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Slayton: Sugaring with Craig

04/08/09 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) For commentator Tom Slayton, the most potent sign of spring is a plume of steam - coming from the local sugarhouse.   

(SLAYTON) Since college days at UVM 40-plus years ago, come spring I have gone in search of sugarhouses.  There's something I can't explain that hits me every spring - some visceral urge to stand next to a roaring fire and bathe in maple-scented vapor.  Geese fly north; I head for the nearest sugarhouse.

Maybe it's just an excuse to stand around with other Vermonters (native-born or honorary), sip a beer, and watch someone else work.  But it's satisfying, and I really wouldn't recognize early spring without it.

This year, when I arrive at Craig Line's sugarhouse near Kent's Corner, no steam is issuing from the vented cupola on the roof, and there's ice in the boiling pans.  But Tony has a fire started in the arch, and Craig has just arrived with a truckload of fresh sap from trees he taps over in Calais.

Appearances and frozen sap to the contrary, the evening's boil has begun.

Tony and Craig have been chunking four-foot logs of maple and cherry into the "arch" - the firebox directly under the shining stainless steel boiling pans.  Soon steam is wafting upward; and then, as the fire really gets going, the sap starts to bubble and jump and foam - it's boiling!

It's got to boil down a lot.  Sugaring is an incredbly work-intensive process, and you can't count your time in the fiscal equation.  There's a saying: "You can buy maple syrup for $50 a gallon - or make it yourself for $80 a gallon!"

Fortunately, most sugarmakers love the activity after a long winter.  "It's my springtime fitness program," says Craig, who is affable, bearded and (fortunately) energetic.

Boiling sap is a dynamic process.  You've got to keep the fire stoked and roaring to boil the sap down.  But you don't want to boil the sugary liquid over or boil the pan dry.  And so he watches carefully, especially toward the end of the boil, when he's running out of sap.

How hot does it get?  Last year, he was wearing chainsaw chaps to shield his legs from the heat.  They worked just fine until they caught on fire!  He tore them off and tossed them outside into a snowbank.  Problem solved.

Now, the sugarhouse that was chilly an hour ago is warm and moist - filled with sweet-smelling maple vapor.  The rest of us are standing around, sipping beers, soaking up the wood heat and maple smells, watching Craig work.  He never stops moving.

Finally, it's ready.  Opening a valve, he draws off a bucket of cloudy, steaming syrup, which he tests, then pours into a filtering tank.  And then he turns a little tap, and out flows new maple syrup - warm, fragrant, amber and sweet.

The sun is slipping behind the bare trees on the hill to the west, and long shadows are creeping across the old snow outside as we lift tiny bottles of the fresh, warm syrup to our lips.  It's ambrosia - the first taste of spring 2009, the essence of the most hopeful season of the year.

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