Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Experiencing NH Maple via wagon ride

All aboard for wagon ride fun at The Rocks!
Horse-drawn wagon rides are a tradition at The Rocks Estate, during both Christmas tree season and Maple Tours. Here, writer and Rocks visitor Meghan McCarthy McPhaul describes the joy guests of all ages feel with a ramble through the farm.

A trip to The Rocks is always fun, but when the horses are there, the visit becomes downright enchanting. Like many kids, mine have a thing for horses. Even before they could talk, they would do their best to whinny from the back seat of the car any time we passed a horse in a field.

Our first visit to the New Hampshire Maple Experience was on a typical spring day – chilly, a little bit wet, but bright. We heard about the history of maple sugaring, learned from Nigel how to identify and tap a sugar maple tree, visited the sugar house, and even tried the sweet-and-sour combination of pickles and maple syrup, complemented by a fresh donut. But the highlight of our morning at The Rocks was the wagon ride.

The horses that pull the wagons at The Rocks are HUGE. Depending on the team, they are either Shires or Belgians, breeds of draft horses that can be as tall as 19 hands and weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds. The horses’ heads tower above even a tall adult, but they look down at curious visitors with gentle eyes, a characteristic that goes along with the breeds’ size.

The author and two of her horse lovers.
The men who drive these teams at The Rocks are always great about letting us approach the big horses and pet their noses. I’ll admit that it’s not just the kids who have a thing for horses, so does their mom. I welcome any opportunity to stroke a soft, hay-scented equine muzzle. It seems we are not alone in our love affair with these beasts of labor, as the horses tend to draw an enthusiastic crowd whenever they are at The Rocks.

After we said hello to the horses at the Maple Experience, we climbed on board the wagon and claimed a hay bale for a seat. The horses set to work, and off we went down the tree-lined lanes of The Rocks.

Each wagon has a guide along for the ride, to share little tidbits about the captivating human and natural history at The Rocks. The day we visited, we lucked out and had as our guide Barb Desroches – known to my children as “Ms. Barb,” because she visits their school to teach environmental education each month.

While the adults in our wagon peered into the branches high above to see if we could distinguish the sugar maples from the red maples along the way and peppered Barb and our driver with questions, the kids simply delighted in the gentle sway of the wagon and in the chilly air of the spring day.

My kids had a great time throughout the Maple Experience. They liked helping to tap a tree, seeing the steam billowing around the sugar house, and eating donuts dipped in sweet syrup. When asked about their favorite part, though, they all pick the wagon ride. “I liked petting the horses," says one. "I liked being up high in the wagon and looking out of the wagon and seeing the sap buckets on the trees and other things at the farm."

Once we returned to the main building, the kids gave a parting pat to the horses, we grabbed a bag of fresh-popped maple kettle corn, and we headed home happy and having learned a good deal about maple sugaring. I know that on our next trip to The Rocks we’ll all be looking forward to saying hello again to our great big equine friends.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Maple, music, and microbrews at 3rd Annual Maple Dinner

Maple, music, and microbrews come together April 13 for the 3rd Annual Maple Dinner at The Rocks Estate. Join us as we celebrate the conclusion of another maple sugaring season with local flavors all while raising funds for The Rocks Projects Fund, which helps finance educational programs offered year-round at the farm. 

The dinner will feature maple culinary delights from Chef Joe Peterson, microbrewed beer from the Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery, and live entertainment from local musicians Barbara Desroches, Greg Odell, and Matt Hecklinger.

For more information and to make reservations, please visit our online calendar.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sugarhouse magic: from sap to maple syrup

Sugar maker Brad Presby in his element.
Watching the watery sap of sugar maple trees morph into sweet maple syrup is nothing short of magic. This magic show takes place each spring in sugarhouses nestled into forests throughout New England, including our own sugarhouse here at The Rocks Estate.

Rocks manager Nigel Manley explains how the maple magic happens, complete with fire and billowing steam:

The basics of maple sugaring include boiling sap for a long time until you are left with syrup. Of course, the process is a bit more complicated, and there are a lot of details that have to fit together just right to make sugaring successful.  

When I first came to The Rocks Estate, I watched syrup being made on an old arch (the part of the sugarhouse where the fire is) and evaporator (where the sap cooks down) in the original Electric Plant. As an avid photographer, I captured the equipment on camera. That turned out to be lucky for me, as the following season I had to assemble the arch and was able to use the photographs as a guide.

I had arrived from the UK not knowing what maple syrup was, never mind how to make it. I managed to get the sap lines up and tap the correct trees, but then was tasked with properly assembling the equipment of the sugarhouse. I had a friend help pick up the large back pan of the evaporator and set it in place. The front pan, or finishing pan, was lighter and could be placed easily. The float was a different story: I had to have the sap coming in quickly enough to keep the pans from burning, but not so quick as to be boiled off too slowly, which would create only dark syrup, rather than the more precious light maple syrup.

I managed to get the arch and pans working and actually made syrup, all while explaining to guests what I was doing! Still, something didn’t seem quite right. I finally realized it was my British accent; how can you possibly explain a northern New Hampshire tradition with a strong British accent?

A local sugarer, whose family has been making maple syrup for several generations, came to my rescue. Now, visitors to the New Hampshire Maple Experience tours learn the art of sugaring from Brad Presby, who is secure both in his Yankee ways and his good North Country vernacular.

Visit the New Hampshire Maple Experience this spring, and you’ll meet Brad at our sugarhouse, where he’ll show you the magic that is making maple syrup.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cooking with maple: It’s not just for pancakes!

Creating a maple delight.
We all know maple syrup is perfect poured over steaming pancakes at the breakfast table. But did you know maple syrup and maple sugar have been used for hundreds of years to sweeten everything from pancakes and breads to coffee and baked beans?

In fact, maple sugar was an important cooking staple for the first European settlers to New England and other northern regions of the United States. The settlers learned how to make maple syrup and sugar from the Native Americans, who had been doing their own form of sugaring for generations before the Europeans arrived.

The history of maple sugaring is shared during the New Hampshire Maple Experience…. AND local chefs reveal their secrets for getting creative with maple in modern day cooking, too! Each day of the Maple Experience, a chef will share cooking secrets and samples during live cooking demonstrations at The Rocks Estate

The chefs often invite guests to join in the cooking during the demos. Of course, samples of the finished product are also shared! In the past, our guest chefs have whipped up culinary delights like Whipped Maple Mascarpone and Maple-glazed Scallops with Maple Dijon Beurre Blanc. This season, we’re expecting Maple Teriyaki Marinade, Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette, and a Maple Crème Brûlée. Mmmm…!

You’ll find recipes from our guest chefs at the New Hampshire Maple Experience website. Long live maple, and Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Maple sugaring step two: tree tapping

If you read our Maple Blog last week, you know how to complete the first step of making maple syrup: identifying a sugar maple from other species. So, now what?

Tapping a tree at the NH Maple Experience.
To get that sweet sap out of the tree, you need to “tap” the tree. That means drilling a hole through the bark to get to the sap. Timing and technique are key when tapping trees. You want to be sure to tap when the sap is flowing in the tree – when the nights are still cold, but daytime temps rise above freezing.

Here are some notes from Rocks Estate manager Nigel Manley about proper technique for tapping sugar maple trees to collect sap:

The first year I sugared I made a couple of novice mistakes, including failing to notice the snow depth when I went out to tap the trees. The snow that year was really deep and I was using a brace and bit to drill the holes. The easiest way to use the tool is to lean against it while drilling. This I did and got 120 buckets hung on the trees. Then the weather turned nice and the sap ran through the trees.

The warmer weather also melted the deep snow. Within 2 weeks of tapping, the snow level had dropped at least 2 feet. This meant that the buckets I’d placed earlier, now brimming with heavy sap, were well above my head. In removing the buckets to collect the sap, I took a bath in cold sap more than once. The locals had a good laugh at the British greenhorn trying his best to make syrup.

Lesson learned: in snowy years, tap trees at snow level, as it makes the gathering so much easier.

Most guests to our New Hampshire Maple Experience programs ask if taking sap out of the trees hurts them. The short answer is NO. If trees are tapped responsibly, removing the sap does not harm the trees. (As a general rule a tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter before it’s tapped. Trees between 20 and 25 inches can support two taps. Trees over 25 inches in diameter can handle a maximum of three taps. You should also be sure not to tap a tree too close to tap holes from previous years – at least two feet directly above or below old holes or at least six inches to the side.)

When a tree is tapped, the tree actually walls off the hole so that bacteria cannot get in. After the hole is walled off, sap will also not flow out of the hole. That’s why it’s crucial to time tapping just right. If a sugar maker taps too early, the hole may "dry out" before the sap has much chance to run. Too late, and you’ll miss the first sap runs of the season.

Many modern sugar makers now use plastic tubing, rather than metal buckets, to collect the sap. The tubing provides a bit more leeway in the timing of tapping, as bacteria has a hard time getting into this system and the tap holes don't dry out as quickly.

To see a demonstration of tree tapping, check out our video of the process, filmed at The Rocks Estate.