Honoring the Maple Syrup Season
By Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer
Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
Charlie Stewart had a thing for maple syrup. He produced the rural nectar at his family farm in Sugar Hill for many years, and in his spare time, he collected antique maple sugaring tools and memorabilia.
“His collection includes almost any artifact you could think of – spouts, buckets, collection vessels, yokes and implements to make wooden buckets,” said Nigel Manley, manager of North Country Property for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Manley’s work includes managing The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, where Stewarts’ collection is the foundation of the New Hampshire Maple Museum.
Stewart was the third generation of his family to gather sap in Sugar Hill. The family business dates back to 1910, when his grandfather bought the property. He witnessed improvements in the sap-gathering operation, from the days of wooden buckets, shoulder yokes and oxen teams to tractors, trucks and collection tubes. The sap gathered on his 300-acre farm was collected in a 4,000-gallon steel tank that was once part of a milk truck. It was transported to his sugaring operation where it was boiled down in an evaporator heated by oil.
“It’s a whole different way of life,” Stewart said, in a 2005 interview.
In his spare time, he attended farm auctions and antique shops and put ads in local papers to assemble a collection of old sugar molds, yards of tubing, tin syrup containers advertising local sugar bushes, old postcards and other memorabilia dating to the 19th century.
In 2004, he placed his farm in a land trust overseen by the Ammonoosuc Land Trust. Two years later, Stewart died at age 77, and left his maple equipment collection to the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association in the hopes that a museum would be founded and funded. After a search of several years, the association found a home for the artifacts at The Rocks, a 300-acre estate, which is now a conservation and education center for the Society with panoramic views of the White Mountains Presidential Range. The museum is situated in a building that originally housed a sawmill and a pigpen; part of the building is a working sugar house in which sap from the estate’s 1,000 taps is boiled to syrup.
Visitors to the building can watch a DVD on the syrup-making process, and they can hang up a bucket and try on a yoke. Outside, they can walk along a maple orchard trail.
During March weekends and the first week of April, The Rocks offers two-and-a-half-hour maple tours, during which participants may tap a tree, visit the museum, enjoy horse-drawn wagon and tractor rides, view the maple sugar operation and visit the museum. There’s a fee of $15 for adults and $12 for children. Reservations are required.
“Last year, about 400 [people] took advantage of the program,” Manley said. “Previous years we have had as many as 700.”
Maple Sugar 101
Maple sugar production requires days that are above freezing temperatures and nights that are below freezing. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year, 540,000 taps were placed around the state, but unseasonably cold weather affected the harvest, which was down about 6 percent.
Maple Sugar Weekend, with open houses at more than 50 sugarbushes, will be held March 21 and 22 this year.
The Proof is in the Pouding
There is no more appropriate way to celebrate this year’s maple harvest than with a nice, sloppy slice of the French-Canadian staple pouding chômeur. The super sweet poor man’s confection is known as “pudding of the unemployed,” and was created by Quebecois factory workers during the Great Depression. It’s a maple syrup upside-down cake in which the cake batter rises to the top of the boiling liquid. The Oxford Companion to Food notes that the dish adapts classic French cooking techniques to available ingredients.
If you search recipes for this cake, you will find many “yuppified” variations that include heavy cream, corn starch and other ingredients. We found a basic recipe in the Canadian Encyclopedia. Nashua resident Adrien LaRochelle, 92, the youngest of 15 children who was born a year before the stock market crash that prompted the Great Depression, remembers his mother and sister making this when he was a small child in Saint-Lazare, Canada.
“We lived near a lot of sugar houses, so we could get syrup most of the time,” he said. “When we couldn’t, we’d use brown sugar.”
Later LaRochelle became a cook for lumberjacks, but saved making pouding chômeur for home.