ORFORD, N.H. -- Sugaring season begins when the weather is still bitter cold. Sugar men and their families snowshoe into the forest and sink tapholes into each mature rock maple tree. It is an exacting process. If the holes are too deep, the bark will split and the sap will trickle down the trunk. Into each hole they insert a spout at a slight downward angle so the sap runs free. Buckets are hung on the spouts, then covered, so they don't also collect rain, twigs and bugs.
If the weather is exactly right -- a succession of freezing nights and warm days -- the tree roots absorb moisture, building pressure inside the tree that pushes sap out the holes. During the days, when the sun thaws the sugarbush, you can stand among the trees and listen to sap begin to flow -- a rushing ping that rouses Yankee appetites.
Once the sap is flowing, the hard work begins. Full buckets are emptied into barrels, which are ferried back to the sugar house by horse-drawn cart or tractor. Forty gallons of the nearly tasteless sap is needed to make one gallon of syrup, and there is no way to predict the quality each year. The first run is invariably considered the best, producing the most delicately flavored nectar; by the fifth week, the yield turns coarse and dark. By now, the croaking of the newborn tree frogs will have signaled the end of the sugaring season. The spouts will be pulled, and the trees will scar up around the tapholes.
Here at Mount Cube Farm, the Thomson family works a sugarbush that has been tapped annually since before the Civil War. To supplement the sap collected in the woods by tractor-drawn cart, they run plastic tubing from nearby trees' spouts directly to the sugar house. Mount Cube syrup is made using a machine called an arch, which burns 4 gallons of oil for each gallon of syrup it produces. Yet, for all the labor-saving equipment, the Thomsons' production is limited by what the trees produce -- about a thousand gallons in a good year.
Mount Cube is the nicest place we know to learn about the slow and steady process of maple sugaring. Around Memorial Day, it also becomes a unique restaurant for breakfast, with a short menu of either pancakes or doughnuts, maple syrup on the side. The pancakes are made according to Mrs. Thomson's recipe, which is equal parts of cornmeal, whole wheat flour and white flour. Each weekend morning, they are enjoyed by neighbors, passersby and hikers who avail themselves of the trails around Mooselauke Mountain and the sugar house.
If you don't want pancakes, the other choice is doughnuts -- plain yeast-leavened doughnuts, made by a lady down the road. They are served with plastic-foam cups of syrup, suitable for nTC dunking. It is the humblest and happiest of meals, on paper plates with plastic utensils, with the great outdoors providing all the ambience a traveler could want.
Sugar house pancakes
Makes 12 to 16 pancakes.
2 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 to 2 cups milk
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup white flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
Beat together eggs and 1 3/4 cups milk. Stir together cornmeal, flours, sugar, baking powder and salt. Combine mixtures. Add melted butter and enough milk to make a pourable batter. Grease a griddle or large frying pan and drop batter into hot grease in 5-inch circles. Cook until bubbles form and pancakes turn brown on each side.
Sugar House at Mount Cube Farm, Route 25A, Orford, N.H. 03777; (603) 353-4709.