A Catskill Catalog: March 21, 2012

Maple syrup appears nowhere in the index of History of Food, the all-inclusive standard French reference on the subject, written by the very high-brow Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat and published in 1987.

Maple syrup’s just too local, I guess, just too much of a regional food to merit inclusion in a book that claims to trace the nutritional choices of universal humanity. Maple sugar is “of only incidental importance.”

Important around here!
Actually, 80 percent of all maple syrup is produced in Canada. In the province of Quebec, one out of every three maple trees is tapped to collect sap.

Compare that to New York State, where fewer than one percent of our maple trees are used for production. No wonder Canadians have a maple leaf on their flag

Still, New York is the third-leading producer of maple syrup, behind Quebec and Vermont. Then there’s the rest of New England, and Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin – the world of maple sugar production is confined to a single slice of northeastern North America. Maple syrup truly is a regional food. Its region is a dozen-or-so American states and a handful of Canadian provinces.
The New York State Maple Producers’ Association celebrates Maple Weekend twice this March, with events both last weekend and the one coming up. In Fleischmanns, Maple Weekend takes center-stage on Saturday with a maple-flavored chicken barbeque and a maple-themed bake off. Sunday there’s a pancake breakfast.

The cool thing about the Fleischmanns celebration is that it’s designed to recreate the Annual Maple Festival held in Fleischmanns on April 8, 1972. I think this 2012 version is the first Fleischmanns Maple Festival since that one, so that “Annual” part proved to be hope rather than fact.

I remember that day. I remember watching the Sundowners Drum and Bugle Corps on a raw, chilly, early-spring day. The Sundowners were a local fixture for a number of years, one of several outside-the-school youth activities that flourished in the community and contributed mightily to our young people’s education.

There were hayrides in tractor-pulled wagons, and an all-day pancake supper, held in the church basement, if I remember correctly. Pancake suppers were particularly special when the guy cooking the pancakes was Luman Searle.

Luman lived up on Searles Road in Margaretville, and was a local legend when I got here. Also, a very nice guy. He made pancakes with the sourdough starter that had been passed down to him from his mother or grandmother through generations of Searles living on the farm.
“A sourdough starter is a stable symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast present in a mixture of flour and water,” Wikipedia says.

If the starter is refreshed with flour and water every few days, the bacteria and yeast will keep working ad infinitum. The sourdough is alive. Some bakeries in California trace their starter back to Gold Rush days. Luman traced his back about as far.

His pancakes were delicious, dripping with first-run syrup, as they were at that 1972 Fleischmanns Maple Festival. Those of us trying to serve a contemporary equivalent Sunday morning will be hard-pressed.

Though the syrup will be as good. Gary Rosa is a backyard producer up in New Kingston. The warm weather had Gary starting, and finishing, his boiling operation a couple weeks earlier than usual. “The quality is good,” he told me, as was the sap-flow.

Another backyard producer was not so up beat. He struggled, all season, with niter, sugar-sand, a kind of grit that flows with the sap and, when heavy, clogs filters. “Never seen a year as bad in sugar-sand,” my friend told me. Although his production was good, he didn’t like this year’s quality.
Duane Hill is president of the New York State Maple Producers’ Association. His Shaver-Hill Farm in Harpersfield celebrates Maple Weekend with an open house, all-day, Saturday and Sunday.
It has not been a good year in the maple syrup business. “We have a third to a half crop this year,” Duane told me. “We didn’t get the freezing nights. You need the freezing nights to keep the sap flow. We didn’t get ‘em.” Simple as that.

Maple sugaring is an agricultural activity. Everything depends on the weather. Our warm early spring translated into a 50 to 65 percent decline from average production. That’s a big hit.
Fortunately, last year was a great year for maple syrup, one of the best years ever. A large inventory of syrup should shield us from shortages, but another bad year next year, who knows?
It seems the jet stream is stuck high over northern Canada, bringing all this warm air over maple-producing areas that are used to March being raw and muddy, and April more of the same.
This year, shirtsleeves and sunglasses on Maple Weekend. The maple-sugar candy will taste as sweet.
billbirns@gmail.com