Maple Weekend: How Sweet it is
Mmmmm….who doesn’t love the taste of maple syrup? Take a good look at the bottle in your 'fridge. Is it labeled "maple-flavored pancake syrup" or "100 percent maple syrup?" Most of us have gotten into the habit of settling for imitation syrup. However, now that Maple Weekend is upon us, it's time to break that old habit and give the real deal a try. I guarantee you'll never look back.
March is traditionally maple sugaring season in our region and there is no better way to celebrate than to take part in Maple Weekend, where you can learn the short and sweet of maple production. The original event, a one-day open house called Maple Sunday, was organized by a small group of Wyoming County maple producers to showcase their production facilities to the public. It has grown to be a two-weekend event that includes over 100 maple producers across the state. The 17th annual Maple Weekend takes place March 17-18 and March 24-25 this year. (www.mapleweekend.com)
Last year about 40,000 people attended in western New York alone. Although making maple syrup is nothing new to western New York. Centuries ago, the Native Americans in this region tapped maple trees and collected the sap to make maple sugar for cooking. The early settlers learned about maple sugaring from the Indians.
Visitors can see all aspects of maple production, from tree to the table, including tapping of the trees in the sugarbush and boiling the sap into syrup. Most producers will have samples available, along with a variety of maple products for sale, including syrup, candy, and a number of gourmet items, like flavored mustards.
My family has attended Maple Weekend several times over the years and we have visited producers both big and small. One of our favorites is Merle Maple on Route 98 in Attica, which, with16, 000 taps, is one of the top ten producers in the state. The Merle family has been in the maple business for four generations and they are among the top ten producers in the country for maple sugar candy, maple spread, and maple granulated sugar. They have won “Best of Show” for their maple products several years in a row at the New York State Fair.
Merle offers horse-drawn wagon rides to the sugarbush, tours of the sugar house, where you will see the sap boiled into syrup, and sample their syrup and other maple products. Of course they have a wide array of maple items for sale, including syrup, candy, maple cotton candy, and even maple mustard.
One of my most vivid memories of our very first Maple Weekend was the mud! We had just gotten a new car and foolishly used it that day. Fortunately, we did think ahead to bring some paper towels to wipe off muddy boots. You have to remember that the producers are family-run farms and farms are muddy in early spring.
While Merle is located next to the road with a large parking lot, some of the smaller producers have their operations set back from the road, requiring a long trek on foot, and often parking is along the street. Be sure you dress for the weather, as most of the activities take place outdoors and/or in unheated buildings. And be sure to wear comfortable shoes or boots.
Another one of my family’s favorite maple places is Sprague’s Maple Farms in Portville, just east of Olean. During the maple season, Sprague’s offers a wagon ride to the sugar house, where you can see sap boiling and enjoy freshly made maple donuts. Their full-service restaurant, which is open year-round, features an all-day breakfast, served with their own syrup. You can also enjoy lunch and dinner entrees; one of my favorites is their turkey dinner. www.spraguesmaplefarms.com
You may want to visit several producers, as methods used vary from producer to producer. Some use more traditional methods, while others use state-of-the-art equipment. In addition, many producers offer special activities and demonstrations during Maple Weekend.
In addition to the maple producers, there are other sites involved in Maple Weekend that offer pancake breakfasts; a complete list of those sites can be found on the Maple Weekend website. Some popular places include Cartwright’s Maple Tree Inn, in Angelica, a family-owned restaurant that makes their own syrup that is only open during maple season. www.cartwrightsmapletreeinn.com. Another seasonal pancake restaurant is Moore’s Maple Shack and Pancake House in Freedom, which features an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, topped with their own syrup. www.mooresmaple.com