Time always marches on, but come March, Old Man Winter is typically in full retreat. And if that isn't welcome enough news for winter-weary Long Islanders, Mother Nature throws in her most delicious sweetener.
Yes, March is sugaring season in the Northeast, and New York is second only to Vermont in domestic maple syrup production. While there are a few demonstration farms on Long Island, to fully savor the totality of maple syrup production, you'll need to leave the island behind and journey northward into the sugar bush (woods). And no time is more conducive to both than New York's 18th annual Maple Weekends, March 16-17 and March 23-24, when more than 100 producers statewide offer complimentary tours and demonstrations, free samples and plenty of pure maple syrup and candy at straight-from-the-evaporator prices.
To be sure, there's nothing quite as well calculated to renew sagging seasonal spirits as the sight of a sugar shack aglow in the woods and the scent of incipient syrup hanging thickly in the almost-spring air. Throw in a hearty pancake breakfast, a hike through a sugar bush and the opportunity to see maple syrup being made, and you've got the ingredients of an enjoyable and educational excursion.
Among the things you'll learn:
According to legend, maple syrup was "invented" in upstate New York when Iroquois Chief Woksis planted his tomahawk into a sugar maple tree for the night. The sap that dripped down just happened to collect in a container that his wife, thinking it was water, boiled the next morning.
It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup. Trees have to be roughly 12 inches in diameter (about 40 years old) before they can be tapped, which, if done properly, doesn't harm the tree.
Until the late 20th century, sugaring was extremely labor-
intensive. Buckets, first wooden and then stainless steel, were hung over taps on hundreds of trees and had to be collected by hand, often using horse-drawn sleighs. Nowadays, producers rely upon miles of interconnected plastic tubing to transport flowing sap directly into the sugarhouse.
The onset, duration and overall quality of any particular sugaring season are determined by the late-winter weather: Warm, sunny days followed by below-freezing nights generate the most productive sap flows.
Maple syrup comes in four progressive grades: Grade A light amber, Grade A medium amber, Grade A dark amber and Grade B, with the lighter grades coming from the thinner, early sap.
We've highlighted six of the more activity-laden producers within 150 miles of New York City. For a complete list, visit mapleweekend.com. Admission is free (hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily), but food and nonsugaring activities are additional.
Not all activities are available all day on all four days, so check the schedule. And if you can't visit on a Maple Weekend, don't despair: Most commercial operators welcome observers whenever they are sugaring. Connecticut and Massachusetts are also home to dozens of producers. For listings, visit ctmaple.org and massmaple.org.
NIESE'S MAPLE FARM A 120-year-old family-run farm (with animals) highlighting traditional sugaring techniques. Breakfast and lunch served. 136 Wiccopee Rd., Putnam Valley
MADAVA FARM Large, modern facility with its own extensive line of products and on-site restaurant. Moonlight mapling (demonstration and food) on Saturday evenings. 47 McCourt Rd., Dover Plains
INFO 845-877-0640, crownmaple.com
HUMMINGBIRD RANCH Family-focused activities, including pancake breakfasts at nearby farms (with animals), pony rides, hayrides and entertainment. 18 Hummingbird Way, Staatsburg
INFO 845-266-0084, hummingbirdranch.biz
CATSKILL MOUNTAIN MAPLE Picturesque working farm. Activities include sugar bush tours and make-your-own candy. Complimentary pancake breakfast. 65 Charlie Wood Rd., Delancey
INFO 607-746-6215, catskillmountainmaple.com
FROST VALLEY YMCA Tours leave every half-hour and include a hike through the woods and tree-tapping demonstrations. 1920 Frost Valley Rd., Claryville
INFO 845-985-2291, frostvalley.org
PLATTE CREEK MAPLE FARM Walking tours and free pancake breakfast. 808 Glasco Tpke., Saugerties
MORE New York State Maple Syrup Producers Association, nysmaple.com