Cooking in sap is a sugarhouse tradition

By SARAH EARLE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-21-2019 11:44 AM

Bette Lambert feeds people.

For decades, she filled the bellies of a husband and six kids while they worked the family farm. Then came the grandkids, “almost too many to count,” hanging out on threadbare sofas and piles of coats in the sugarhouse through long nights of boiling sap. Now, along with her sprawling family, there are visitors to be fed, more of them every year.

Lambert, co-owner of Silloway Maple in Randolph Center, fills crock pots with hearty, portable foods for her son, Paul, and whoever may be helping him tend to broken tubing in the woods or monitor the sap flowing into the tanks in the storage room. She lays out maple cream and sleeves of crackers for the grandkids, who wander through the sugarhouse after school. She dreams up recipes featuring maple syrup and makes loads of maple candy for visitors, both in person and online.

And she keeps the fridge stocked with hot dogs. Lots and lots of hot dogs.

In the old days, hot dogs got thrown right in the evaporator pan on hectic nights when the sap was running. Sometimes whole eggs would bob alongside them in the misty liquid.

“That’s an old Vermont tradition,” Lambert said.

Food safety laws have put a crimp in that custom. At Silloway Maple, the hot dogs now sizzle over campfires outside the back door. But this weekend, Lambert will revive the tradition for the hundreds of visitors expected to find their way to the farm. She’ll put a big pan of sap on the wood stove, add a generous dose of syrup to enhance the flavor, and boil the wieners until they absorb the sweet, smoky essence of maple.

It’s one of many treats — from the humble to the elegant — showcasing one of Vermont’s most treasured commodities this weekend, as sugarhouses around the state open their doors for Maple Weekend. It’s also Maple Weekend in New Hampshire, the fifth biggest producer of maple syrup in the United States. Vermont, of course, is the biggest.

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For Lambert, serving visitors a bit of nostalgia in a bun represents a mission that’s both a growing part of her business and an essential part of what she’s been doing her whole life. “I’ve always had a passion to teach people about farming,” she said. “Very, very few children grow up on farms. ... So many people don’t know what goes into it.”

Growing up on the dairy farm her parents, Paul and Louise Silloway, purchased in 1940, Lambert remembers helping out with sugaring as soon as she was old enough to carry a pail. The youngest of four children, she was often charged with driving the bulldozer that pulled the gathering tanks out of the woods. “They’d just say, ‘whoa’ and I’d do my best,” Lambert recalled.

Through the years, numerous changes have come to the farm, from the plastic tubing that simplifies the sap-gathering process, to reverse osmosis equipment that drastically reduces boiling time, to electronic sensors that send information about sap flow straight to a sugarmaker’s phone or tablet. A new sugarhouse, built in 2014, runs on solar power and houses an enormous stainless steel, wood-fired evaporator. It put out 3,000 gallons of syrup last year, almost 10 times what the farm produced just a few years ago.

Amid all the change, Lambert, 65, has tried to ensure that the farm retains a beating heart while Paul, who is co-owner and manager, runs the sugaring operation. She enlists the grandkids to help with chores and tours, often rewarding them with scraps of maple candy for their efforts. And making sure the sugarhouse is stocked with food is a way of keeping the whole family close by during the busy sugaring season.

What’s surprised Lambert is how modern technology and trends have strengthened farm traditions rather than supplanted them. The Internet has enabled her to share her love of farming and cooking with people all over the country and world through photos, recipes and a blog. Thanks to her cell phone, she can chat with customers while she’s working out in the woods. And the modernization of the sugaring process has allowed her to focus on building personal relationships with customers, developing new products, such as a line of infused syrups, and marketing her products in ways that celebrate their roots.

“I never would have known that I would enjoy marketing,” said Lambert, who has trained her family not to dig into a new dish until she’s had a chance to snap a picture for social media.

Lambert is also riding the agritourism wave, which allows her to showcase the farm’s history, maple sugaring culture and the pleasures of rural life. At this weekend’s event, along with the sap-boiled hot dogs, she’ll serve up sugar on snow in a big trough, just like they did in the old days. Her daughter will make maple donuts, her nephew will give hay rides, her daughter-in-law will manage a small petting zoo and the rest of the family will be on hand to demonstrate the sugaring process, give tours and answer questions to the estimated 800 people who will visit the farm.

Meanwhile, sugarhouses around the region will be offering pancake breakfasts, horse-drawn sleigh rides, live music, maple ice cream and other treats and activities, along with tours of their sugaring operations, which range from small, old-fashioned affairs to huge, state-of-the-art facilities. In addition, restaurants, breweries and other businesses will be joining in the festivities, serving up food and drinks featuring maple syrup.

“We have a lot of fun,” Lambert said.

For information on Maple Open House Weekend in Vermont, visit vermontmaple.org/mohw. For information on New Hampshire Maple Weekend, visit nhmapleproducers.com/maple-month.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.

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