What is more quintessentially New England than maple sugaring? It is underway right now in Lincoln, Massachusetts as the unseasonably warm weather in January and February has caused the sap to run early in the town's sugar maples.
I live in Lincoln and this first sign of spring has become a cherished family tradition. Our introduction to maple sugaring came when we first moved to town and cut down a large pine tree that was towering over our house. We immediately got a call from our neighbor: "Unlike many, we love pine trees," he began. My husband and I panicked. Uh-oh, we'd probably offended our new neighbor by cutting down the tree. But then the neighbor continued,
"We use pinewood to power our maple sugar boiler. Can we come by and cut up the tree and take the logs?"
The next day, the neighbor was sawing and removing the huge tree, saving us disposal costs and making us happy to see it go to such a good use. Soon we noticed his homemade sugar boiler smoking away. Coming from the Back Bay we found this amazingly quaint. I thanked him by baking some cookies; what a great community we had just joined.
The tradition of maple sugaring continued as another neighbor with three children set up an organized maple-sugaring operation on our road. I admired this father who took the time to embrace this long-standing New England activity even though he commuted into Boston on the train with me each day. After work he would change into some New England farmer duds and he and his wife would set the buckets out to tap the maple trees. All of the neighbors with maple trees "loaned" their trees to the effort. For added charm, the taps and buckets were the traditional tin type, not the plastic milk cartons that I had seen used in New Hampshire.
The sap only runs for a couple of weeks, and it is a window that cannot be missed. Our neighbors gathered all the kids in the area and piled them into the back of their pickup. They would drive slowly from one tree to the next on the quiet country road and we would all pick a tree and empty its sap bucket into a bigger drum. Then we returned to the truck to bounce and slosh back to their house and transfer the thin, sticky sap into the boiler. A month or so later, we all received some delicious Grade A maple syrup. Not a bad lifestyle in a town 20 minutes from downtown Boston!
Note: A great introduction to maple sugaring is found at a Sap-to-Syrup Farmer's Breakfast at Lincoln's Drumlin Farm March 17-18, 2012. They offer a pancake and maple syrup breakfast and activities and presentations outlining methods of maple syrup production.