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Taste of Travel: Connecticut : Sweet Tradition : In a World of Sterile Mechanization, Maple Sugaring Remains Much as It Always Has Been

March 06, 1994|JEANNE LEBLANC | Leblanc is an editor at The Hartford Courant and a free-lance writer who lives in Burlington, Conn. and

BURLINGTON, Conn. — In the messy cold of late winter in the backwoods of southern New England, metal buckets begin to appear on the trunks of the sugar maples. Somewhere nearby I know there will be a hand-painted sign pointing to a wooden sugarhouse. If steam is billowing out of the roof vents, the sugar maker is certainly sugaring off.

I donned my boots for the short walk from my car to Rob Lamothe's Sugarhouse in Burlington, on the edge of a woods packed with bare branches and snow laden pines. Evaporating sap simmered over a wood fire tended by Lamothe, a burly bearded man decked out in backwoods garb: a plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans, suspenders and boots. His wife, Jean, stood guard over the sales counter, vending some of the best syrup I've ever tasted and the creamiest maple sugar candy on the planet.

This was rather a personal journey for me. I was 9 years old when my family moved here from Upstate New York and I immediately fell in love with the woods and the fresh streams and farms nearby. In early spring I learned to love the tradition of sugar making that takes place to this day in the woods all around.

But this is 1994 and like all Connecticut sugar makers this time of year, Lamothe is incredibly busy. Most days of the year he's simply a machinist, but in February and March, when the sap is running, he also becomes a sugar maker--before work, after work, on weekends, every spare minute of the day. Pursued the old-fashioned way like this, the process is labor intensive. An average tree yields about 40 gallons of sap in a season, about enough to boil down into a single gallon of syrup. Yet in a good year Lamothe manages to make 400 to 500 gallons, tapping trees around town and paying the landowners back in syrup.

There is an alluring kind of solitude that comes from working in the woods, Lamothe says; a strong connection with nature and with the past. But Lamothe gets the most satisfaction from knowing he is carrying on a family tradition that began in Quebec, as well as passing that tradition on to his children.

"It brings you back in touch with your ancestors. I'm doing something my great-great-grandfather did," he said, although it was from library books that Lamothe learned the technique, not his family, who had abandoned the practice in favor of full-time factory work when they moved to the United States.

The sap Lamothe brings in from the woods looks and tastes like water, and that's mostly what it is. But after hours of boiling--after it has reached a substantial sugar content of 66%--he draws off the resulting syrup into plastic jugs. And on weekends--when the sugarhouse is full of visitors--he pours some of the buttery-sweet syrup into tiny plastic cups and hands it around for sampling.

Most maple sap is made into syrup (about $8-$12 for a quart), but some sugarhouses--such as Lamothe's--also make a maple cream spread ($6 for eight ounces), crystallized maple sugar ($6 for eight ounces) and maple sugar candy ($9 for eight ounces) during the season. Some even give out free snow cones made of maple syrup drizzled over fresh snow.

This is, sadly, an endangered experience. Technology has invaded the forests and the sugarhouses, transforming the winter pastime of Colonial farmers into an industry. In much of Canada and some parts of New England, metal collection buckets have been abandoned and sap is drawn from trees by plastic tubes leading to mammoth barrels, making the forests look as if they're on intravenous feeding. The sap is boiled off in factories and stored for years in warehouses. Sugarbushes (as wild stands of sugar maples are called) are fertilized by crop dusters.

The traditional methods persist, to varying degrees, in small sugarhouses throughout New England and Upstate New York, but I prefer to hunt maple sugar around home in Connecticut. In Vermont, for example, the big business of sugaring to me has an industrial flavor. But in Connecticut, maple sugaring is still exclusively small business. It is easier to step back in time here, and that is what I like about it.

Sugarhouses like Lamothe's come about as close to traditional maple sugaring as you can find in the Northeast and it is not all that difficult to erase a century or two from the scene. Imagine that the pickup truck bearing barrels of sap is a horse-drawn wagon and that the big metal evaporator is a big iron kettle. Not much else has changed, and what has changed is discretely tucked away.

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