How I Became a Sugarmaker
As many of you know, my husband and his brother and I own and operate Matras Maple, a local sugarhouse in Pittsfield, NH. This time of year the hours of sugarmaking are long and grueling but we are having so much fun we don't mind at all. Looking back over the years it makes so much sense to me that I'd end up being a sugarmaker's wife. I'm going to share with you some of those stories and experiences, and if you happen to live in New England I hope it excites you to go visit a few sugarhouses yourself.
Photo by Jenn Bakos
Visiting sugarhouses in March is a longstanding New Hampshire tradition. Sugaring typically happens mid-February to mid-April, so March is the heart of the season and the time of year when most sugarhouses open their doors to the public. The long-anticipated date is the third weekend of March, New Hampshire Maple Weekend, where carloads of maple-seeking connoisseurs travel back-country roads from one sugarhouse to another, armed with mud boots and flannel shirt.
My family was part of the crowd of people who made the rounds to various sugarhouses when I was growing up. We had several friends with sugarhouses and most of them were in Loudon, NH. One of my first memories is getting my tiny boots hopelessly stuck in the mud as we made our way down to one sugarhouse on a crowded Maple Weekend.
Select photos by Jenn Bakos
The sugarhouse that sticks out most in my mind when I was young was the Happy Sappers. This sugarhouse was located on Love Joy Road in Loudon and supposedly it was tiny but I don't really remember that part. What I do remember was that we got to eat hot dogs that were boiled in the sap on the evaporator (not a practice I'd recommend, but it was fun!), drawing on the walls, and eating maple candy right from the mold.
The most influential sugarhouse to me is our longtime friends at Windswept Maples over on Loudon Ridge Road, Larry and Melissa Moore. We visited here often during the maple season, not just on Maple Weekend. My dad tapped some trees on our farm for several years and I loved collecting the sap with him and driving it to Larry's over on the Ridge. Sometimes Larry would be boiling and he and dad would catch up while I got my "fix" of breathing in the sweet-smelling steam from the evaporator. I remember Larry testing the sugar content of our sap and watching the hydrometer bob up and down.
After college I spent several January and February evenings in Melissa's kitchen at Windswept Maple's "helping" her make all kinds of maple products - maple candy, maple cream, and granulated maple sugar. I say "helping" because honestly I feel like I benefited more from my time spent there than she did from me. What I learned in her kitchen helped me make value-added maple products for my own sugaring business, and I am forever grateful to her. I also spent several Maple Weekends over at Windswept working the register in their farm store. Now we text each other every year on Maple Weekend to encourage each other and wish each other good luck, because we know how demanding that weekend is!
Sitting on a warm barrel of maple syrup.
This story isn't complete without mentioning the last sugarhouse I had to visit every year - my now-husband's sugarhouse. My maple season just wasn't complete without visiting that cute little sugarhouse tucked into the woods. My husband Willie has been sugaring since he was about 10. The Matras Maple sugarhouse was built back in 2010 and the business has slowly been growing ever since then. Today we have about 2,100 taps, including the trees that my dad tapped on our farm. Don't you love a good full-circle moment?!
So come out and visit some sugarhouses this weekend. NH Maple Weekend is March 18th and 19th this year. You can find a large variety of sugarhouses to visit on the New Hampshire Maple Producers website, www.nhmpaleproducers.com.
Our sugarhouse Matras Maple is open this Maple Weekend from 10-4 on Saturday and 12:30-5 on Sunday. This year we will have lots of homemade maple ice cream, made entirely with ingredients we produce. We also have maple cream, candy, and sugar, maple cream soap, artwork by Gene Matras, maple milk, and many other goodies. This is a family friendly event, and I strongly encourage you to come out and experience this beautiful New Hampshire tradition.