Tap the Sap, Go with the Flow
Massachusetts Maple Syrup is Hitting the Sweet Spot
For Craig Bero, owner of Pleasant and Main, nestled snugly in the Berkshire mountains, it’s all about the maple. The canopy of majestic sugar maple trees outside his 100-year-old café and general store is packed with nature’s secret sauce — maple sap.
When tapped, evaporated and cooked, the result is a sweet-flowing ingredient perfect for cooking, baking and mixing. But it’s the history tucked deeply into the branches that really feeds Bero’s spirit. He’s set up an old-fashioned sugar shack in the backyard, complete with a wood stove and evaporating pan, and invites visitors to go through the process during the sugaring season, as it was done hundreds of years ago. “People get really excited about the experience. They love the history and the fact that this is one of the most natural products we have,” he says. “They see the syrup transform by stages, first in the old copper kettles and then in the evaporating pans.”
A self-professed sommelier of maple syrup, Bero finds vintages and grades of maple (see sidebar) far more interesting than wine. He uses maple syrup all over the menu, providing a counterbalance to citrus or fish, or sweetening up blueberry muffins without sugar. “It reacts well with all sorts of ingredients and you can control the sugar content in dishes much better since it’s already in a dissolved state,” he explains. “You can use it in a delicate way and pick up the unique robustness of the flavor.” There’s the baked country ham with maple glaze, wild trout drizzled with brown sugar and maple syrup and his favorite — the “sugaring off” crepe. “We offer this at the beginning of every sugaring season, a classic French crepe made with maple syrup in the batter. When it hits the cast iron pan, that bit of maple browns the outer shell perfectly, and you just have to roll it up and eat it immediately ... with a little more maple syrup on top,” he says.
Massachusetts Maple Producers Association’s (MMPA) Winton Pitcoff is not surprised by all the maple-flavored love; he lives it daily as the champion of the state’s maple producers. While well-aware of Massachusetts’s small footprint compared to maple-centric states like Vermont, New York and Wisconsin (which still pale in comparison with global maple giant, Quebec), he’s proud of the elevated profile of the Bay State. “2015 was a record year, with more than 75,000 gallons made here,” he reports. Partially a result of the growing ‘buy local’ movement, and another part attributed to health benefits — zero fat, no allergens, organic, antioxidant-rich — it’s evident that maple syrup’s profile is more elevated than ever before.
“It’s used for so much more than just pancakes now,” he exults. Indeed, during the MMPA-sponsored Maple Weekend each March, restaurants were pouring it on, and in, marinades, sauces, dressings, baked goods and cocktails! The Still Bar & Grill in Agawam mixed real maple syrup into a Peach Maple Kiss Martini, with peach schnapps and bourbon, and featured a Sugar Shack Mojito, with fresh maple syrup, mint leaves and vodka; Spoleto in Northampton shook up a New Beginnings cocktail of rum, maple syrup, fresh lime, dry curaçao and egg white. At West End Pub in Shelburne Falls, owner Paul St. Martin created a maple whiskey sour to accompany his popular maple hot buffalo wings and maple balsamic salmon. Going through about a gallon of locally purchased sweet syrup weekly, St. Martin says it’s been a fixture on his menu since he opened West End Pub a decade ago. “I use it for everything, maple balsamic dressing, maple Dijon sauce for sweet potato fries, maple bread pudding ... I even use it in my coffee!”
At fine dining Sonoma Restaurant, chef-owner Bill Brady and wife Kim fully embraced Maple Weekend with an array of maple glazes, demi-glaces, crème brulee and maple brittle. The piece de resistance: corn muffin top apple and maple tart tartan, made with maple syrup they carefully tended over a hardwood fire for three days, for a unique smoky flavor that wowed the maple crowd. “The limited time period in which it’s made adds to the specialness of maple syrup,” muses Brady.
In Florence, Mass., Cup and Top Café owner Helen Kahn gives maple syrup full props year-round, in scones, soups, lattes and her signature carrot muffins. Sweetened with apple sauce, pineapple and maple syrup from a nearby sugar house, Kahn describes it as “all-natural, dairy-free with no refined sugar ...it’s one of the healthier muffins we serve.” Vegetables get the maple syrup treatment as well; chef Samantha Collins offers this easy-prep recipe for success: mix a bowl of cut-up Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper, roast on a sprayed pan for approximately 30 to 40 minutes (until brown around the edging and tender inside), cool for five minutes, and toss in bowl with fresh Grade A amber color maple syrup, just enough to coat. “The flavor is so amazing that even people who don’t like Brussels sprouts love this dish,” says Kahn.
Making the Grade
Pure maple syrup is graded according to Federal USDA regulations, and is based on both color and flavor. All syrup available to the public is Grade A, and then further classified by color, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association:
- Golden color, delicate taste, usually made early in the season, has the mildest maple flavor.
- Amber color, rich taste, for a more full-bodied maple flavor.
- Dark, robust taste, for a substantially stronger maple flavor.
- Very dark, strong taste, made late in the season, ideal for cooking and baking.