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Take a look at that glorious view up in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Spring seems nearly finished in Atlanta, but it’s still winter in much of the country. New England has had a long, powerful winter. This past week I paid a quick visit up North and was able to experience something I’ve wanted to do my entire food-obsessed life: visit a maple syrup “sugar shack” during production.

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Through the snowy woods we drove up a winding, muddy road to the Davenport Maple Farm and Restaurant. As we made our way up the incline I felt excited like a kid when I saw the tin buckets hanging on the shaggy silver bark of the towering maple trees. Lisa chuckled and smiled at me when I exclaimed, “Look at the buckets! Look at the buckets!” Well, it’s been a desire for along while and, if you think about it, I am more used to cane syrup and gnats in South Georgia. Massachusetts maple trees and March snow are pretty foreign to my world.

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We arrived at Davenport’s to see billowing clouds of white steam blowing against the bright blue sky. I opened the car door and a sweet, positively indescribable mouth-watering aroma permeated the cold, wet air. On the weekends during the season the Davenports serve breakfast. Sadly, our visit was during the week and there were no pancakes, but I was able to taste freshly made maple syrup right out of the cooker. I smiled ear to ear as I sipped the hot syrup out of the warm cup and gazed around the room.

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Between taking delicious sips of the amber, piping hot syrup I listened as Mrs. Davenport kindly explained the process of making syrup. The Davenports have been making syrup on their farm for 100 years. The processing room was filled with accoutrements from the past, taps, sugar molds for making candy, and buckets of various ages and description.

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Maple Syrup begins as sap in a maple tree. The sap is harvested in the spring when temperatures rise into the 40s during the day and cool off into the 20s at night. Trees are tapped using a drill to make a small hole. If conditions are right, the sap drips out into a bucket and is hand-collected. More modern methods involve a series of tubes that moves the sap from multiple trees to a holding tank. The sap is pumped into an evaporator that cooks off the water, leaving just the natural sugar. Astonishingly, it takes 40 quarts of sap to produce 1 quart of maple syrup.

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Maple syrup is graded by color and flavor. Light Amber or Fancy Grade has a milder maple taste and is made early in the season when the weather is cold and brisk. This syrup is considered best for maple candy. Grade A or Medium Amber is also a fine table syrup and is the most popular for eating. This syrup is made after the weather begins to warm, about mid-season. Grade B is for cooking and is made late in the season. It’s darker and stronger in flavor because the sap has changed. The Davenport’s bottle a sampling from each time they boil sap to make syrup. The stunning array of amber and gold in the photograph below reflects their syrup through the years.

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I left with a jugs and jugs of syrup, maple cream, and boxes of maple candy. Poor Mrs. Davenport probably thought I was crazy because I couldn’t help but give her a big hug when I left. I was so happy; I just couldn’t contain myself!

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The whole experience was magical. I think that’s the part I love the most about food and cooking – the exploration. Seeing where food comes from and meeting the wonderful people who create, grow, and craft our food gives me such immense pleasure. I feel so fortunate to have these opportunities. Many, many thanks to the Davenport family for the tour and to Jaimee Constantine for sharing this special place with me. Until I am able to get up that way during sugar season for their New England pancakes, I am sharing a Southern-style pancake recipe made with cornmeal.

Lastly, thanks to Lisa for helping this happen, sharing her world, and making my life a little sweeter all around.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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Georgia Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes 10

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup fine yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1¼ cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed
Maple syrup, for accompaniment

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter in a bowl or liquid measuring cup. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients and whisk just until combined.

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and lightly coat with canola oil. Ladle ¼ cup batter into the pan for each pancake, cooking only a few at a time. Cook until the bubbles on the top burst and the bottoms are golden brown, about 1½ minutes.

Flip the pancakes and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter, adding more oil to the pan as necessary. Transfer to warmed serving plates. Serve hot or warm with maple syrup.

Photo credit – Virginia Willis

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Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.