Some of the best things in life are free. However, maple syrup is not one of the freebies. The cost of this tree sap is understandable, though, considering the labor involved in procuring it.
First, one plants a grove of sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum), and then waits about thirty years, at which time one can tap the trees by boring holes in the trunks. This “opening” of the tree to gather the colorless, almost tasteless “sugar water” occurs in the late winter of the year. Each mature tree may have as many as four taps. Each opening yields about 10 gallons of sap annually.
This liquid is eventually cooked down to one quart of syrup. This sap runs heaviest for 10-20 days, although mapling season covers 9-10 weeks. Trees as old as 300 years are still being tapped, so obviously the “sap-letting” does them no harm.
Even though maple syrup is associated with New England (where the Native Americans first taught settlers about this sweet delicacy), sugar maple trees grow in the Midwest and in colder parts of our state of Virginia, most notably Highland County.
During Highland County's annual Maple Festival, held two weekends in March (usuially late March but finishing this weekend this year — dates are contingent upon sap-affecting weather conditions), some of the orchard keepers still hang the metal buckets to catch the dripping sap. In contrast, the modern technique of sap collection more likely to be in evidence involves the use of a vacuum pump to increase the flow of sugar water and miles of plastic tubing from tree to “evaporator house.”
In the old days horses pulled sleds loaded with collected sap from the maple grove to the sap house, where the liquid was boiled down in large iron kettles. Nowadays closed rectangular pans with “chimneys” are used rather than the original open pan method evaporation. The sap is cooked down to syrup. As more water is boiled off, the syrup becomes maple cream and then maple sugar.
If you should decide to attend the Maple Festival in Highland County, Virginia, next year, or to visit the site during the warmer months, keep these directions in mind. Monterey, the county seat and center of the festival, is high in the Allegheny Mountains, in the jutting northwestern tip of Virginia near the West Virginia border about 45 miles west of Staunton.
During the Maple Festival, in addition to observing the sugaring-off process, one can indulge in buckwheat cakes and maple syrup, attend a crafts fair, and, of course, purchase “tree 'lasses.”
Other Virginia locales also host annual maple celebrations. Whitetop Mountain in Grayson and Smyth Counties, east of Damascus, is the nation's southernmost site of a maple festival, and at the yearly “Lord's Acre” multi-church bazaar in Bland, shoppers can buy a package of maple sugar.
Copyright © 1991–2009 Patricia B. Mitchell.