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A taste for maple sugar
by Lauren Gallagher

Fluffy pancakes, golden waffles, French toast - whether they be occasional treats or Sunday traditions, they help bring us back home. And what is buttery pancake without maple syrup? Especially in New England, this time-honored treat is an essential condiment for the perfect morning feast. 

On a sunny Friday in April, a friend and I headed to the Hadley Sugar Shack, a relatively new sugarhouse that is celebrating its 10th anniversary in May. The cozy, wood-furnished restaurant was bustling for 10 a.m. on a weekday, and I grew eager to sample their maple-inspired meals.

The history of this hearty breakfast staple in and around the Pioneer Valley runs deep. In fact, when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Native Americans, who had been collecting syrup for years, introduced them to the process. The earliest record of the Native Americans' syrup-making dates back to 1609. Maple syrup became an important part of the early settlers' lives. Not only did it provide a homemade sugar source, it was also used in various forms as trade money. 


As the years progressed, maple sugaring became more sophisticated, but the same golden product remains a beloved New England treat. Today, there are over 70 sugarhouses in Massachusetts alone. Desjardin's, a Belchertown sugarhouse, has a website where people can post their own fond memories of creating or consuming maple syrup. One man writes, “When boiling with my Dad, he told me of how as a kid he would visit his grandfather in his sugarhouse, his grandfather boiled on huge flat pans, and of course collected all with buckets and a horse drawn sled…” 

Each sugarhouse has its own unique aspects while all maintain a rustic charm.  Many have restaurants offering the best in New England comfort food. Owners of Ashfield's South Face Farm Sugarhouse, located 120 miles west of Boston in the Berkshire foothills (about a 45-minute drive from the University of Massachusetts), warn patrons to dress warmly during cooler months, as their restaurant is not heated. Still, visitors flock to try their tasty 


North Hadley Sugar Shack

The sugarhouse in closest proximity to the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the North Hadley Sugar Shack located on Route 47 North. Their motto is “Massachusetts grown and fresher” and they pride themselves on staying true to this. Whenever possible, the owners sell locally grown produce. The strawberries used in their recipes are grown on their own farm as well as the pumpkin and zucchini. The star of the show, however, remains the maple syrup tapped freshly year after year. The Sugar Shack offers a hearty pancake breakfast from 7-12 Monday-Friday and 8-3 on weekends; its store, which sells maple and honey products, remains open until 4 p.m.

pancake selections and often find they have to wait for a table. The Warren Farm and Sugarhouse in Brookfield offers maple tours during the month of March in which patrons can sample sap and syrup, a hot drink, and receive a free maple syrup recipe book.

The maple-sugaring season in Western-Massachusetts begins sometime in February, depending on temperature. For sap to flow, the day temperatures must rise above 32 degrees and dip below freezing overnight. The season ends April 1. March kicks off “Maple Month” in Massachusetts and once the sap starts flowing, syrup-makers begin harvest work.

When farmers feel the time is right, they tap three-inch holes into the sugar maples . From this hole, the slightly sweet sap is collected by a tube, which then runs to a mainline, sending the collective syrup to an evaporator to be boiled down. To make the best syrup, the sap must be boiled immediately after it is collected so makers often work late into the night. A sugar maple tree takes about 40 years of maturing before it is ready to produce this sap and once tapped, 40 gallons of the pure liquid will convert to only one gallon of pure maple syrup. Once the sap gets to 219.5 degrees (seven and a half over the boiling point of water), it becomes syrup. At this point a valve is placed on the boiler and the syrup is collected and filtered. Once this is complete it is ready to be bottled. In the end, the sap has been converted from 2% to 68% sugar. Once bottled, an unopened container of maple syrup can be kept for up to a year in a cool, dry place. After opening the syrup must be refrigerated.

The Hadley Sugar Shack is decked in wood furnishings - the tables and chairs, the exposed beams across the ceiling - it is rustic dining at its best. Our meals were even served on paper plates. But that is half the fun. The meals range in price from $1.50-$6.50 depending on your appetite. Want fruit with that? Blueberries, strawberries or banana slices can be added for $1.50. Despite modestly sized pancakes, our experience was a pleasant one. The maple syrup was the perfect topping, extremely fresh in flavor and possessing a crisp lightness certainly not found in the less-than-natural supermarket varieties.

On the left wall of the dining room, a large glass window offers a view into the small maple-brewing factory. A student tour was being guided through the syrup making process. A visit to this sugarhouse’s store, adjacent to the dining area, is a must for maple lovers. Here you can buy maple candy, syrups, pancake mixes, and more.

While it remains the main event, there is more to the sugarhouses than maple syrup alone. Each one features its own monthly events, which can include anything from pancake breakfasts to the opening of homemade pie stands depending on the season. While the weather remains cool, patrons can warm up with freshly made muffins and coffee. As summer approaches, children and adults can look forward to the opening of ice cream stands and strawberry shortcake.

The Hadley Sugar Shack also has an animal petting area where patrons can go and see goats, chickens, and ducks free of charge. They can even step into the cages with the animals if they feel so bold. but remember no feeding allowed! There are also farm-fresh products available such as maple sugar candy molded in the form of maple leaves (this solid treat is created by boiling down the sap beyond the point of syrup), as well as fresh milk, eggs and pastries. Feeling a little nostalgic in the old-world atmosphere, I bought a gallon of milk in a traditional glass container for the less than outdated price of $3.75, including a dollar deposit. 


This website was created by the students of Journalism 375 at the University of Massachusetts 2005