border in Guilford, Vermont. Ted’s sugarhouse draws on 800 or so taps and reduces the sap into syrup in a wood-fired evaporator. Coombs Family Farms was the first to implement reverse osmosis in the maple industry to separate sap from water resulting in a 75% reduction of their carbon footprint. It’s a cozy, unadorned operation tucked away among the maples in this little corner of Vermont. When you step into the building, the moisture and the smell of wood fire and maple syrup envelop you. The steam is an entity unto itself, rising from the evaporator and drifting up toward the cupola vents or eddying into forgotten corners. Meanwhile, Cindy was tending a pot of boiling maple syrup to get the right consistency (it has to flake off the spoon just so) for sugar on snow – a traditional taffy-like confection enjoyed by locals during the sugaring season. Cindy provided pickles and fabulous fresh homemade doughnuts as accompaniments – a mingling of sweet, sour, salty, crunchy, cakey, chewy. Breakfast what?
a tiny step fall in the creek alongside the property
the frozen road
venting steam from the top of the sugarhouse
ted explains the evaporation process that transforms maple sap into maple syrup
the evaporator is fueled by wood burning
left: boiling maple syrup and drizzling it on clean snow; right: sugar on snow with a pickle
Before I could steal yet another delectable doughnut hole, Arnold grabbed an armful of buckets, lids, spiles, and tools and led us outside. We were going to learn to tap a tree. I felt happily at home in the snow, that cold air rushing through my nostrils triggering my nose to run. White snow, naked tree branches, frozen muddy tracks indicative of the early spring thaw and freeze. The tree stand from which a maple syrup farmer harvests sap is called a sugar bush. Sugar maples and black maples are the main sources of sap as they tend to deliver a higher sugar content than other types of maples. We were there when it was still too cold for the sap to run. Sometime in late winter or early spring, the daytime high temperatures will break the freezing point, the nights will still freeze, and the snows will melt. Before this happens, you tap the trees. When it is warm enough for sap to run (near 40°F), sugaring in New England (and Canada) begins in earnest. The season can go as long as six weeks, but when trees bud the maple sap turns an off flavor and the season is considered over.
If you’re in New England and want to participate in the sugaring festivities, New Hampshire Maple Weekend is March 23-24, 2013 (this weekend). Get on that.
joy taps a sugar maple
making sure the spile is secure
the bucket and lid in place, ready to collect sap
We all got a turn at tapping maples around the property after Arnold deftly showed us how it’s done. He’s been tapping trees since he was four years old. That’s something. I think the only thing I’ve been doing consistently since I was four years old is run my mouth. So we each tapped one tree. Now imagine if you will, tapping a few thousand trees which is a typical number for a small family farm. My forearms ache just thinking about it. Because the maple syrup industry is so intimately tied to the health of the forests, Arnold takes an active interest in the environment, sustainable practices, our changing climate and its impact on the trees. His stewardship of the land is rooted in both short-term and long-term visions. When we had sufficiently burned off the calories we had consumed in the sugarhouse (ha!), Arnold took us to Brattleboro (also in Vermont) to tour the Coombs Family Farms maple candy factory. Theirs is one of three (soon to be two) maple candy producers in the country. It’s not a big money maker, yet Arnold keeps it running because of his dedication to what is good and right and not what is necessarily profitable. I have mad respect for people like Arnold Coombs, even if he did make me wear a hairnet.
left: filling maple candy molds; right: candies drying
maple leaf maple candies ready for packaging
processing maple fondant at the factory
Next stop: The Brattleboro Food Co-op, a.k.a. The Awesomest Food Co-op on the Planet. The only thing missing was a bag of Tim’s Cascade jalapeño potato chips, which would have made it nirvana. Is anyone reading this far or do you all just scan the photographs? We grabbed lunch to go and hopped the state line to Bascom Family Farms in Alstead, New Hampshire. There we met Bruce Bascom, Arnold’s business partner and the head of Bascom Family Farms. They cover the commercial side of maple syrup (as opposed to the consumer side of maple syrup which Coombs Family Farms manages) and are the largest supplier of maple syrup farming supplies. Both Bruce and Arnold are committed to helping small maple syrup farmers. We toured the facility and followed the process of receiving, grading, storing, blending, and bottling. Outside, Arnold pointed out the modern method of tapping trees which uses plastic tubing and vacuum pumps in a network to harvest maple sap.
bascom family farms
mount killington rises in the distance
grading syrup based on translucence
left to right: grade a (3 grades): light amber, medium amber, dark amber, and grade b
in the blending tanks room
glass bottles to be filled with maple syrup
plastic tubing: the modern way of tapping trees
Upon our return to the Chesterfield Inn, we settled into the lounge for hors d’oeuvres (local cheese, venison summer sausages, pâté, fruit, maple fruit spreads, bread, crackers) and maple cocktails. (I had a half-strength maple mojito which was terrific, but the room was spinning like a carousel.) Dinner was a maple-themed feast of maple walnut bread, jalapeño corn muffins, green salad with maple balsamic vinaigrette, a choice of beef, salmon, or chicken entrée, and a maple crème brûlée or vanilla ice cream with chocolate maple sauce. Fantastic.
ready for dinner after learning all about maple syrup
lovely green salad with maple balsamic vinaigrette
grilled salmon with maple sugar dry spice rub and cinnamon maple butter
Things I really liked from Day 1
Yoda, the cat at the Chesterfield Inn.
Visiting Ted’s sugarhouse.
Cindy’s homemade doughnuts.
Learning to tap a sugar maple.
The Brattleboro Food Co-op.
Day 2: The next morning, we enjoyed another lively breakfast session covering a myriad of topics. Sharon had originally scheduled a snowshoe at a nearby park after breakfast, but there wasn’t enough snow nor did there seem to be much interest. So the two of us decided to go for a brisk walk and get our own time together to talk. Even for a group as small as ours, I still desire one-on-one conversations to really connect with an individual. I value that kind of interaction, which I managed to get during our long drives in the Suburban. And despite the lack of more cerebral exchanges, I thoroughly enjoyed making friends with two-year old Huxley, Ashley’s delightful son. By morning’s end we bade Arnold Coombs farewell and thank you, passed through Brattleboro (to hit up the co-op for lunch) and drove north to Norwich, Vermont to visit the King Arthur Flour’s beautiful flagship campus.
huxley made friends with everyone – here matt helps put his boots on
huxley is bundled up to go out and play
a wonderful day for a road trip and pastries
king arthur flour’s campus has a bakery and café, baker’s store, and baking education center
ashley, sharon, and the knight of armor
about to get schooled
Arriving with time to spare before our baking class commenced, we milled about the baker’s store. Sometimes it’s a good thing (financially) that I travel light such that I’m not tempted to buy everything in sight and schlep it home. That said, I not-so-secretly wish we had such a store near my house. Our class was on pizza – making two different doughs (semolina pizza dough and poolish), shaping the pizza dough, assembling the pizzas, baking in a wood-fired oven and the industrial ovens, and of course eating the final masterpieces! Everyone had great fun and our instructors were so knowledgeable, friendly, and all-around terrific.
jessica weighs the flour
explaining the poolish dough
shaping the dough
joy photographs a pizza baking in the oven
matt proudly shows me his first pizza
my poolish dough pizza margherita
my two semolina dough pizzas
King Arthur Flour graciously provided our group with salads, apple cider, cookies, and boozy chocolate mousse bombes to accompany our pizzas. This was by far the most fun I’ve ever had in a cooking/baking class. On the ride back to the inn, I had a great time trading crazy medical emergency stories with Ashley in the back of the Suburban. Life is so crazy. And awesome. Crazy and awesome. Then I stayed up late talking with my roommate, Ellen, until 2:30 in the morning. Silly that two friends, who both live in Colorado just an hour from one another, had to fly to New England to find the time to slumber-party-girl-chat. But when you’re home, it’s rare to find yourself without the everyday demanding your attention. The lack of sleep was well worth it.
Things I really liked from Day 2
Getting outside for a walk.
King Arthur Flour’s baker’s store.
King Arthur Flour’s pizza class.
Bonding with friends, old and new.
Day 3: On this day, we packed up and drove the 2.5 hours to Boston’s Logan Airport to catch our various flights home. Ashley and her family continued north to Maine for more adventure. It was a wholly educational and enjoyable trip to Vermont and New Hampshire. I spent time with friends, met good people, ate amazing food, visited wonderful places, and learned much. I was given a glimpse into a part of Vermont and New Hampshire that I hadn’t known before. I’ve gained a whole new respect for the process and product of maple syrup and the individuals that make it happen. Sugar on.
i made matt pose in front of his work from a shoot he did for target (the bunny and egg!)
You can read about Ashley’s trip too!
Our awesome hostess with the mostess, Sharon, wrote a post about the weekend as well.
And here’s what my gal, Rebecca, had to say.
I would like to express my gratitude to Sharon for planning yet another awesome trip and to Arnold Coombs and Coombs Family Farms for being such a gracious and generous host. My thanks to all involved who made this excursion such an enriching experience.
more goodness from the use real butter archives
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