As I wrestled out of my winter boots by the back kitchen door so the mud wouldn’t track all over the kitchen floor and then slipped out of my lightest weight down jacket to hang it in the mud room, I thought of the splendid morning I just had visiting a local farm…a local maple sugar farm!
As with many farms in New Hampshire, when the winter months cover the soil with layers of snow and the produce supply comes to a standstill, many farmers have turned to diversified ways to keep producing goods for the local community in some fashion or another. Producing maple syrup from the abundance of maple trees in NH is one of those ways. It takes 40 years of growth before sugar maple trees can be tapped and many of the farmers around here have acres of mature woodlands surrounding their fields.
In the month of March, the abundant maple trees in New Hampshire are swinging in temperature between cold frosty nights below freezing and sun shiny afternoons above freezing. Just as the locals begin to wiggle in excitement and anticipation about the mysteries of maple tree sap flowing, the trees are swelling with sap production.
During the winter, sometime back in January, I drove out to one of our local farms, Kearsarge Gore Farm, to source a handful of leftover garlic from the growing season. I was making my Rustic Pasta Bolognese with Hearty Meat Sauce for New Hampshire Magazine and I remembered Bob had nice looking garlic at the fall farmer’s market down on Main Street in town.
I ended up staying for several hours on the farm and just soaking in the activities of farm life and listening to Jennifer tell farm stories about what is every day ho-hum chores to a farmer’s life, but is completely novel and fascinating to me.
Several tiny awkward adorable little lambs were hobbling around in the barn. The winter light was so soft as it slipped through the slats of the barn and illuminated the soft downy white coats of the newborns. They were nestled in the mounds of hay with their knobby little knees tucked underneath themselves. If I tried to shuffle a little closer, a mother would quietly stand between me and the baby kid and quietly gaze at me with pointed notice.
After cooing over the sweet little lambs, Charlie, the lovable floppy eared licorice colored farm dog, bounded from one side of me to another…thrilled to have a guest on the farm to lavish renewed attention on him. Charlie is as adorable as dogs come and with his scruffy black curly mane he bounded ahead of us. My gaze followed him and that is when I noticed a beautiful caramel colored, wood studded, unmistakable maple syrup house tucked back into the woods at the edge of the property.
“Is that a maple sugar shack?” I asked excitedly. “It is sure is,” assured Jennifer as we headed in that direction. “We’re just getting it ready for the March season.”
In the absolute record breaking frozen temperatures we experienced last winter, we managed to get ourselves out on the road and visited our first maple syrup farm here. As we munched on our first taste of fresh pancakes drizzled with maple syrup just boiled from the trees and took our first pull of soft maple syrup flavored cotton candy, I knew the yearly ritual of visiting maple farms was to be a part of our March calendar year after year.
And…here, only miles up from our farmhouse, was a beautiful working sugar shack sitting snugly in the woods waiting for its turn to become active again.
We trudged out past the barns that kept the family of lambs cozy (and the one calf who thinks he is a sheep). We passed the fields which will be teeming with vegetables in just a few months. Jennifer said that maple sugar harvesting is a daily ritual of “hurry up and wait“. One day the sap can be flowing vigorously and then the weather will take a turn and everyone waits for Mother Nature to readjust her spring schedule and press the activate button once again. Nature is in complete control out here. Fortunately for me…the day I returned to Kearsarge Gore Farm a few days ago, she decided to throw the switch into full gear!
Steam was pillowing out through the tall steel stack reaching up into the woods that surround the sugar shack. The scene looked as if an old steam train had screeched to a halt at a train platform in the 1800’s to alight its passengers and sweep up new passengers to take them to their destinations. The steam was hissing and swirling through the air into the stunning blue sky overhead.
The sense of activity going on inside the sugar shack was palpable as we got closer and closer. “This was the real deal“, I thought to myself. “This operation out here, in this sweet wooded setting, uncrowded by hoards of tourists looking for a show, was the real deal.”
Charlie was racing from one person to the next with the excitement of it all. Jennifer and Bob are the farm owners. Their son, Sam, his girlfriend Sarah, and a bevy of wonderful friends were moving from one activity to another as the sugar shack hummed to life as it sat center stage in these moments of March glory. All year long, the sugar shack sits in wait for this unique occasion, orchestrated by mother nature, to commence. The sugar boiling vats are scrubbed clean and sanitized during the winter months. Wood is chopped and stacked…ready to keep the huge fireplace inside roaring with heat in order to boil down gallons and gallons of maple tree sap. Those emblematic little New Hampshire maple syrup containers were lined up and ready to be topped off with this regional golden treasure.
When I revealed that I hailed from the southern depths of humid Louisiana and the most experience I had with any activity like this was probably during a crawfish boil, all eyes in the sugar shack rested on me for a curious filled moment. There were looks of bafflement, intrigue, humor, and confusion. “You don’t know anything about maple sugar syrup making?” Sam asked with a curiously raised brow. I could tell that it was difficult to grasp that this experience, so traditional and commonplace to them, was so novel and compelling to me!
I actually enjoy when I elicit that bemused reaction in people up here. They literally turn to their daily chores and the work they’ve known all their lives, which to some is just a way to make a living, something taken for granted as mundane and trivial… and see it in a completely fresh way. The knowledge they take for granted becomes knowledge that they quickly realize is singularly unique to their culture and geography.
While we were peering through the voluminous clouds of steam billowing up to the stack from the vats of bubbling and gurgling syrup, all of a sudden hot maple syrup started streaming out of a faucet attached to the side of the boilers.
Sam explained that they rigged up some thermometers and valves so when the syrup reaches just the right temperature, the valve opens up and the syrup starts to flow out into a large steel bucket.
There was another section in the syrup shack where the newly acquired syrup goes through a series of filtration steps to remove any impurities that might be in it. Sarah was busy readying the maple syrup containers and filling them with the fresh batch of syrup. She poured some warm syrup in a little container and handed it to me. I wrapped my cold fingers around this little pot of fresh warm maple syrup and took a shy sip of this luscious gold liquid. “Oh, my goodness!” I breathed. And…everyone laughed.
Let’s just say a crystal clear memory was fully formed at that moment of my first sip of warm freshly boiled maple tree sap. From the woody scent of forest in the shack, to the crackling sounds of logs in the huge fire pit, the bubbling gurgle of the sap simmering in the vats, to the slightly sweet aroma of sugar in the air, that sip of warm maple syrup will forever be the best taste of March that I will remember.
As my thoughts seem to ceaselessly revolve around the novel tastes of New Hampshire as I connect with this new state of mine, I realized that the work involved in the process of harvesting maple tree sap is very physical work. The wood has to be chopped and stacked, the ovens have to constantly filled with logs, the sap as to make its way into the boiling vats from the forest trees, and the buckets of boiled sap have to go through a filtration system. All this work has to happen before we can walk away dangling out precious container of maple syrup. This group of fun loving hard working farmers must be so hungry when they wrap up their work for the day.
What do they eat at this time of year? What is the farm producing that makes for a hearty farm day lunch?
Maple syrup aside for a moment, I thought of the mysteries of eating seasonally that is becoming uppermost on the minds of so many Americans. I thought of my own kitchen and what we had eaten recently that would be representative of these middle months between growth and harvest.
I move from one soup to another during the cold winter months. All zucchinis, mushrooms, squashes, tomatoes, etc. turn into soups that I keep frozen in containers in the freezer. I’m always looking for a novel bread to enjoy along with these winter time soups. We rotate savory scones, biscuits, hearty sourdoughs, and plump bagels alongside steaming bowls of soup.
A nice flatbread would feed this group of hungry farm hands well. A mound of wheat dough is easy enough to make into a flat bread. Any combination of seasonal toppings can be used and sausages or pork could be added to give it some heft.
I had recently made a Roasted Squash Flatbread with Melted Gruyère and Crispy Sage. I thought a big tray of this flatbread would work for a hungry group of farmworkers at lunch time. The squash can be peeled and sliced and quickly rolled in olive oil, salt, and then roasted in the oven.
The sage leaves can be plucked off of a winter plant kept indoors. Heat up some olive oil and squeeze a few cloves of garlic into a little pot on the stove top. When it is smoky hot, cook the sage leaves quickly and remove them. The sage flavor, olive oil, and garlic all infuse one another and the combination can be drizzled on top of the flat bread.
A few days ago, at Gore Farm, little seedlings were sunning themselves as the farm owers Bob, Jennifer and crew gear up for another planting season. I earmarked a leg of lamb for my Easter table and thus have a reason to drive back out there and pretend to know a thing or two about being a farm hand while absorbing more tidbits of life on a farm.
It’s March in New Hampshire! Maple Sugaring Month! If passing through our little hamlet of Warner, pay Kearsarge Gore Farm a visit and see their sweet maple syrup operation. I love when new discoveries in our lives become new traditions to enjoy for years to come.
Mentions in this post:
- 1 batch whole wheat or white pizza dough
- olive oil, salt and pepper as needed
- a small acorn squash or other winter squash
- 8 ounces (225 g) gruyère cheese, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
- 1 small bunch sage leaves, stemmed
- 2 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 450ºF (230ºC).
- Take the fresh dough and press it out into a rectangular baking pan.
- Cut the acorn squash with a large sharp chef's knife and scoop out the seeds inside. Slice the squash flesh into ½-inch (1 cm) thick strips. Put the squash strips into a large bowl and douse with olive oil and salt. Place the squash in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the squash with 2 tablespoons more olive oil and sprinkle with a few pinches of salt and pepper. Place on the upper rack of the oven and roast until tender and just beginning to turn golden, 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven.
- When the dough has risen, drizzle with a bit more oil. Top the dough with the gruyere, squash, and onion. Place the flatbread on the upper rack of the oven and bake until the cheese is bubbling and the dough is golden, 10-15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a small(8-inch) skillet and heat over a medium-high flame until it shimmers. Add the sage leaves in an even layer - they should sizzle and hiss - and cook, tossing gently with tongs, until the sage turns dark green, 2-3 minutes. Remove the sage to a small plate; it should crisp up as it cools. Put the garlic through a press and into a small, heat-proof bowl, and pour in the hot sage oil. Let sit until needed.
- When the flatbread has baked, scatter with the sage leaves, and drizzle with the garlicky sage oil. Top the flatbread with a sprinkle of flaky salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Carefully remove from the pan and place on a large cutting board, cut into pieces, and serve immediately.