Learn how to make maple syrup the old-fashioned way

Chris Bergeron

Long before IHOP sold pancakes along the highways, Algonquin Indians taught our Colonial ancestors how to make maple syrup.

With warmer temperatures expected this weekend and the sap ready to run, visit a farm, park or historic site and discover how Native Americans and New Englanders tapped trees and boiled the sap into a sweet syrup.

And, to really understand why maple syrup became such a tasty New England tradition, visitors of all ages can pour some onto a stack of hot pancakes and dig right in.

Throughout March, folks can learn the old-fashioned way to make maple syrup to sweeten their flapjacks at the Natick Community Organic Farm, Old Sturbridge Village, Moose Hill Sanctuary in Sharon and Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge.

Whether you've been tapping maple trees since childhood or buying Log Cabin Syrup at the supermarket, these sites will provide lessons in the history, preparation and, of course, the devouring of everything that tastes better with maple syrup, including French toast, popcorn and that rare delicacy, "sap dogs."

"There's nothing better than collecting maple sugar in the snow," exclaimed Valerie Paul, a National Park Service volunteer who'll be leading tours at River Bend Farm in Uxbridge.

The sites offering maple syrup-related events are:

  • Saturday, March 7: Maple Magic at Natick Community Organic Farm
  • Weekends, March 7-8, 14-15, and 21-22: Maple Days in March at Old Sturbridge Village
  • March 15, 21 and 22: Maple Sugaring Festival at Moose Hill Sanctuary in Sharon
  • March 7-8, 14-15, and 21-22: Maple Sugar Days at River Bend Farm in Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge.

Each of the sites offers something different based on their resources.

Jane Harvey is hoping the curious and hungry stop by the Natick Community Organic Farm Saturday to celebrate "Maple Magic" with a sumptuous pancake breakfast and maple sugaring tours.

The pancake breakfast runs from 8 to 11 a.m. at Memorial Elementary School at 107 Eliot St., Natick. Sold at the door, tickets to breakfast are $8 for adults and children 7 and up, and $4 for children 3 to 6 years old. For members, tickets are $6 for adults and $3 for children.

Harvey described the syrup that will be served at breakfast as "very golden in color, thick and tastes delicious." "I think it's so special. It's a beautiful New England tradition," she said. Other maple sugaring events throughout March are listed on the farm's Web site, www.natickfarm.org. Founded in 1974, NCOF is a nonprofit organization that runs a farm for residents on town land.

Starting at 9 a.m., maple sugaring tours will run through 3 p.m. at the farm's Sugar Shack at 117 Eliot St., a short walk from the school.

At the shack, visitors will receive a 45-minute history lesson in how Native Americans, colonists and modern farmers collected sap from maple trees and used various methods to transform it into maple syrup.

The farm administrator, Harvey said volunteers have been collecting sap from about 500 buckets hung on several hundred trees in Natick, Wellesley, Sherborn and Dover. With the owners' consent, they have been set up on private property, at schools and even some cemeteries as well as on 15 trees on farm property.

Harvey said the best time to tap trees usually comes in February when nights are below freezing and the days are above freezing which induces sap flow. The temperature change from cold nights to warm days sets in motion water uptake from the soil and a stem pressure that causes sap to flow out of tap holes and other openings in the tree's bark.

"Once the nights get above freezing, the season is over because the trees eat all the sap," she said.

While output varies, Harvey said a mature maple can produce about 10 gallons of sap during the six-week sugaring season. Thirty gallons of sap are required to produce a single gallon of maple syrup.

A lunch of hot soup, cider and bread baked in the farm's adobe oven will be served to tour-takers. Harvey said young visitors will also enjoy the farm's menagerie of animals including cows, goats, chickens, pigs and several newborns.

Visitors can purchase maple syrup produced by the farm. Asked how the farm's syrup tastes compared to the store-bought varieties, Harvey quickly replied, "Way better."

At Old Sturbridge Village, historians will demonstrate old-fashioned ways to sweeten your flapjacks at its Sugar Camp on Saturdays and Sundays, March 7-8, 14-15 and 21-22.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., visitors can observe the maple sugar process from tapping the trees to "sugaring off" when the sap begins to run.

Throughout the demonstrations, OSV interpreters will use maple syrup to cook typical food from the 1830s by the hearth at the Village's Freeman Farm.

To stress the important contributions of Native Americans, Algonquin historian Marge Bruchac will portray an "Indian Doctress" in "Sogalikiosos: Maple Sugar Moon Stories" and "Fur Mittens and Wooden Snowshoes: Algonkian Winter fashions." Bruchac's performances are scheduled for every day on each of the three weekends except March 14.

For complete times and details, call 800-733-1830 or visit www.osv.org.

In the OSV demonstrations, maple sap will be boiled in large iron kettles suspended over an open outdoor fire. While results vary depending on the weather, a typical New England farm that tapped 100 trees would produce about 400 pounds of sugar. OSV historians say the traditional children's treat, "maple snow," was a byproduct of testing the syrup's consistency before storing it.

For the next three weekends, volunteers from the Blackstone Valley Sugaring Association will lead tours that demonstrate how sap is drawn and made into maple syrup at Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge.

Tours will leave every half-hour from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for three consecutive weekends on March 7-8, 14-15 and 21-22.

An educational organization, Blackstone Valley Sugaring has about 25 volunteers and has been leading tours since 2001.

Volunteer William Paul said the 90-minute tours will include a short movie and talk about the history and different approaches to making maple syrup.

Visitors will be guided on a walk to a "tap tree" on park property where sap is gathered and to the Sugar House where it is boiled into maple syrup.

Descended from a family of "backyard sugarers," Valerie Paul said the tours will go on "rain, snow or shine" and suggested visitors "dress for the outdoors" with hats, gloves and especially good shoes or boots since the half-mile walk will cross muddy ground.

She estimated about 275 taps have been set into maple trees in the park with some trees getting two taps and a few getting three. Syrup from Warren Farm & Sugar House of North Brookfield will be available for purchase.

Given on a first-come basis, the free tours begin at River Bend Farm at 287 Oak St., Uxbridge, which serves as the park visitors center. Groups of eight or more, such as scout groups or educational organizations, can make reservations for morning tours on weekdays by visiting the Web site www.blackstonevalleysugaring.org.

At the Audubon Society's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, visitors can stretch their legs on a journey back in time during MassAudubon's Maple Sugar Festival on March 15, 20 and 21.

Costumed Native American and Colonial interpreters will share the secrets of fur trapping and maple sugaring at various sites during 90-minute outdoor tours, said Jan Nareski Goba, director of marketing.

Walking tours will set out every 15 minutes from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Nareski Goba said the walk over flat land to a Native American site along the trail and a Colonial village by Billings Farm is "suitable for visitors of all ages."

A Sugar Shack has been set up at Billings Farm where a Colonial interpreter will demonstrate how sap was collected and turned into maple syrup.

"Dress according to weather, including sturdy footwear. We'll be outdoors on a gravel trail through the woods but we won't be venturing into the snow," she said.

Located at 293 Moose Hill St., Sharon, the sanctuary has 25 hiking trails on 20,000 acres.

Tickets for the walking tours are $7 in advance and $8 on the day of the event. Children under 3-1/2 are free. Pre-registration is recommended as it will guarantee a space. Reserve by calling 781-784-5691. Or, visit their Web site www.massaudubon.org to find out more.

After the tour, visitors can stop by the Visitors Center and sample maple sugar-based treats, including pancakes, popcorn and "sap dogs in buns," which are hot dogs coated with maple syrup. "They are the hottest things going," said Nareski Goba.

The MetroWest Daily News