Video: A personal approach to maple syrup season

Deborah Allard

Fred Hutchings wasn’t surprised the sap wasn’t flowing through the old elm tree, one in a line of them, all bare branches still, on the Dartmouth YMCA property on Gulf Road. It was simply too cold.

But that would change, he said. It always did as March’s Maple Month came along.

“The trees tell you spring is coming,” Hutchings said.

With a manual drill, he bore a hole into one of the sugar maples and cranked it about 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep.

“It’s the only way to get to know the tree up close and personal,” Hutchings said, eschewing any thoughts of using a power screwdriver.

Of course Hutchings, a retired teacher of the Sippican School in Marion with an affinity for science and math, treats the maple sugaring process as something not only personal (he names the trees), but sacred.

“This is Dorothy,” he said, patting the wide trunk of the tree. “Dorothy is an old lady now.”

Once a hole was made in the tree, Hutchings inserted a spout and hung a galvanized metal bucket from the tree to collect the sap.

“You always tap the southeast or southwest side of the tree,” he instructed. “The tree heals itself. This doesn’t hurt the tree at all.”

A self-proclaimed “old swamp Yankee,” Hutchings has been tapping maple trees and making his own syrup nearly his whole life, and always without the fancy equipment of today. The practice was passed down to him by his father, and he’s taught both his children — and his former schoolchildren — the art, science and culinary skill needed to produce maple syrup.

“This is where a father can leave a legacy to his family,” Hutchings said.

At the Dartmouth YMCA, Hutchings was one of a few volunteers there recently to tap the maples and boil the sap down into pure maple syrup. It’s an annual event.

Producing maple syrup and maple sugar is a New England tradition that dates back to the Native Americans. They likely discovered the stuff from maple trees that formed sweet icicles this time of year on branches. They boiled the sap down and made maple sugar, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. It wasn’t until the 1800s, when the price of cane sugar started to fall and became more popular than maple sugar, that sap was used to produce maple syrup.

Hutchings said late February and March is the perfect time for harvesting sap. Cold nights and warmer days are needed to get it flowing — the reason why maple sugaring is big business in the state of Vermont, as well as in other areas of New England, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Canada.

“The cold crystallizes the sugar. That’s why we need cold weather,” Hutchings said.

After tapping the maple trees — “the easy part” according to Hutchings — the sap is boiled down.

“You have to keep an eye on it, put it through a filter,” Hutchings said. “It thickens, gets down to condensed sugar.”

The water evaporates and 100 percent pure maple syrup is left. Hutchings makes his own blend of syrup from maple trees on his property and does not sell it.

What Hutchings does with it, besides drizzling it on his pancakes, is uses it as a glaze over ham and pours it over his hash browns.

“You can use maple syrup on anything,” Hutchings said.

His favorite is maple butter. To make, heat maple syrup and whip it until it forms a milky white consistency.

“It’s ambrosia of the gods,” Hutchings said.

The following maple syrup recipes have been provided by Derek W. Heim, branch executive director of the Dartmouth YMCA:

Orange Maple Glazed Wings

1 cup buttermilk

1/3 cup maple syrup

2 oranges, seeded, peeled, and sectioned

1 teaspoon cinnamon

20 chicken wings

Process first four ingredients to make a coarse puree. Put wings and puree in a gallon sized baggie and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, turning occasionally. Grill and baste with marinade until done, avoid scorching.

Maple Broiled Scallops

4 to 6 sea scallops per person,

strips of bacon cut in thirds (1 per scallop)

1 cup maple syrup

horseradish to taste

Mix syrup and horseradish. Wrap each scallop or chicken piece with 1/3 strip bacon and secure with a toothpick. Place on broiler pan, brush with syrup, and broil 3 minutes. Turn, brush, and broil 2-3 minutes more, until bacon is crisp. Serve hot.

Maple-glazed Butternut Squash

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, quartered, cut into half-inch slices

4 tablespoon maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

4 tablespoon dark rum

2/3 cup water

Place all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Reserving the cooking liquid, transfer the squash with a slotted spoon to a heated serving dish. Boil the cooking liquid until it is thickened, then pour it over the squash. Serves four.

The following recipes are from the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association:

Maple Mustard Salmon

Salmon fillets for four

2/3 cup melted butter

½ tbsp. dried dill

½ cup maple syrup

¼ cup Dijon style mustard

Blend ingredients over low heat until melted together. Grill or broil salmon, basting and turning until flaky and done.

Maple Oatmeal Drops

Makes 4 Dozen Cookies.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 cup maple syrup (dark)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup dairy sour cream

1 1/4 cups rolled oats (quick)

In a small bowl or mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, maple syrup and sour cream. Beat well. Mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Add to creamed mixture. Stir in oats. Drop by spoonful on greased pan. Bake at 375F 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar.