The calendar still says winter, but the bubbling syrup kettles tell you not for long. Maple sugaring season is the first sure sign that winter is on its way out and a good reason for visit to the Litchfield Hills of Northwest Connecticut.
Though maple sugaring is often associated with northern New England, there's plenty of activity in these scenic hills less than 100 miles from New York and less than 150 miles from Boston. Sugar maples are plentiful and more than a dozen sugar houses welcome visitors to view the syrup-making process and taste the delicious results.
Special demonstrations will allow visitors to see the changing of the process over the years. The Native American way will be shown at the Algonkian Village at the Institute for Indian Study in Washington on March 18, with the chance to sample syrup served on pancakes. Three methods will be demonstrated at the Great Brook Sugarhouse in New Milford on March 11 and 12, from old fashioned bucket collection and wood fires to the most modern techniques. Plumes of steam and delicious scents rise from sugar houses on many small farms where visitors are welcome throughout the season, and there's a bounty of syrup and maple candy to buy and take home as souvenirs.
The peak season is usually mid February to mid March. The weather has to be just right for the maple sap to begin to rise, with nights below freezing, and days in the 40s to 50s. Though equipment has modernized, the basic steps in making maple syrup have not changed. The trees are tapped; the thin, clear watery sap is collected and slowly, slowly simmered until it miraculously thickens into golden, gooey delicious syrup.
In olden days, tapping was done with a spile, a small hollow shaft inserted into the trees that allows the sap to drip into buckets. Native Americans did their simmering in a wooden vessel over a fire. Later horse-drawn carts were used to bring the buckets to the sugarhouse to be emptied into big black kettles to be simmered over a wood fire.
Today bigger operations tend to attach plastic pipelines to the trees, feeding the sap into tanks that are brought to the sugarhouse on trucks. However, whether the cooking is done with iron kettles or big shiny metal evaporators, the sap must still be boiled down until it thickens.
Depending on the sugar content, it can take from 30 to 40 gallons of sap to boil down into a gallon of syrup, which explains why this delicacy comes with a high price tag. Syrup comes in three grades. The mildest syrup, considered best, is Light Amber, which s made early in the season. Medium Amber has slightly more flavor and Dark Amber, made from the latest sap, has the strongest maple taste, which some people actually prefer.WHERE TO SEE SYRUP-MAKING
The Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington will present a full Native American sugar-making demonstration in their outdoor Algonkian Village on March 18 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with staff members serving pancakes topped with delicious local maple syrup. Games and crafts from the children will take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The Great Brook Sugarhouse in New Milford, which is operated by The Youth Agency, shows three methods: the Colonial era operation in cast iron kettles, the Civil War era, using a period evaporator over a wood fire, and its own modern sugar house, with a stainless steel evaporator. Demonstrations will be held March 11 and 12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At farms like Dutton's Sugarhouse in Washington, visitors can go into the woods to see the collection process. While modern tubing is used to collect most of sap, the Duttons still use a few buckets for collection so that visitors can see how it is done.
Some sugarhouses have a bonus for families. At Lamothe's Sugar House in Burlington, one of the largest operations with some 4,000 taps, the family also raises golden retrievers and lop-eared bunnies and visitors can see adorable pups and bunnies. At Warrup's Farm in West Redding, children can visit with barnyard animals.
A list of the Litchfield Hills region maple sugaring sites welcoming visitors follows. A telephone call is essential before making a trip to be sure the sugar houses are in operation. Many sell maple syrup year round.
For a free brochure listing all Connecticut sugar houses, more information on winter activities, and a free copy of UNWIND, a 112-page color guide to lodging, dining and all the attractions in the Litchfield Hills of Northwest Connecticut, contact the Northwest Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 968, Litchfield, CT 06759, (860) 567-4506, or visit their web site at www.litchfieldhills.com.LITCHFIELD HILLS REGION SUGARHOUSES: All require an advance phone call to be sure the sugarhouse is operating and for driving directions; many need a call for exact hours. KETTLE TOWN SUGARHOUSE, Southbury, 203-264-9241 Weekends. LAMOTHE'S SUGAR HOUSE, Burlington, 860-675-5043. Saturday and Sundays 1-5 p.m. mid-February to the end of March. BROOKSIDE FARM II, Litchfield, 860-567-3805 or 860-567-3890 mid-February through March. BROTHERS AND SONS SUGARHOUSE, Torrington, 860-489-2719 February and March. COOLWATER SUGRHOUSE, Norfolk, 860-542-5422 DUTTON'S SUGARHOUSE, Washington, 860-868-0345 February and March. GREAT BROOK SUGARHOUSE, New Milford, 860-354-0047, demonstrations March 11,12, 10 a.m.-5 p.m; sugar house open daily in season. LAURELBROOK FARM, East Canaan, 860-824-7529 KASULAITIS FARM AND SUGARHOUSE, Barkhamsted, 860-379-8787 Mid-February to the end of March. LAND OF NOD VINEYARD and WINERY, East Canaan, 860-824-0712 McLAUGHLIN VINEYARDS, Sandy Hook, 203-426-1533 February and March THREE POND MEADOW FARM, New Hartford, 860-482-3628 February through March. WARRUP'S FARM, West Redding, 203-938-9403 First 3 weekends in March, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. WOODBURY SUGARSHED, Woodbury, 203-263-4550 Saturdays and Sundays, February 28 through March 28, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. WEST HILL SUGARHOUSE New Hartford, 860-379-9672