The Ephemerals: Spring Beauties

This year the blog will revive its photo celebration of the northern hardwoods ephemerals, the flowers that bloom on the forest floor after the last sap run and before the canopy fills in and shuts out the sunlight.

Here is the front of a card created and printed by neighbor Heather Hale on one of her historic presses. Since it is a letterpressed card, if you were to run your fingers over it you’d feel how the tiny type has indented the textured paper. For each creation, Heather chooses paper texture, weight, size, and color; font and font size; ink; which press to use – and much more I am too ignorant to mention. Her layout here perfectly evokes the ephemerals.



Flip over the card and see this at the bottom:


And here are the Spring Beauties:



[Except where credited, all blog photos are by Chief of Operations.]




Saturday afternoon at the opera

April 22. It is a Saturday afternoon in late April, eleven days out from the final boiling day, and all seems familiar. Wild leeks near the Keystone line are poking up 3-4″. Spring beauty buds are tight today but won’t be for long. Witch hobble blossoms and leaves are greening up at the edges. Falls Brook swells with rain; spring freshets chase down to it and will for a little while longer. Mrs. Raven still sits in her nest; Mr. Raven fusses. The sugarbush feels poised for the burst of abundant life.

Familiar too is noting the progress of the woods crew in knocking out taps and rinsing lines. They carry five-gallons of water on their backs to squirt into the tubing at each tap, refilling their backpack tanks at the freshets or at springs. It has been good working weather for the most part: cool, with no remaining rotten snow to wallow in.

As I hiked up to find leeks I recalled that today is Earth Day. At a lecture this winter I learned of the findings of forestry research, how trees network with each other via fungal systems, how they cooperate. Ecologists are modifying the old model of trees competing for resources; it seems they share! I feel so encouraged by news of the example forests have set for us all along.


During the long boil of April 10th, Joe, Ana Lucia, and I brainstormed ideas for an opera to be called The Work with the Sap.

We thought we’d set the scene through a depiction of some of the lowly tasks of the sugarhouse crew. Ana Lucia ( A.L. Fernandez) volunteered to write the libretto. She retreated to a secluded beach in Mexico and just sent this early draft:

El labor de la mañana (The labor of the dawn) (To be sung by the ensemble)
Nos despertamos temprano y nos preparamos para el día que nos trae la savia.
Quita la miel de ayer, ponlo en cubetas, raspa la orillas, echa agua, y aspira.
Ahora nada más falta empezar el fuego y limpiar el de desastre que hicimos.
We wake up early and prepare for the day the Sap brings us.
Remove the syrup from yesterday, put it in buckets, scrape the sides, add water, and vacuum.
Now all we need to do is start the fire and clean the disaster we made.
Migración de los barriles  (The migration of the drums from the sugarhouse to another building)  (Quartet for bass, baritone, tenor, and contralto)
El trabajo que más nos encanta.
Los barriles pesados nos ven de la esquina con una mirada de burla.
Son una muestra de nuestro trabajo largo de los días anteriores.
Te sientes fuerte hoy?
The job we love most.
The heavy drums look at us from the corner with a taunting look.
They are a show of our long work of the days before.
Do you feel strong today?

Drumroll, please. Photo credit: Laurie Silva

Primero, Segundo, Tercero, Cuarto (bass and soprano duet)

Es tiempo de llenar los 40 gallones de miel recién hecha.
Primero, baja los barriles sin que te aplasten.
Segundo, mete agua caliente sin que te quemes.
Tercero, dale vueltas sin que te canses.
Cuarto, saca el agua sin que te salpiques.
Ahora sí estás listo para llenarlo!
It’s time to fill the 40 gallons of fresh syrup.
First, bring down the drums without them smashing you.
Second, fill them with hot water without burning yourself.
Third, roll them around without tiring yourself out.
Fourth, take out the water without splashing yourself.
Now you’re ready to fill it!

The source of tension, altercations, and murderous intentions in The Work with the Sap is the hydrometer, innocently reposing here in the elegant hydrometer cup.

Everyone will get to sing about encounters with it. Here is our powerful tenor, Ross.

The soprano’s turn to check and adjust the density. Over? Under? Quick, the syrup’s backing up in the finish trough!

More exasperating is quickly and efficiently checking the density of syrup built up in the storage tank prior to drumming or bottling. Joe, our bass, deliberates before comparing the reading he gets (Brix scale) with the density chart.

The aria for this trio goes on for twenty minutes explaining how it takes three people twenty minutes to agree on a hydrometer reading, while a mad woman cries (coloratura here) through the steam.  Photo credit: Laurie Silva

Maple Ginger Beer


Guest blogger Sarah Bailey (see Thriving in the Sugarhouse,  3/17/17) writes:

If you’re already familiar and experienced in keeping cultures and fermenting beverages this recipe is a breeze. If the world of fermentation is totally new to you, I’ll try to make it easy enough.

The basic recipe is as follows:

1-3 inches ginger (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 cup sugar (I tried substituting syrup here once and I’ll explain why NOT to do that below)
1 gallon water less one cup
1 cup “ginger bug” juice
Juice of 2-3 small limes (optional but adds good flavor)
1 tbsp maple syrup (essential for flavor and added minerals)

Mince ginger and boil in a gallon of water with sugar and maple syrup until ginger aroma is very apparent and fills the area. Allow to cool.
Add lime and ginger bug and pour into gallon jug with airlock.
Wait a week. After a week of brewing in the gallon jug there should be some visible fermentation going on. You’ll be able to notice tiny bubbles traveling in your jug and bursting as they reach the top.
Bottle off into “grolsch” style, flip top, or other air tight bottles/containers for carbonation.
Wait another week to two weeks depending on how warm the area is that you’re storing your bottles  (I wait the full two weeks in my apartment in winter but have had bottles over carbonate in summer). I’d recommend popping open a tester bottle after a week and deciding if you’re happy with the flavor and level of fizz.

This recipe takes some experimentation at first but after your second of third batch, if you’ve made notes of what you’ve adjusted, you’ll be proud to bring some of your homemade ginger beer to share with friends!

How to make and keep a ginger bug

*Ginger contains natural yeast on its skin so avoid peeling and source organic when possible.

Add a tbsp minced ginger and a tbsp white sugar to one cup water in jar with tightly fitted lid with room.
Add another tablespoon of both minced ginger and white sugar until bubbles and pressure are clearly building up.

That’s it! You’ve nursed your own starter culture to health and it’s ready to use. When you begin to use your ginger bug to make fermented beverages  you can avoid the week or so restart time by saving some of the white residue that sits at the bottom of the jar and use that to “feed” your next batch, just refill with water and add a bit more ginger and sugar between uses.

Now that you’re set up for success in brewing  delicious maple ginger beer (which I would recommend serving with a good whiskey on the rocks garnished with a lime wedge), I’ll let you know what NOT to do with your next batch.

There are a lot of reasons why we should be limiting our intake of white sugar and a lot of places we can identify to cut back, but replacing the conventional sugar in your ginger beer with a whole cup of maple syrup is not the way to go about it.

I’ll tell you that the actual flavor was amazing; the brew tasted great! What wasn’t so great was the texture. It was like slugging back honey, thick enough to run but not the refreshing effervescent soda you were hoping for. I had basically created a fermented syrup that was too thick to carbonate naturally on its own. What I did end up doing with the remaining bottles I didn’t have the courage to drink was cooking my morning oats in the ginger syrup which turned out pretty darn tasty.

I started a new batch with the same recipe as above but with maple SUGAR, not syrup, and no white sugar involved except in feeding the ginger bug.

We’ll see in a couple weeks how this batch turns out. Experimentation is good fun and can turn out surprisingly well (and weird at times), but there’s also something to be said for the tried and true.

Happy fermenting folks!

*If anyone tries the recipe and has questions, comments, trials and tribulations, shoot me a line in the comments! I’d like to hear how it goes.


70 degrees in the shade

In case you readers have not read the blog comments recently, I will print the poem offered there by Elyse Moore in response to the previous post.

Sweet Music to Boil By

Sweet music to boil by
floats minds on clouds of steam,
through harmonies of aching muscles and hearts–
Hums liquid tones through soaring rhythms,
glowing crackling boiling toiling–
whose refrain flows into a single bucket
again and again.


[Elyse lived next door for decades. She writes from experience of this place and of the sugarhouse since she was our master boiler for a few years. Her son Aleks, who grew up climbing all over the sugarhouse roof with a gaggle of Valley boys,  joined the crew in 2017.]


WEATHER: The last freezing night was Saturday night. By Monday it was 70 in the shade; Tuesday was an even warmer day. Since the heat spike ended the temps have been in the 40’s and 50’s.

HOW’S IT RUNNING? It ran hard on Sunday and progressively worse until the run fizzled on Tuesday. The sap turned scuzzy in the heat. (Sap looks like water but it spoils like milk.) Two days and nights of 70 degree weather can kill a season and it killed Nebraska Knoll’s. Certain counties northeast of here could probably still see some good sap if they get a freezing night.

SAP SWEETNESS: Overnight Monday to Tuesday it plummeted from 1.9% to 1.2%. That’s some weak.

Three things crash at the end: Sap sweetness, sap quality – from clear to cloudy to mule piss (in the vernacular), and sap quantity. We crossed the line on Tuesday afternoon: all the markers screamed that the season had crashed.

Ugh, not this tedious job again (changing the filter press papers).

BOILING STATUS: It felt exciting to boil on Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday we suffered from the heat and struggled with the filter press. End-of-the-year dark syrup just doesn’t filter well. Also, the scuzzy sap mucks up the RO machine. Enough!

Knowing when to call the season isn’t always as clear as in 2017. Some years, your blog editor will hear the fat lady sing a few days earlier Chief of Operations does.

Yes, sugar season is not over until the Fat Lady sings. This year she sang an aria in Spanish, loosely translated in English as “The sap coffee is all gone but still I wait for you, Lorenzo”.


[NOTE FROM THE BLOG EDITOR: She works as a church musician and will shelve this blog until after Holy Week and Easter weekend. Stay tuned for a preview of the opera The Work with the Sap.]

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Raven sing in scolding tones whenever I approach to within 200 yards.




Music to Boil By

12:30am. When I walked out of the sugarhouse after 16 hours of work, the greater world  expanded in stillness below a full moon, but just until I noticed how clouds chased across the moon, how urgently Miller Brook bellowed from the bottom of the valley, and how cool air emanated from the snowbank.

             steam burns from working in a T-shirt
all doors flung wide open
thirsting for a beer

This week of boiling feels like a world cup event. The team has certainly put in the training hours since February 20th. Today we hummed.


Enya (too sleepy)
Fleet Boxes (who?)
Cabinet (Joe’s favorite group, energizing on a hot day or any day)

Joe is a natural in the sugarhouse because he wears a baseball cap.

Elfin Love Tribe (good ashes-cleaning vibe)
Maple (We played this collection at least five times today. Thank you, Stevie.)
Mgmt (not sure I have this right)
Railroad Earth (named after a Jack Kerouac short story)

Arlo Guthrie (ah, yes)
Grateful Dead (chosen by the youngest crew member)
Pink Floyd (ditto)
Chad Hollister (VT rock ‘n roll artist with a 10-piece band including brass)
The Chvrches (not the best cleanup music but it sufficed)





Sunday Buds and a Washing Machine

This was yesterday (Saturday). Erase all of the snow from the roof and the twigs and half of the snow from the ground, stir with mud, squish through the mud with your boots, and you’ve got today (Sunday).

Other titles for today’s post could be:
I Smell M.U.D.
Saving the best for last
There’s red in them thar hills
Even the sunshine can’t get her off the couch

Ana Merry Lucia

Coming in out of the rain to scrub and make merry – that was April, Round One.

The last option explains why there is no post titled April, Round One. It wasn’t clear that last week’s continual weak run would end – and thereby qualify as a round – until the rain changed over to snow and it froze up Friday and Saturday.

Today the temp soared into the 50’s; the sap is hammering in – it’s the ultimate Washing Machine Run. Ross is checking lines, Joe and CoO are just back from repairing the Herbie main line. Once the ashes and the front pan are cleaned someone will fire up the arch and launch this week’s marathon.

SUNDAY BUDS: We intended to show the buds each week, but there was no discernible change from Week One to Week Two.

Sugar maple buds, Week One.
Drawing by Ana Lucia Fernandez

Red maple buds, not sugar maple buds. Week Three.  Watercolor by Ana Lucia Fernandez

DID YOU KNOW that red squirrels, the nemesis of the modern sugarmaker, make maple sugar too? They puncture maple twigs and then leave to chew tubing. Sap trickles out along the twig bark; the water in the sap evaporates in the sun. The squirrels return, chewing more tubing on their way up the tree trunks, and lick the maple sugar off the bark. So easy and delicious.

Not Your Everyday Oatmeal Cookies

Maple Trout Lilli writes of just the ticket for a cold, rainy day in April:


A jazzed-up maple cookie with a delectable maple glaze that  is a rich compliment to this sweet spicy cookie.    I kept the batter in the fridge and made a batch of 12 every day or so. This makes a lot of cookies.  They were  fresh, hot and delicious. – give them a try.


2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 extra large eggs
1/4 cup ripe mashed banana
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups AP flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups rolled oats
1 cup raisins
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup Maple Syrup
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
 In a mixer on low speed, cream butter and brown sugar; add eggs, banana, vanilla.
Sift flour and add baking soda, cinnamon, salt.
Combine with butter/sugar mixture and mix on low speed for 30 seconds.
Add oats and raisins and mix on medium speed for a minute.  Try not to over mix.
Place batter in freezer for 15 minutes or fridge for an hour.
Using 1/4 measuring cup scoop batter onto a parchment lined or lightly buttered cookie sheet and bake for 8-12 minutes.
For GLAZE, melt butter and syrup over low heat until fully incorporated.
Remove from heat and add 3/4 cup powdered sugar.
Frost the cookies.
QUICK UPDATE: Today, Thursday, has been a long boil. It’s not at all dreary in the sugarhouse. This week’s nonstop sap run wavers between weepy and mediocre. On the one hand, rain kills a run; on the other hand, it’s a cold rain and we can collect sap over a couple of days without it spoiling.