Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sugar Shack Skiing

This past weekend we had the pleasure of hosting our old buddy Jon Jamieson, who hails from Vermont and – fortunately for us – has not only his parents spending their winters in Park City but also an annual insurance industry conference in downtown Salt Lake City that puts him in perfect position to spend the weekend either skiing or heading down to the desert.  Jon was pretty much born on skis, and it’s always a pleasure to march about the mountains with him, and he’s always game for anything.
Jon, clearly a little confused by the sun and the lack of brush and blue ice....
Okay, now he's feeling a little more at home!
As we tromped around we reminisced a bit about a ski experience we had together eons ago that may be worthy of a written tale.  The tables were turned, and I was the one skiing in Vermont…..

It was March, the “peak” of what I was told was a pretty lean year, and “lean” in New England means the thwacking through the brush is even meaner than normal.   The skiing was truly awful: there was barely any snow, barely any pitch, and barely any room to turn, but at least the snow was awful as well.  Perfect New England skiing!  However, this completely fulfilled my expectations, so that was good.  However, one thing that I didn’t anticipate was having to navigate the web of hoses that snaked down out of the maple trees and down the slopes.  “What the hell are those?” I asked of my host, who was quite proud to proclaim “syrup!”  Really?  I guess it made sense; just like the aspen groves of the Wasatch, they have maple groves in Vermont, and being from Oregon I hadn’t ever given much thought to how maple syrup was harvested. But there they were; little catheters sucking those trees of their sap to make that liquid gold. 

My experience of trying to keep from getting clotheslined or tripped by the maple lines as we skied (not really a big concern; we could barely get above a walking pace!) was just the beginning of my “sugarin’” experience, however.  As we (mercifully) exited the woods and staggered into a field (with sticks stuck in our boots, hair, etc) we saw, off in the distance, a small cabin with smoke barreling out of its smokestack.  And tellingly, all the lines coming out of the woods were heading right towards the “Sugar Shack”.  We headed over, and upon entering took on the scene:  dominating the shack was a huge “tray” that had a little canal that went down to one end, around a 90 degree corner, down to the other end, around a corner, etc in a sort of orderly maze, and this tray was the top of a wood burning stove that was blasting away boiling up the “sap”, which was the color, consistency, and taste of…..water?  But as the sap made its merry way through the maze – burning off tons of vapor en route – it was making its transformation into syrup. 

Monitoring this process was the Sugarmaster himself, who of course was a big booming character who had known Jon since he was just a lad, and it became clear that once the sap taps were turned on and the fire started, there wasn’t much to do besides stoke the fire and chat!  And, of course eat and drink.  As such, the sugar shacks become social hubs in March (the harvest month; in order for the sap to flow, the temps have to go below freezing at night and above during the day, which typically happens for….about 13 days a season!), where there’s lots of eatin’, socializin’, and drinkin’. 

One of our fellow shackers was this old lady who was of course a piece of work, telling us all her skiing and sugarin’ stories of yore, and when I asked her some pretty innocent questions about the process she looked at me as if I was from…..Oregon, or something!  She just took a big slug off her whiskey bottle and said: “son, go put your nose over there”, gesturing towards the end of the maze where the sap was heading for the bottles.  Remarkably, even though that steam had no scent going back and forth across that great tray, I put my head into the vapor of the last tray and…..magic.  I was engulfed in maple!  It was like a maple bar (one of my childhood faves) had been stuffed into each of my nostrils, only way better!  Somehow that “water” had  - at the critical end of it’s journey through the maze – transformed into the miracle of maple syrup.  I kinda went into a trance…..

We spent most of the afternoon in the shack, and I remember the Sugarmaster (that’s my term; I’m sure there’s a more endearing moniker) telling me that due to the steaming that the ratio is something like 32 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.  “It’s a labor of love!  I figger I make about 45 cents an hour!” though he clearly appreciated that the “labor” involved a lot of socializing and whisky-drinkin. Interestingly, the "grade" of the syrup was determined simply by nature; each shack has vials of Grade A, Grade B, Amber, etc. that are used as visual comparisons to determine that day's grade (which has nothing to do with quality; just a hue and some taste differences that the cogniscenti can discern).  

That evening we had dinner and soon enough it was time for dessert, which was clearly a highly-anticipated course.  One of the bottles of syrup from the day was produced, and it was poured into a pan on the stove and cooked yet more.  Someone went outside and produced a heaping salad bowl of snow from the yard, and soon enough I had a bowl of snow in front of me.  I felt like I was in Kazakhstan or something with how little I knew about what was going on with my meal!  Soon enough the bowl of heated syrup came around, and I was instructed to dribble it on my bowl o’ snow, which I dutifully did.  It quickly coagulated into a taffy-like consistency, and watching others I realized I was to peel it up off the snow and drop it into my mouth as if it was a worms.  I did so and…..yowza!  Again, I got the delicious bang of maple flavor, only this time it was pretty much the sweetest thing ever; almost too much so.  But then the crux; about the time I had taken my first taste of “sugar snow” a big jar of pickles – yes, pickles – got plunked down on the table.  And Granny – the same one who was in the shack – yelled at me to “chase” the sugar snow with the pickle!  Huh?  Ok, when in Kazakhstan…..and it was great!  The salty dill pickle perfectly offset the wild sweetness of the syrup that had been intensified by the final cookage.  I was tempted to ask “who thought of that?” but I realized that it was something that had been done for generations in Vermont and my question would likely have just resulted in blank stares; that's how you eat sugar snow! 

I haven’t really been lured back to Vermont to ski, particularly now that I live in Utah, but of the many days I’ve had skiing around the mountains, that one is more memorable than most.  And I was pleased to find out from Jon this weekend that Granny is actually still kickin’, despite being ever so much more ancient than she was then. And come March I’m sure she’ll be back in the Sugar Shack, keeping the Sugarmaster entertained and drinkin her share of whiskey!  

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