Most mornings, my idea of breakfast involves freshly ground coffee and a piece of whole wheat toast—with butter, peanut butter and strawberry preserves. Recently, however, I’ve been dreaming of waffles, pancakes and oatmeal. What these three food items have in common, aside from traditionally being eaten at breakfast, is that they are perfect vehicles for consuming maple syrup.
Like most people of Generation X, I did not grow up on real maple syrup. In fact, what we ate in my house wasn’t referred to as “maple syrup” at all, just “syrup”--those sickly sweet and wickedly cheap maple syrup substitutes. It wasn’t until after high school that I tried the real thing and realized all that I had been missing…which turned out to be between 96-100% of it.
Most commercial brand syrups contain between 0-4% maple syrup. For example, the bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s that I found in my mother-in-law’s cupboard has not a drop of anything maple—not even artificial maple flavoring. An imposter at best, it is essentially high-fructose corn syrup with molasses and caramel coloring to give it a recognizable look. Oh, and don’t forget salt, sodium phosphate (a preservative), and the potassium hexametaphosphate. Ironically, this last ingredient is a flavor enhancer designed to reduce sodium content in food products. The unconscionable greed that generates these kinds of products, I reluctantly understand. It’s the people who knowingly and willingly buy the stuff.
In my world, ALL the responsibility rests with the consumer. Not that there aren’t horrible and treacherous folks at a company, but they simply will not make something no one buys. It’s one thing to be a 12 year-old with a sweet tooth; it’s quite another to be a parent who overlooks the ingredients clearly marked on the bottle and gives this kind of crap to their kids anyway to save a few bucks. (If this sounds harsh, you are reading it correctly.)
Enter Raymond Leonard.
Ray is the sole proprietor of Leonard’s Sugarhouse, a local maple syrup producer located on Cherry Brook Rd. (CT-179) in North Canton, CT. I had driven by the sign no less than 100 times and realized one day that I had never actually read it. I mean, I knew what it said, but it’s a little like hearing someone yell “Fore!” on the golf course and assuming it is meant for someone else. Getting hit in the head by such a whizzing white projectile is comparable to the force of recognizing the meaning of the sign: For more than two years, I had lived less than six miles from an artisan producer of maple syrup, one of my favorite foods of all time, and had never tasted a drop of it. (sigh) That all changed last Saturday morning.
I called ahead and made an appointment to speak with Mr. Leonard who agreed to meet me in the morning at his “shack”. At just before 9am I pulled into the idyllic Leonard estate and the home of Leonard’s Sugarhouse and got out of my car to see Ray stepping out of the garage. I glanced toward the back of the property and noticed a dark brown shed and regrettably couldn’t keep myself from thinking of the ubiquitous “Log Cabin” brand. I quickly banished the thought from my mind and shook Ray’s hand, eager to learn more about the process of making maple syrup. It is basically as follows:
· Collect sap from maple trees
· Boil and reduce to approximately 1/40th your original volume
Notice the lack of chemicals, salt, poly-whatevers or anything else. When I asked Ray what else he adds to get maple syrup, he shot me a look and said, “Nothing.” I was refreshed, even surprised. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t simplicity. (Note: By extension, then, all true maple syrups are organically and sustainably produced.)
Mr. Leonard has about 350 taps in North Canton and Simsbury and uses food-grade flexible hoses (pictured below) to collect the sap. The gravity-fed tubes replace the old hang-a-bucket-on-a-tree method that Ray began with back in 1982, though he’s still got buckets around for about 10% of this taps that won’t reach.
These tubes use gravity to move the sap directly from the tree to his wood-fired boiler unit in the sugarhouse, which is nice considering during the harvest his taps will sometimes yield 1200 gallons a day. This modest sized boiling unit will reduce 100 gallons of sap every hour (that’s just over two gallons of syrup) when fully stoked, which makes using my 5-gallon stock pot seem more than a little antiquated. However, it requires lots of wood. During the production season, Leonard said he can burn through seventeen cords of wood. I can tell you that for the two years I lived in Lake Tahoe, the wood-burning stove in my cabin used 2.5 cords. Roughly translated, that’s at least six long winters of firewood consumed in six to eight weeks. The end products of a light amber (Grade A) and dark amber (Grade B) syrups are determined only by the qualities of the tree sap rather than any difference in production method. The former tends to be the result of the earlier batches in February while the latter comes in March. But the scale is not like grades in school where “A” is better than “B”; this has only to do with shades of the syrup’s color matched against a wheel.
Ray and I both like Grade B better--there is noticeably more maple taste, and I've heard there is more nutritional content.
But Ray doesn’t only produce maple syrup. There is more alchemy happening than meets the eye. When he mentioned making candy, I raised an eyebrow and asked him about it. It turns out a big piece of his business is molding candy and even spinning maple cream when he is able to produce “fancy” syrup, as well as the occasional batch of maple toffee. Leonard told me “the market for [maple] candy is almost better than the market for syrup.” He can’t keep it in stock and said it usually sells out the same day he makes it. Pretty good considering his advertising budget; Leonard told me “I don’t advertise - it’s all word of mouth.” Yes, I asked for some, and no he didn’t have any—he was (predictably) sold out. When I asked him if he ate into the profits by chowing down on the candy, he confessed, "It's too sweet for me."
But there’s at least a little drawback to being the maple syrup guy in the area: Leonard works full-time for the state because he puts most of the money he makes back into the business. “You can’t live off it,” he says, “it’s more like a ritual.” This made me feel like I should be paying more for his product since it’s actually reasonably priced to start with considering the effort—quarts are $18. When I asked him if he would ever consider expanding and turning making maple syrup his full time job, he seemed to get excited and said “I’d love to!” but then lamented the substantial investment it would take to do it. Hearing this, I started pulling for someone in the Farmington River Valley to die peacefully, leaving Raymond Leonard maybe 5,000 maple trees and about $50,000 so he could do just that. In the meantime, I handed Ray $20 for a quart of his syrup, winced as I took my change, and started waiting for February.
If you don’t happen to live around North Canton, visit this website for information about syrup making in Connecticut and a Sugarhouse near you!
LEONARD’S SUGARHOUSE Prices:
Raymond Leonard, Jr. 1 gallon - $68
P.O. Box 316, 555 Cherry Brook Rd., ½ gallon - $36
North Canton, CT 06059 1 quart - $18
Maple syrup year 'round. Sugarhouse open Feb.-April. Call for boiling times and Sugarhouse tours.