Monday, March 12, 2012

Preserving Floyd: The Highland Maple Festival - Road Trip!

Every year in March for two weekends Highland County welcomes visitors to help them celebrate the tapping of the local sugarbush and all things Maple Syrupy - The Highland Maple Festival!
We went this past weekend to lay in our yearly supply of syrup, eat a stack of buckwheat hotcakes loaded with butter and this year's "vintage", tour the sugar camps, and finish it all off with a fine trout dinner served up by the McDowell Volunteer Fire Department and some maple doughnuts.

There's still next weekend to get your fix, March 17 & 18!  If you decide to go and you're from the Floyd/Blacksburg/Christiansburg/Roanoke area, take Rt 220.  It's far more scenic and pleasant a drive than Interstate 81, just as fast, and will drop you right in Monterey, VA, the center of all things maple in Highland county.

Michael and I came to love and appreciate maple syrup while living in upstate New York.  The flavor of maple syrup is as identifiable with it's terroir as any grape is with the place it's grown.  Vermont, New York, Quebec, Pennsylvania, any region where sugar maples grow the syrup will be distinctly different from another region.  And so it is with Highland County Maple Syrup.  We love it.  We use it in place of cane sugar as a local sweetener along with local sorghum and honey.  Think of cane or beet sugar as a neutral-tasting sweetener.  Sweetness with no identity of its own.  No character.  Maple syrup's flavor makes it a player in your recipes.

courtesy Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard
Maple sap is collected when the days are warming up but the nights are still cold.  That's when the sap begins to run through the tree and is full of energy producing sugar to start the growing cycle.  It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.  First the trees are drilled (photo above) and traditionally a spile and bucket were attached.  A spile is the spout that is inserted into a tree.
courtesy Devonia Rexrode
These days the trees are tapped with plastic tubing, each tree being connected to a larger tube that eventually feeds the sap into the sugar house.
courtesy Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard
The traditional method of turning the sap into syrup was to cook it down in large shallow rectangular evaporation pans over a wood fire.
courtesy Brandon Belew
But the majority of camps now use a reverse osmosis method and shiny stainless steel evaporators and finishing pans.
courtesy Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard
courtesy Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard
Cook all the liquid off and you're left with maple sugar.  Maple sugar is sold molded into pieces of candy.  I was hoping to find it in chunks or blocks so I could experiment with it in granulated or brown sugar situations but all I could find were these exorbitantly priced little bits.

It's lambing season in Highland county and as you drive the sugar camp loop you'll find the fields full of frolicking babies.  The road winds from valley to mountain top and the views are spectacular.  Be sure to take your camera.

When you come back into town, find a convenient parking spot and cruise the arts and crafts.  Don't forget to stop in at one of the doughnut vendors and pick up a box of maple doughnuts for the ride home.
courtesy Nancy Vance
Lastly, It's worth driving over the mountain to the neighboring town of McDowell for a fried trout dinner put on by the volunteer fire department to finish out the day.  If trout isn't your thing they offer bbq chicken too.

Across from the fire department the school is open and crowded with more artists and crafters inside and out.  We found braided rugs and some really fine woodworking for more than reasonable prices.

With full bellies and the new syrup stash laid in we headed back down the road to Floyd, totally pleased with the day.

Maple-Chili Vinaigrette
1/3 cup maple vinegar (learn to make maple vinegar here)
2/3 cup olive or canola oil
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 heaping tablespoon sweet red chili paste
dash maple extract (optional)
dash liquid smoke (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously or emulsify with a food processor or stick blender.

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