Tapped In to a Vermont Tradition

maple syrup
Photos courtesy of Proctor Maple Research Center University of Vermont



e’re proud of our maple syrup. Vermont’s rich, golden, amberhued liquid can never be taken for granted. Maple syrup wasn’t considered a delicacy 100 years ago, though. It was commonplace in any Green Mountain home’s kitchen, a key ingredient in New England baked beans, cakes, puddings, pies, breads—and even tomato sauce.

I learned this when I first read through the pages of Yankee Hill Country Cooking, a compendium of more than 200 recipes from old-time New England kitchens, while I was working at Butternut Mountain Farms, one of Vermont’s popular maple syrup producers, in Johnson. I found it in the dusty basement of an old library in the free pile. Though the pages are yellowed and coming loose from the binding, it provides a unique view into a past where cooks foraged for local ingredients to sweeten their recipes. In one recipe, the cook instructs the reader to collect marsh mallows, or cattails as we know them, peel them down to the roots, which are white and sweet, cook them with yams and douse them with maple syrup. We all remember Aunt Mable’s sweet potato pie with a bag of marshmallows on top, but I bet you never realized that indeed she, perhaps unknowingly, was passing on a New England tradition.

While working on maple recipes at Butternut Mountain Farm, I quickly realized the deep family traditions associated with its collection and boiling. Families convened in late February and early March to help the family “sugar.” The sugar maker, like the winemaker, was a skilled artisan. Getting to the right color of caramel demands constant attention.

jars of syrup

Vermont’s rich, golden,
amber-hued liquid can never
be taken for granted.

A team of horses would pull the sap buckets through drifts of snow. It was hard, laborious work. Buckets hung on trees and collected the slow drip of maple sap, which was then brought down to the “sugar house,” where it was boiled in big vats fueled by many cords of wood. These days, sugar makers use elaborate plastic tubing systems. The holes bored in sugar maples in early spring are usually made with a cordless drill. Small plastic spouts are inserted into the holes to connect the spouts to tubing that routes the precious sap into large tanks, which are collected right in the sugarhouse.

Today, sugaring is as much a science as it is an art.

At the University of Vermont, maple scientists have developed tap and vacuum systems that suck the sap out of the trees to increase yield, and wood fires have been replaced, in some cases, by oil-fueled furnaces; reverse-osmosis filters remove some water prior to boiling. Even though the technology has changed, the concept of boiling down 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup is still the same.

Environmentally, maple sugaring is a renewable endeavor. By this I mean it regenerates every year. In late winter, the sap begins to “run” and is collected within close proximity to the boiling site. No long food miles, no wasteful use of fossil fuels, no preservatives or artificial ingredients—just the real deal.

Sugaring is also good for the Vermont economy. It provides added revenue to family farms when they need it most, which is right before planting. Many sugar operations are on farms. This helps diversify the money flow during the slower winter months. The process from farm to table is contained in most cases to one single farm, from which the maple products are then sold locally.

Several researchers at the university are studying the “terroir” properties of maple syrup and determining that maple trees growing in certain areas of the state, just like vineyards, produce syrup that tastes different. Delicious and complex—and it’s not just taste, it’s what’s in the syrup, too.

Pure Vermont maple syrup is composed of not only sugar but minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium and manganese), vitamins and amino acids, which make it unique from other refined sweeteners. Clearly, eating maple syrup for health reasons is silly (but what a great excuse!). We eat maple syrup because it tastes like nothing else— it tastes like home. It connects us to the earth and the family that collected it and the warm spring sun that coaxed it to flow. Bring maple back into your kitchen and into the recipes you love.

Cynthia Belliveau is dean of continuing education at the University of Vermont. She will be an instructor at the university’s first-ever Food Systems Summit on June 18– 29, which will address the question: How can we create regional food systems that are viable alternatives to the conventional one that exists now? Learn more at




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