One of the more delectible treats that I have enjoyed over the years has been Vermont “fancy grade” maple syrup. My fascination with syrup began in my wandering days in the Northeast when I first tasted good syrup in the Keene Valley on my way through the Adirondacks. A lot of the restaurants on the way to the ski areas served locally produced maple syrup with their breakfast. Once you taste this treat, you will never go back to Aunt Jemima again. Working up at Sugarloaf,Maine on the ski school, I was introduced to the Maine version in the little diner in Stratton, Maine. I had the experience of comparing the Maine produced syrup to the Canadian version and was fast becoming a connoisseur of all things maple.
This fascination continued with my introduction to truly quality syrup through my friends the Durfees when they lived in Bethel, Vermont. I had the pleasure of tasting Vermont “fancy grade” and its light color and texture was really something on a stack of buttermilk pancakes. The Durfees use it on oatmeal, and ice cream as a topping and Eric showed me his grandfather’s method of soaking original bricks of shredded wheat in water, draining them, and drizzling fancy grade on the cereal, including the obligatory banana, and pouring on the milk. I met Eric’s neighbor who made syrup and the process is truly fascinating. There is a lot of manual labor involved especially if the producer is old school. Galvanized collection buckets are used and the sap is removed when they are full and deposited into a central collection tank for transportation to the sugar shack. The long and the short of it is once the sap is collected, it is boiled in the shack over a log fire and the water evaporates and what is left is the syrup. Eric’s neighbor had a maze of galvanized channel which allowed the introduction of the sap into the top of the maze, and as it made its way down the maze that was heated by the fire, it became more viscous and eventually at the bottom of the maze it was collected as syrup. The fancy grade is the lightly cooked product which has not become carmelized as the process develops in the boiling procedure.
I became a syrup snob. I would take my syrup from Vermont and pour it into a small jar to be used at Len and Peg’s on Rt. 149 in New York state when I visited my friend Mike Smith in Lake George. He laughed at me and said I was nuts but let me tell you, Len and Peg’s pancakes never tasted better than with the fancy grade.
Working in Pennsylvania in later life, I made friends with a guy in Guys Mills, Pa. who made his own syrup. I started to buy his syrup and enjoyed it. My ski buddies and I would go to Meyersdale and eat the local fire hall out of house and home when they had their springtime pancake breakfasts. I can remember the old guys serving us and how they turned up their eyebrows when we ordered another stack. Somerset county supposedly produces more maple syrup than any other region in the country which is an open, festering, maple syrup wound that my friend Eric contests every time I bring it up. But his wife Helen backs me up being a Somerset native and the heated discussion continues every time I bring up the sore subject. I am not sure if it is correct or not but it sure makes for some fun with my pal Eric.
My local grange serves a really good buckwheat pancake breakfast in the spring and I always bring my own jar of fancy grade to the breakfast on my way to the ski slopes. Those old farmers and their wives love it when I bring it and share it with them. I kid them and call it Vermont cocaine. They laugh rather reservedly as farmers do, but when they dig in, they smile at me and tell me to come back for more. That breakfast is a great start to another ski day in the Laurel Highlands.
I have made a habit out of ordering fancy grade from Pauline Couture in Vermont. Her family produces really good syrup and I found them on the internet. http://www.maplesyrupvermont.com She has a great website and her family’s bed and breakfast is very appealing if you happen to be in the North Country of Vermont. All in all, get some of that good Vermont cocaine er ah syrup and enjoy the fancy grade. You will never eat that Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima corn syrup based swill again. Also, check out a maple syrup producer some time. It is interesting to see the different methods of collection and production. Recently, I saw a network of pvc tubing used to interconnect maple trees to a central collection area. This eliminated the use of the collection buckets. But in my mind, I always picture the galvanized buckets and the horse drawn sleigh taking the sap to the sugar shack.
Eric and Helen still get their syrup from Vermont and whenever I visit them in Nevada, their current residence, they always have the good stuff on hand for me to enjoy. Yes, I am a snob but I earned my stripes with Adirondack, Pennsylvania, Canadian and finally Vermont’s finest in my gastronomical experience. Go order some syrup from Pauline. Tell her the 59 year old kid from Pa sent you. Thanks for reading and think snow.