When the streams start rushing and the icicles start dripping, the sap starts rising in the sugar maples — which means it’s maple syrup in the north country.
I’ve always wanted to go on a “sugaring season” weekend in New Hampshire or Vermont, and last weekend I had just that opportunity. It was “NH Maple Weekend,” which meant that sugar shacks across the state were holding open houses. I visited three.
The southernmost, Benton’s, offered a heaping breakfast of maple baked beans, ham, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, and coffee, as well as a look at their sap-boiler out back. If you’re only going to visit one, this is the one I would choose. The Benton family has been sugaring for five generations. Their dining room offers delicious comfort food served on paper plates with plastic forks and a big smile. A long line develops quickly — they’re only open on weekends, and the staff is minimal, so get there as close to 8 am as possible. Avoid the pancakes, frankly; no pancake is as good as the flapjack you’ll have at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, further north. But if you want to get something “mapley” try the maple baked beans which are insane (sorry vegetarians, they come with bacon mixed in). Next time I go, I’ll also be giving the French toast a try. No matter what you order, it’s the perfect way to load up for your day of skiing or hiking. I know I didn’t need to break for lunch after breakfasting there. And my grand total came to all of 12 bucks. Oh, and yeah: they had a bluegrassy guitar player singing in the backroom.
Further north, the Rocks Estate was offering a more comprehensively educational look at sugaring in New England. I sat through about a thirty-minute presentation of the history of maple sugar in the region, including a homespun video. From this I learned a) that maple sugar was originally called “Indian Sugar,” because Native Americans in the region had long ago learned how to harvest it from maple trees, and b) that in the 19th century, Abolitionists advocated using it because, unlike sugar cane from the South, it was produced without slave labor. Also, c) that it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to get a single gallon of delicious maple syrup. I also got the opportunity do try a classic New England combo: a plain donut, warm maple syrup, and a homemade sour pickle. OM NOM NOM.
The Rocks Estate also offers hay rides, a gift shop, the chance to tap a tree yourself, and cooking demonstrations. I, for one, saw the chef from the Sugar Hill Inn explain how to make maple creme brulee. Mm hmm, that’s gonna happen. The one downside: the ticket for the “NH Maple Experience” (as they call it) was 15 clams. Anyhow, I definitely want to go back in the summer. The estate at one time had amazing formal gardens; I don’t know if they’ve been restored, but they’re close enough to Polly’s Pancake Parlor that I figure it won’t hurt to just…check.
The most remote sugar shack I explored was Fuller’s, which I had convinced myself was the BEST. Only, it wasn’t. I’m sure their maple syrup is lovely, but there was no sap to be had that far north — it’s still too cold, so no boiling demo — and no breakfast and no activities. However, they did offer me free sugar on snow with a pickle, a classic New England treat from my childhood. I was also recommended a few sugar shacks further south, notably Parker’s, which is close enough to the Massachusetts border that it could probably make an easy day trip for any Boston-bound person. However, I dallied a bit too long in the north country and didn’t make it down there before close.
In the end, what I learned was this: it’s best to go to the sugar shacks with a) food, or b) activities. The ones without, “authentic” as they may be, and delicious as their syrup may be, just aren’t as much fun to visit.
I broke up the weekend with a visit to Littleton, NH, where I picked up some new ski bindings at Lahout’s (knowledgeable staff, always a great price) and had a delicious lunch at Miller’s Cafe, right on the river. The Yankee pot roast sandwich was a great addition to my uber-Yankee weekend. I also had a surprisingly good dinner at the Coyote Grill in Waterville Valley, NH. I’d been there before and, at that time, wasn’t terribly impressed — it was over-priced and not very well executed. This time it still felt over-priced but was excellently executed, and they had a small but carefully chosen beer list. Rumor has it there’s a new chef. Just don’t be put off by their location — in the Waterville Valley athletic center. Also, penny-conscious patrons be advised: there’s a cheaper bar menu. And of course, I skied — you can’t spend an entire weekend mainlining maple syrup and not get a little bit of physical activity in. Right?