“Go up to Stowe and fill up on the tourist things,” Billings told me. “Then come down here and I’ll show you the real Vermont.”
Driving south down Route 100, I understood what he meant. Stowe is lovely, but it seems like a place few real Vermonters would venture. Kind of like how Bostonians never go to Faneuil Hall. Too full of tourists and overpriced, mediocre food.
I passed a bar for fly fishers, and stopped at a farm that advertised fresh bread and local veggies, where I also found a wheel of Winnimere cheese. I made a pit stop at the Vermont State Liquor Store, grabbing a bottle of Tanqueray for Billings, and a few litres of vodka for myself (I’m still not drinking, but I have plans to make cordials soon). I saw a lot of cows.
Pretty soon, I was in Rochester, Vermont, population 1171, according to the 2000 census. Cell service in those parts is spotty, so Billings gave me about six different phone numbers, including one for his daughter Betty’s house. “Just tell her you met me last week and I invited you up to spend the night,” he joked. “She’ll come find me.”
I did wind up calling Betty, though I skipped the part about spending the night. Sure enough, she came right into town and fetched us.
There was only one reason for me to go to Rochester: sugaring, the process of tapping trees and making maple syrup. I love maple syrup- the real stuff, NOT Aunt Jemima. I can eat maple all day, and back when Hagen-Daaz was searching for it’s next flavor, I wrote them suggesting something with maple. Sadly, they didn’t listen.
I met Billings, a third or fourth generation Vermonter, through friends of a friend. He grew up sugaring in the woods around Rochester, and when he told me about his set up, I immediately invited myself to for a visit. He was very gracious about it and said to come anytime. Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t as obliging. The afternoon I got to Rochester it was 20-something degrees. The sap was frozen in the trees. No sugaring for me.
We followed Betty down a well-rutted dirt road, over some hills and into the woods, past an orange sign that read “Expect delays.” “Anyone who comes down this way is either lost of looking for us,” Betty explained. “Either way, they’re going to get delayed.”
Billings was chopping wood in a clearing across from his sugar shack. Between the wood-fired furnace that boils his maple syrup and the huge wood stove that heats his house, the man goes through a lot of wood. “That’s about all I do is chop wood,” he told me.
He took us to his home, a cabin he and some buddies built as a hunting camp years ago out of logs cut from the property. Over the years he’s civilized the place, adding insulation, indoor plumbing and gas. Last year he hooked up a solar panel, enabling luxuries like a microwave, and real lights. It’s a consummate bachelor pad, covered in taxidermy, with nary a curtain in sight.
I could have sat and admired his view for years.
Since it was too cold to be making maple syrup, Billings and I sat at the picnic table in his kitchen and talked about the process. Every year, at the start of spring he taps more than 400 maple trees on his property. Some of them drain into hoses, that lead to a big holding tank, but others have buckets hanging on spouts that have to be collected by hand. Billings says each method has its pros ad cons. You don’t have to walk around and gather the sap with the hose system, but he’s also had that system break and all his maple sap drain into a stream. With buckets, there’s more labor, but if you have a tree that’s got darker sap, then you can get rid of it, whereas in a hose system, you’d never know the dark sap was there. (Darker sap = lower grade syrup). I can’t imagine how he remembers where all 400 trees are.
I’ve long known that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, but I hadn’t really fully appreciated what that meant until Billings told me that the sap from his 400-plus trees yields just 90 gallons of syrup each season. That’s a lot of work for what equates to three tanks of gas.
That afternoon, we went down to see the sugar shack- the place where he boils sap into syrup. While most syrup makers now use oil to run their operations, Billings goes old-school and uses wood. It is stacked up as wide and as high as the shack. Inside, a sliding door in the wall provides easy access to the wood pile.
Billings’ sap runs into large tanks that then pipe inside the sugar shack to the evaporator. The interior is dominated by an evaporator, the contraption that heats the sap and makes maple syrup. As the sap gets denser and more syrupy, it flows through various chambers of the evaporator and then into the syrup pan where more heating and evaporation happens. The process takes a while… from the way Billings told it, the sugar shack can get kind of crowded with folks stopping by to check in, have a beer and watch the sugar boil (hey, what do you expect in a town the size of Rochester?)
Of course the only thing better than making maple syrup is eating it, and that’s how I spent the majority of my time in Rochester. I had a maple milkshake, and sampled a slice of maple cream pie. I learned that for baking, Vermont Grade B, the darkest syrup is best because of its strong flavor whereas most people prefer “Fancy” syrup for their pancakes. Billings makes mostly Fancy (the lightest) and Grade A Medium Amber.
I also learned to make the ubiquitous Vermont treat: sugar on snow. Basically, it’s maple syrup heated up and then poured on snow, where it instantly hardens into a crunchy maple candy. It’s delicious! I could feel my teeth rotting out as I chewed.
Sugar on Snow
1. enough maple syrup to cover the bottom of a small sauce pan
2. a shallow dish filled with fresh white snow (no yellow snow!)
3. a candy thermometer
Heat the maple syrup on medium high heat, stirring often. The syrup will bubble up, so don’t put too much in the pan, about a half inch to and inch should do it. (If you have too much syrup in the pan just pour a bit out into a heat-safe container.) Heat the syrup until the candy thermometer reads between 240 and 255 degrees. Test the syrup’s readiness by putting a drop in a glass. If it hardens and sinks to the bottom, it’s ready.
When the syrup is ready, use a tablespoon to drizzle it in thin ribbons over the snow. Serve immediately, snow and all. Invite Billings.