Gregarious Goats and Sugary Sap

Day one of my Maple Sugar Vacation weekend was both educational and super-enjoyable. At Fat Toad Farm, we met the goats that give the milk that turns into delicious caramel and creamy cheese. The weather was mild but winter lingers:

Co-owner Judith Irving walked us to the barn via the compost department: Four Tamworth pigs who feast on the whey that remains from cheesemaking – and on the occasional caramel-experiment-gone-bad (lucky pigs!). Here, Judith explains that one of the four has just learned how to escape its pen:

In the production room, co-owner Calley Hastings stirred a batch of vanilla bean caramel. The farm just purchased four new 90,000 BTU burners, and the project of the day was to determine how these powerful burners affect the delicate balance between time and temperature. “We want the water [in the milk] to evaporate at the same rate the sugars are caramelizing,” Judith explained. If the water evaporates too fast, it gets thick, but it doesn’t get the rich, dark color and flavor that make caramel so indulgently yummy. Here, Calley assesses the progress:

When we couldn’t stand the to be so close to so much caramel that we couldn’t eat, we headed out to the hoophouse that currently serves as something of a goat maternity ward. Upwards of 70 kids have been born in the last month, and while many have moved on to other homes, many still remain:

The farm will keep about 15 of the kids to add to the milking herd, including this one Judith likes so much:

After tasting all four varieties of caramel – original, vanilla, cinnamon, and coffee bean – in the shop, Judith gifted us with two jars to take home. We said our goodbyes and made our way just a few miles up the road.

At Turkey Hill Farm, the sap was running, and Stuart Osha was thrilled. We donned our snowshoes and headed out with Stuart, Margaret, and a team of people and horses to collect sap from the leafless maples.

Tromping through wet late-season snow was a great workout and the payoff was one I’d never experienced: discovering buckets of fresh maple sap with my own hands and eyes. The sap was running so quick from a few trees that I could see the drops on the tap!

The Oshas sugar the old fashioned way. After tapping each tree, they hang a metal bucket under it. A crew of us – about ten, including hired help, friends and visitors – shuttled back and forth from the buckets to the horse-pulled tanker, which we filled three times. We collected about 500 gallons of sap.

I was surprised to learn that sap is almost clear when it comes from the tree! It’s the evaporating process that consolidates the sugars and darkens the syrup. Depending on the sugar content of the sap, it takes between 25-45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Liquid, gold, indeed.

In the sugarhouse, Stuart got the fire going in the evaporator, and Margaret and Melissa set out a hearty lunch befitting the work we’d just done. We feasted on ham, chili, soup, crusty bread, sharp cheese, pickles, and corn relish – most of it food grown and/or processed by the Oshas themselves:

Maple-walnut cake and maple brownies were enjoyed with laughter and conversation in front of the fire, one of the best sugaring traditions. In the next room, Stuart stoked the fire as the steam rose to the roof, a sure sign that it’s sugaring season.

After a full and fantastic day, I retired to my digs at Green Mountain Girls Farm for some rest and rejuvenation. Today we’ll take a tour of the farm here, learn to make maple sugar candy, then visit a different kind of sugaring operation nearby – one that uses the pipelines you can sometimes see from the road. But first, a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs to the soundtrack of chickens in the hoophouse and goats and pigs just outside my door.