Maple sugar season – when sugarhouses all over the northeast come to life – is my favorite sign of spring. It generally runs from late February through mid April, when longer, warmer days cause the sap to run. Making syrup really hasn’t changed, it’s still a very manual process….buckets hung from trees to gather the sap, wood fires to boil the sap in rural shacks. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup; remember that the next time you balk at the price of real syrup. I’m pretty sure the ingredient list for Aunt Jemima is just high fructose corn syrup and one melted brown crayon for color.
An old-fashioned tradition that has thankfully survived is seasonal pancake breakfasts right in the sugarhouse. I had several on my short list, and narrowed it down to Williams Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts for a couple of reasons: it was a bit closer than a few of the others, and also seemed the least likely to have a wait. I’d really like to get to Gould’s one of these days, but a wait of up to two hours is possible. Since it was already a two hour drive, and my backroading turned it into a three hour drive, I wanted to get right down to pancake-eating when I arrived.
From Worcester I took 122 north, a two lane road through the rural towns of Barre and Petersham before linking up with Route 2 (The Mohawk Trail). Once out of Worcester the route quickly turns wooded and pretty and looks much like New Hampshire. Around Petersham you skirt the northern border of The Quabbin Reservoir, at about 40 square miles the largest inland body of water in Mass and the main source of water for Boston. Its creation in the 1930s caused the destruction of four towns; cemeteries and town memorials were moved and even today you can drive down roads that once led to these towns but now dead end at the reservoir.
During maple season, if you are driving in the rural northeast and see a rough wood building with steam coming out of it they’re probably making maple syrup.
All you need to know now is….is this a pancake making sugarhouse or a non-pancake making sugarhouse? Out of the car and we breathe in the smell of woodsmoke. Inside the rustic post & beam building are rows of picnic tables and a counter where you place your order. I stuck with the basics, really good (hot, fresh & light) pancakes, their own maple syrup, and a side of bacon to cut the sweetness. Nothing about the experience is remotely fancy: paper plates, the tables are shared, and you pick up your food when your number is called. And that’s good. Fancy would be wrong here. I grabbed a bottle of Grade B (deep color, robust flavor) on my way out the door. Typing this makes me want pancakes for dinner tonight!
I made a quick pitstop in Historic Deerfield for a few pictures. This sign gives a brief history.
The village today is an outdoor history museum comprised of twelve historic buildings, eleven of which are on their original sites. There’s also an inn with a full service restaurant. The house below was a beautiful bright robin’s egg blue but it’s not as evident in the photo, because of the competing blue sky.
I plan to get back to the Pioneer Valley when the weather warms up some more. I have a list of places I’d like to visit in this Jauntful guide. There’s so much to do here once you start looking around.
I know it seems a bit early but it’s only because I want you to get out there and enjoy some Christmas events! You know if you don’t plan ahead it won’t happen.
I’m a bit of a history geek and my favorite of the living history museums is Mystic Seaport. For the 35th year they are presenting their Lantern Light Tours, a progressive play set on Christmas Eve 1876. Leave some time for lunch or dinner at S&P Oyster Company in downtown Mystic.
Old Sturbridge Village offers up Christmas By Candlelight, with a full slate of traditional activities such as caroling, roasting chestnuts and the like. The on-site Oliver Wight Tavern offers special dinners to coincide with their Christmas events, as well as Brunch with Santa.
Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth NH is unique in that it encompasses over 300 years of American history, up to 1954 when the site was saved from urban renewal. Sticking with the historical theme of ….candles….their seasonal event is the Candlelight Stroll. Weekends in December bring sleigh rides, live music and seasonal entertainment along walkways lighted with wood and glass candle boxes. This would make a fantastic weekend away, as Portsmouth is a great small city, full of shopping and dining options.
People tend to forget about Newport once summer’s over but it’s really got a lot to offer in all seasons. December brings Christmas At The Newport Mansions, probably the best time to see these amazing Gilded Age mansions decked out in their holiday finery. You can’t go wrong with dinner at The White Horse Tavern; in their own words “from farm to table since 1673”. Yes, really: 1673.
I’d like to end with a reminder that this Saturday, November 29th is Small Business Saturday. Shop local! Shop small!!