For a stack of fresh-off-the-griddle pancakes, there’s no better accompaniment than homemade maple syrup. But rather than trek up north to snag a bottle of the real deal, Long Islanders need venture no further than their own backyards — or over to Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, where maple sugaring season is now underway.
The farm will hold its annual Maple Sugaring Day Feb. 23 with live demonstrations of the sugaring process, maple syrup candy-making, tastings and, of course, syrup for sale. Before grabbing a bottle of the sweet stuff, consider how and when this pantry staple earned a spot at the breakfast table, right here at home.
The Benner family began producing its own syrup shortly after acquiring the then-dilapidated farm in 1977, clearing the overgrown land, planting gardens and ultimately unearthing the possibilities for sustaining new life. “We had a lot of dirt, but not a lot of money,” owner Robert Benner, 76, recalls of the farm’s humble beginnings. Following a successful stint growing strawberries as a cash crop, the retired Northport High School teacher, his wife, Jean, and their five children decided to tap the 15-acre property’s Norway maple trees and make their own syrup. “A friend up the street gave us a large pan, we boiled off the sap and got started,” he says.
More than 40 years later, Benner’s Farm has developed a burgeoning business, offering educational classes and workshops for kids and adults, hosting field trips and farm tours for scout troops and even serving as a backdrop for weddings and birthday parties. But when the calendar turns to February, the farm transforms into a maple sugar-making wonderland.
Good year for syrup
The maple syrup season starts to take hold as early as summer, when the trees have full leaves and begin converting the sun’s energy into sugar. “Maple trees take that sugar and store it their roots because winter is coming,” explains Benner. “In early spring, the trees begin sending up sap to the buds and the buds are slowly being nourished by the sugar. At night, that sap goes back down the tree and once daylight comes, it goes back up.” During his sugaring day presentation, Benner credits the American Indians for making the first maple syrup, but explains how rather than slashing a tree as they did, the sap can be extracted by simply drilling a hole in the tree and collecting it in a covered bucket or container.
Once winter gets underway, the trees are ripe for tapping and the sugaring season officially kicks off. The next part of the sugaring process is usually demonstrated by Benner’s now-grown three sons, as they boil down the collected sap into a large pot. The open fire yields a more distinct, rich flavor, picking up smokiness from the burning wood — a taste the Benner says distinguishes the syrup from the store-bought variety. As the season progresses, the sugar contains even more minerals and the syrup becomes darker. Benner’s “Taste of Long Island” brand is a combination of amber syrup harvested from upstate New York and homegrown syrup. Six gallons are produced exclusively at Benner’s; the rest of the inventory is supplemented by outside farms. Bottles range from 4 to 6 ounces and are sold at $1 per ounce. Sugar maple candies are also available for $5 per package.
Benner says he expects to deliver on that promise, noting that this season’s fluctuating temperatures are conducive to ideal sugar-making. The season will end once the sap turns a milky color — usually by the end of March or the beginning of April.
Maple Sugaring Day will showcase the maple-sugaring process from start to finish, including a history talk by Benner and stations where visitors can see trees being tapped, sap being boiled down and maple candy being made. For a small fee, pancakes will be served with syrup made on the farm.
WHAT Maple Sugaring Day,
WHEN | WHERE Noon to 4 p.m. Feb. 23 at Benner's Farm, 56 Gnarled Hollow Rd., East Setauket
INFO $8 for adults, $6 for children ages 3 to 16 and senior citizens; $2 per pancake serving and $2 per cup of cocoa; 631-689-8172, bennersfarm.com
OTHER OPTIONS Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve, 200 New Hwy., Commack, will hold maple sugaring demonstrations, tastings and lessons from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 3 and 10. The cost is $5 per person and is open to all. For more information, call 631-543-7804 or go to smithtownny.gov. The Suffolk County Farm and Education Center, 350 Yaphank Ave., Yaphank, will host “Tap to Table” from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and from 12:30 to 2 p.m. March 2. Drill and tap trees, take a ride on the “Syrup Express” to see the farm’s animals and eat pancakes with homemade syrup. $10 for those 5 and up; free for kids 4 and under. Register at facebook.com. Call 631-852-4600 for more information. Manor Farm, 210 Manor Rd., Huntington will teach participants how to identify a maple tree, then collect sap and do tastings, as well as a taste test, from 2 to 3 p.m. March 16, 17, 23 and 24. Cost is $5 a person. Call 631-213-1927 or go to facebook.com for more information.