Of Mud and Maple
By Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
It’s time for mud season, the waterlogged interval when the earth moves under your feet, but not in a good way.
Some call it the fifth season in New Hampshire, when dirt roads turn into mud wrestling pits, frost heaves turn hilly roadways into washboards and a walk across a pasture can become a disheartening slog. Those who live on dirt roads can find in particularly challenging.
“It’s emblematic of everything that’s bleak and horrible about being isolated at the end of a road that you can’t get out of,” wrote novelist Howard Frank Mosher, the bard of northern New England.
But mud season is about more than muck, it’s also time for maple sugaring, spring skiing and town elections. Mud season is the time of melting snow and rainstorms, when the trees are still bare and the land is in limbo – ready, but not quite committed, to spring.
“We lay down boards to get where we have to. But sometimes our best efforts are not enough, you run into boot-sucking mud that swallows your shoe and you have to ask somebody to get a shovel to dig it out,” said Teresa Downey, owner of Terra Basics herb farm in Chichester and store manager at Miles Smith (highland cattle) Farm in Loudon. “I know some people say mud season is yucky, but I see it as a reawakening – excitement. It’s when cattle are giving birth. I suppose you could say that mud season is the labor pains for spring.”
It’s maple sugar time. Time to harvest the sweet syrup Native Americans taught the early settlers to collect. Like the lobsterman, the scrappy independent maple syrup producer is the backbone of the iconic industry. Sugar bushes produce their own distinctive flavors that gourmets savor like a fine wine. Nationally, brands blend the harvest of a number of producers and the syrup loses some of its distinction
Don’t Worry, Be Sappy
At the Inn at Pleasant Lake in New London, this in-between season offers some sweet and sentimental reasons for visiting. Most weekends in March, the inn has tree-to-table maple sugar tours and packages. Scott Reed, who co-owns the inn with his wife, Jen, said they have a stand of 50-plus sugar maples, which are tapped and turned into syrup at a nearby sugar house.
Guests tour the stand, then visit the sugar house to watch that sap being made into syrup. The weekend also includes country breakfasts served with the syrup from the property, a cooking-with-maple-syrup demonstration by the inn’s chef, Bryan Leary, and a five-course dinner prepared by Leary.
In his blog Scott Reed writes: “My Aunt Minnie and Uncle Butch run Royal’s Maple Sugar Shack, and they were the first to give us the appreciation for what a fun tradition sugaring can be. Memories of maple-sap snow cones and maple steamed hot dogs are my favorite, and I love how Uncle Butch tracks the yearly yield by carving the result in the back of the sugar shack door. That’s living history New England style.”
But it’s not all about maple when it comes to the Reeds. “Mud season for us is a slower time so it allows us to offer great rates for in-state visitors or people who may not be able to come in the busier seasons.
“We’re right on this beautiful, 600-acre lake,” says Reed. “The real signs of this season for us are ice out and shortly after, the return of the loons. We have a pair of loons who have been coming here for 11 years. And they have been very productive. Each year they have one or two chicks and it’s a big honor for folks around here to name them.
“Last year, one of our neighbors had that honor and named them Ping and Pong. There’s a local woman who has been watching these loons for years and photographs them.”
Using Maple Sugar Was Once a Political Statement
During the Civil War, abolitionists sought the local sweetener to avoid using cane sugar grown with slave labor.
Making the Grade
Maple syrup is graded by its color, which ranges from golden to dark brown. Maple sap gathered earlier in the season produces a light liquid, which becomes darker as the season progresses. In 2015, the USDA simplified the grading system for maple syrup and eliminated the designation Grade B.
Maple season is a great way to relieve cabin fever, get out of the house and check out activity at the many maple sugar houses. Smell the steam, watch the sap bubbling and maybe pick up a jug or two to take home.
But it’s also a great DIY activity. Joe Ouwerkerk of Chester and his dad, also named Joe, did it a couple of years ago.
“Dad has always been handy,” said Joe the younger. “He turned a metal drum into a firebox and a friend helped him make a pan to create an evaporator.”
After tapping the trees on their property, he said, “We filled about 20 quart containers with syrup.”
It was a one-off. They didn’t produce that volume the following year. “But the syrup was great,” said Joe.
The less handy among us can stop in at Ace Hardware in Raymond, where Ouwerkerk works. The store has a display of maple-sugaring supplies, taps and buckets and other paraphernalia. There is also a wide selection of supplies for that other mud season pastime – planning gardens and starting plants from seed.
Bascom Maple Farms in Acworth, the largest producer in the state, not only sells the syrup (it produced 40,000 gallons last year) but has a shop where you can buy sugaring supplies. They are available online, too, at bascommaple.com
The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension offers maple sugaring tips for beginners and backyard maple sugar producers, from tree identification and tapping guidelines to sap collecting, boiling and packaging the end products and equipment-buying guidelines (extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource002012_Rep2976.pdf).
Let Them Eat Cake
Voting isn’t the only reason to participate in town elections; many poll stations conduct bake sales to benefit local charities. You can grab a copy of the town report and a homemade brownie, oatmeal cookies or other confections as well as a cup of coffee at the back of the hall.
The bake sale is the modern replacement for the election cake, a massive sheet cake made in Colonial times to attract and nourish voters. The election cake was originally a muster cake made before the American Revolution for muster day when colonial militias trained on the town common.
The cake has been described in Bon Appetit Magazine as “a dense, naturally leavened, boozy fruit and spice cake.” After the revolution, when Election Day was considered a holiday with bonfires – and plenty of rum – the muster cake became the election cake.
A recipe in the “America Cookery,” published in 1796, called for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, 14 pounds of sugar as well as brandy raising and spices. The recipe has been adapted for contemporary time, including one posted online at whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/ElectionCake.htm
The Advantages of Mud Season:
- You can finally find that rake you left in the backyard last fall
- Motorists are at last able to see the potholes, which have assaulted their exhaust systems.
- When the first warm spring rain starts falling, you can grab a flashlight and watch the salamander migration.
- Spring skiing. You can hit the slopes at Gunstock or Sunapee in a T-shirt rather than an anorak.
- Affordable staycations. Late March to May, many hotels and resorts offer off-season rates and packages.
- Awesome birdwatching.
- The water buildup also creates vernal pools where wood frogs can reproduce without the attention of predators. The otherworldly evening skirl of the tiny frogs is the sound of spring.
- Planning a summer garden. Jerrilee Maille of Raymond has a massive green thumb and was checking out colorful packets of beets and herb seeds recently at her local hardware store. “I begin planning my garden right after Christmas and start seeds in February and March,” she said. “It definitely makes the long days of late winter more pleasant.”
- Though it might be too early to smell the roses, it is time for the blossoming of the first flower of spring: the magnificent, malodorous skunk cabbage.
- A bit later, the spring ephemerals like trout lilies, marsh marigolds, wood anemones, spring beauties, trailing arbutus, violets, bluets and red trillium will change the gray landscape if not into Technicolor, at least shades of pastel. At Beaver Brook Association in Hollis guided Wednesday Wildflower Walks begin the second week of April.
- And oh, yes – maple syrup. Lots and lots of maple syrup.
Maple Weekend, sponsored by the NH Maple Producers Association, celebrates the syrup-making season March 24 and 25 this year and there’s no better time to get out and visit your local maple syrup producers to view the sugarhouses in action.