Maple Fest

Happy Pi Day!

My friend Wendy and I ventured over the river and through the woods to the 2011 Hebron Maple Festival on Sunday. We had a great time even though the harvest was abysmal for the second year in a row. More about that below.

We arrived before the crowds – and before some of the booths were open just as the band (average age 16?) was setting up. Our first stop was The Farmer’s Cow, a cooperative that sells to health food and other stores around the state. Wendy tried a sample of their ice cream, which I declined in favor of keeping my stomach lactose free. But I did pick up a little decal that read, “I Licked the Farmer’s Cow,” with a photo of an ice cream cone. Also took some recipes including Uncle Art’s Puffed Pancakes with orange juice, Easy Chocolate Truffles, Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze, and Sausage and Cheese Strata.

The weather prediction of 50 and sunny proved to be a lie. It was 40, cloudy, and windy, so we scurried into the Old Town Hall. The Historical Society puts on a quilt display every year at the festival that rivals anything I’ve seen for real or in photos, Amish and Gee’s Bend included. This year’s exhibit was bigger and better than ever. The knowledgeable ladies demonstrating the art and craft invited us to learn at the twice-monthly Pumptown Quilters “bees.” We both went nuts for the antique quilts and especially loved the crazy quilts with several types of embroidery linking the pieces together. The string quilts seemed to be the most difficult and much prettier than these.

We could have spent all day looking at quilts but since we’d come to explore things maple, we made our way to the door, where we picked up some literature. The historical society has thumbnail photos and descriptions of a number of local buildings, among them the house of the house of Cesar Peters and his family. A slave trader attempted to take them south after their loyalist owner ran off to Britain. The town rallied and grabbed them back, holding them in jail for an unpaid debt until the kidnapper left. The General Assembly emancipated them in 1789. Their house is now on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

The sun appeared as we ventured back outside. After a bit of wandering found the Winding Brook Sugarhouse display. Wendy wanted to see the trees actually tapped but that was not to be. We stood downwind to enhance the aroma of the boiling sap – a combination of vanilla and crème brulée without the crème. Owner Wayne Palmer was doing the honors and explaining the process as he added water to a shallow pan to keep the mix from turning to maple sugar. He said he normally taps 2,000 trees. This year’s take involved half that number. He and his crew had no way to get through the feet of snow in the woods. Even the roadside trees were dangerous because of the risk that people could slip on the banks or be clipped by a passing car. His story explained why only four maple houses participated in the fest, down by at least half from previous years.

I didn’t attend the fest last year but it wasn’t great, either (See “How Sweet It Is”) because the weather never hit that springtime golden mean. Maple trees need daytime temps in the 40s and nights below freezing. This year the temps were ideal, but the blizzards of January and February kept the sap in the trees. Maybe next year…

We missed the book sale, which either doesn’t coincide with the fest, or only runs on Saturday. I consider that omission a blessing in disguise because I still have unread material from a trip a few years ago. Who can resist prices between $0.50 and $5?

The First Church of Hebron is still serving free soup and bread, both homemade, so we chowed down. The pastor and his wife were having a competition over who had made the best – I had his vegetarian minestrone and thought it heavenly (pun intended). Wendy had his wife’s corn chowder and said it was fabulous, too.

Thus fortified we returned to the car via the big red barn, which was having a major tag sale/flea market with clothes, china, books. We hustled through and drove to Woody Acres Sugar House. The draw there was the “Shack Out Back” Chainsaw Carvers. After we parked on some mud that threatened to suck the cars to the center of the earth, we found a man clad in jeans and plaid shirt covered by a leather apron so full of cuts that I feared for our safety. As it turned out, the only danger was from the sawdust flying off the chain saw as the guy created a bear (I think) leaning against a tree. He was talking to visitors when we arrived, so we went into “Maple Avenue,” sugar house. We saw the full sized cooker with the divided tray boiling sap. We did see one of the long hoses running from the shack, but it was just wrapped around a tree branch. I surmised that it probably awaiting the arrival of another truck full of sap.

We returned to the chainsaw sculptor who was now wielding his saw. Wendy is an amazingly talented artist. She watched for a while and said, “I can do that.” She has designs on the magnolia trees in her yard that have to come down. Can’t wait to see the results.

At last it was time to go home. It was as we were leaving that we finally saw a sap bucket. It was attached to a phone pole.

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