Between the good, old-fashioned, deep freeze of a winter we’ve had, and the gentle warm days of spring still ahead, lies our less-than-elegant Fifth Season: MUD. On Connecticut farms, winter boots have been traded for high-topped rubber muck boots and with the mud the glorious tradition of maple sugaring has begun.
Maple sugaring here usually runs from mid-February until late March. A sugarmaker’s entire annual supply of syrup is made then. This year, lingering cold temperatures have delayed the sap run. “We’ve had a good run for about 2 weeks now,” says Gary Durand of Fabyan Sugar Shack in North Grosvenor Dale. “I’ve made almost half my normal season’s total… if we can get 2 to 3 more weeks of production, it will still be a good year even with the late start.”
Connecticut sugarmakers are embracing the best of modern technology by adding reverse-osmosis systems to remove water from sap. This significantly cuts the time it takes to boil sap to syrup, but most cling to tradition when it comes to using a wood-fired arch for boiling. Though feeding the stove every three minutes is more labor-intensive than flipping the switch on an oil-fired burner, burning wood and gathering around the stove to spend warm hours with the crew during boiling are part of the sugaring ritual.
Fabyan Sugar Shack, like many sugar houses in the state, eagerly welcomes visitors during sugar season and it’s an invite you should take them up on! As soon as you step out of the car, your New Englander DNA will rise at the unmistakable sweet scent of maple sap steam mingling with wood smoke. While there, you can see the sugaring process from start to finish and learn how to do it at home… don’t be intimidated either, it’s actually quite simple!
You can taste the full range of maple products including all the grades of syrup. Syrup color darkens and flavor deepens as the season advances, moving from Grade A Golden, with a delicate maple taste, to Grade A Very Dark, which has a pronounced, rich maple flavor. “People have caught on to the darkest syrup and that’s what’s in high demand now,” says Durand.
Before we know it, Mud Season will give way to true springtime, the maples will begin to bud, and sugaring will be over for another year. “The old wives tale says once we see the first moths, we have two weeks of sugaring left,” Durand muses, “We haven’t seen any yet, but of course, it won’t be long.”
For more information on sugarhouses open to the public, visit the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.
Winter Caplanson writes and photographs for Connecticut Food and Farm, a 501c3 capturing iconic images and telling the stories of the local food movement, and The New London Day. Her work is assisted by a Kitchen Cabinet of farmers, chefs, and foodmakers from around the state.