All pancakes taste better topped with maple syrup from Vermont.Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
Just outside Waitsfield, Vermont, I push myself up from the snow-covered ground, pretending that the pain isn’t as bad as it seems. It’s an embarrassing moment. My snowshoe got caught beneath a fallen maple tree, and as I pulled my foot upward, I twisted my ankle a bit. It doesn’t ache too badly now, but I know it will later. This is what happens when a New England native moves away for a few decades and then tries to come home again. I stand up, dust the snow off my overcoat, and try to catch up with the rest of my party.Noticing that I’ve fallen behind, Dori Ross, a seasoned hiker, stops and lets out a shout: “We got ourselves a flatlander here!” She’s talking to Dave Hartshorn, a chiseled seventh-generation farmer who is far ahead of us, scurrying up a steep, icy hill on his 100-plus-acre sugarbush in the Mad River Valley. Ross is trying to get Hartshorn to slow down, but he’s well out of hearing range. Within seconds his fleece jacket turns into a small blue dot off in the snowy-white distance.
I can’t blame Hartshorn for his sense of urgency. It’s early springtime in Vermont, and he’s got work to do. Surveying this rippling landscape is part of his daily routine: one that usually starts at first light, when he wakes up, pours a few cups of coffee, and sets out to check the miles of multicolored plastic tubes that run among nearly 5,000 maple taps. Those tubes are his lifeblood. He has to make sure that neither wandering wildlife nor fallen trees nor in-attentive bushwhackers have obstructed them. They transfer the sap to a vacuum pump in his century-old sugar shack; the pump in turn transfers it to a reverse-osmosis machine that pulls water from the sap until it reaches a sugar concentration of 68 percent. That’s when that most sacred of New England rituals begins: the sugaring.
Hartshorn makes some of the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted—something I discovered the following morning as I poured some over a stack of chef Charlie Menard’s pancakes at The Inn at Round Barn Farm back in Waitsfield. Dori Ross tells me that the flavor has to do with the undulating nature of Hartshorn’s sugarbush, the steep south-facing hillsides, the rich soil, and the deep-rooted trees all working together to produce a syrup with a sweetness that’s far more complex than any other I’ve tasted. Just like wine, it seems that syrup has its own terroir.
Ross knows a lot about these nuances. In 2012, she founded Tonewood Maple, which takes syrups produced by the Hartshorns and another local family, the Vasseurs, and packages them into slim, sleek bottles that look right at home on the shelves of your local gourmet food store. She’s brought their products to upscale marketplaces such as Williams–Sonoma, Barneys, and the popular culinary site Food52. To Ross, it’s a way of helping smaller-scale farmers combat encroaching forces such as increased competition from Canada (Quebec remains the number-one producer of maple syrup worldwide), variable fuel costs, and warming temperatures, which are already making sugaring seasons more precarious and far less predictable.
Fancy packaging isn’t Ross’s only game, though. She also sells value-added products, including maple flakes, maple wafers, and a seven-ounce cube of maple sugar that can be shaved over oatmeal, yogurt, or ice cream. Just as, over the past decade or so, Vermont’s dairy farmers have learned to produce farmstead cheeses in response to an unstable market for commodity milk, now maple producers are learning to do more with their own raw products. And those products have won national recognition, including an Editors’ Choice Food Award from Yankee in 2014 and a 2014 SOFI award for “Outstanding Product Line.” (The SOFI—Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation—is considered the Oscar of the specialty-foods world.)
Ross and I had planned on joining Hartshorn and his family for some sugaring tonight, but the weather is working against us. At just 30 degrees, it’s still too cold for the sap to run, but the local weatherman is calling for warmer temperatures tomorrow. I hope he’s right. There’s something inspiring, even humbling, about watching Vermont syrup makers at work. It reminds us how much labor goes into producing that magical sweetener we pour onto our pancakes. And it reminds us how generations of families still come together in a ramshackle sugar shack somewhere in the woods: the crockpot in the corner filled with baked beans, maybe a stew; the bustle of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters working around a wood-fired evaporator, pulling samples, testing consistency, and pouring the finished product into small plastic jugs adorned with the kinds of New England winter scenes that would make Norman Rockwell’s heart melt.
That’s not to say that things haven’t changed dramatically since Rockwell’s time. These days, sugaring is almost as much about technology as it is about tradition. Instead of metal buckets and hammered-in taps, maple sap is now harvested through elaborate systems of plastic tubing. Reverse-osmosis machines extract the water from the sap before it’s sent to the evaporator, cutting boiling time and using fewer carbon-emitting fossil fuels. The evaporators themselves are better insulated and more fuel-efficient, too. By making sugaring more environmentally friendly, producers hope to ensure the long-term survival of their own trade and of the sugarbush itself.
For Ross, convincing two deeply rooted Vermont families to go into business with her was a challenge. In an insular town like Waitsfield, strangers are often viewed with suspicion. Ross grew up in Canada and spent 15 years in marketing in Toronto before she and her husband decided 10 years ago to make their Vermont vacation house their fulltime residence. By that measure, many here would consider them little more than 10-year tourists.
Despite her outsider status, Ross ingratiated herself with Hartshorn and his partner, Amy Todisco, at the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market, where she sold homemade granola for a time. She struck up a friendship with Cristal Vasseur, a teacher at the elementary school that Ross’s children were attending, around the same time. She persuaded them that there was a way to distinguish their products in a crowded marketplace and pitched the idea of launching an adopt-a-tree program that functions much like a maple CSA: Customers would pay in advance to reap a portion of the harvest, and also receive photos and background information on “their” tree. “They thought I was crazy at first,” Ross says. “‘Who’s going to adopt a maple tree?’ they asked. If they hadn’t trusted me, this never would have happened.”
In the end, both families gave Ross the benefit of the doubt. There was little argument that the added income from the adoptions, as well as the cuts they receive from Tonewood’s sales, would come in handy in a place where syrup makers almost always have two, three, or even five additional sources of income to help them get by. Hartshorn, for example, also sells his own hydroponic fruits and vegetables at a local farmstand, while Amy runs a wellness retreat on their farm each summer. Ross purchases the syrup from the families at a higher rate than other buyers and donates one percent of all sales to the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, which works to improve harvesting technology, promote sustainable farming practices, and boost production.
As promised, the following day brings warmer temperatures. And since my ankle isn’t as sore as I’d feared, I spend the day taking in some of Waitsfield’s culinary pleasures—the buttermilk pancakes at the Big Picture café and movie theater; the insanely delicious tamales at Mad Taco—before meeting up with Ross to visit the Vasseur Brothers Dairy & Maple Sugar Farm in the nearby town of Fayston.
Inside the sugarhouse, Ross introduces me to 82-year-old Bob Vasseur, who gives me a quick handshake before rushing back to his evaporator to check on the color and consistency of the syrup. With him are his sons, Jay and Jeff; Jay’s wife, Natalie; his nephew Steve; and a blur of Jay’s and Jeff’s old high-school friends who have stopped by to offer some help. Although they might be up until 2:00 a.m. sugaring, these guys all have day jobs they’ll have to wake up for tomorrow morning. Steve works for an affordable-housing nonprofit; Jay is a carpenter; and Jeff is a stoneworker.
I arrive hoping that Vasseur can give me some background on the family, but he’s just too busy. Luckily, Ross fills me in. She tells me that the sugar-house dates back to the 1930s, when Vasseur moved to town with his father, a Vermonter, and his Canadian mother. Vasseur’s brother Spike was the backbone of the operation until he passed away a few years back. Since then, the entire family, including Spike’s son, Steve, has pulled together to try to fill his shoes. “Sometimes, Bob will have a grandchild in one hand while he stirs the boiling sap with the other,” Ross tells me.
Although the evaporating pan they’re using dates back to God knows when, Steve, by far the most animated of the bunch, tells me that they’re working with a new arch (the base of the evaporator) this year. “It’s just like our old one,” he explains, “but more energy-efficient”—a little too energy-efficient, if you ask him. “The thing’s so insulated that it barely gives off any heat,” he complains. I soon see what he means as the snow-soaked boots I’m wearing turn cold as ice. To warm everyone up, there’s a crockpot full of pasta in the corner. Natalie, who’s manning the filter tank, which removes residual sand and crystals, made it last night. I ask Steve where all the beer is, since sugaring almost always involves large quantities of beer. “We hid it because we knew you were coming,” he quips.
The Vasseurs have sugared about five times so far this season, averaging around 50 gallons of syrup per session. “Yep, that’s Golden Delicate,” Steve says, rolling his eyes, as he holds a sample of finished syrup against a row of bottles that range in color from pale yellow to red amber. Those bottles are handed out by the state of Vermont to help producers grade their syrups against a new official system. Instead of “Grade A,” “Grade B,” and so on, the state has come up with a more descriptive system that many officials think will help market the syrups overseas. Steve isn’t crazy about the change. “Be careful with that,” he yells at me sarcastically as I inspect a sample bottle of syrup. “That’s Golden Delicate.”
Once things settle down a bit, Steve takes Ross and me upstairs to a small loft-like area where the reverse-osmosis machine and the tanks that store its runoff water are located. “You could sell this stuff like Powerade,” Steve says as he submerges a cup into the runoff and takes a swig. “People would love it.” (In fact, some already do sell it, including Vermont’s Tretap and a Quebec company called DrinkMaple.) Following his example, Ross and I give it a try. It’s definitely refreshing, like a bottle of good spring water with a hint of maple sweetness.
Outside, the woods have taken on a fairy-tale twilight blue. More people—friends of the Vasseurs and extended family—are coming in and out of the sugar shack. As Ross and I head out in her truck, we catch Steve’s daughter, Lily, and one of her friends sitting in the snow, staring at the stars. “Can you see the Big Dipper?” Ross asks, and Lily traces it with her finger against the sky. “Lily keeps singing made-up songs,” her friend complains to us. Ross asks Lily to sing one, and she immediately obliges: “The stars are always shining bright …They always cast such a beautiful light … But we may never reach them …”
As we head down the Vasseurs’ long driveway back toward town, Ross gives me a word of advice: “Be sure you put that in your story,” she says. And as I scribble the song down in my reporter’s notebook, I promise her I will.[haven_recipe post_id=”28363″] [haven_recipe post_id=”28360″] [haven_recipe post_id=”28353″] [haven_recipe post_id=”28356″] [haven_recipe post_id=”28358″]