The steam off the boilers smells richly sweet. The whole room is filled with it — open the door and step in, and you’re dipped whole into damp, warm air and the scent of maple sap boiling down. It’s been years since I last walked into the sap house at Ioka Valley Farm.
I remembered the tastings in the barn, sap and shades of syrup, golden, amber and dark. The sap is imperceptibly sweet, and the darkest grade is pungent caramel. But I’d forgotten how it feels to walk into the inner room with the massive wood-fired boiler. Up three steps to a wooden platform, and I could look down onto the liquid cooking down in sections, foaming, then churning, then thickening.
The last time I came here on a raw day in mud season, my friends’ children were in high chairs. But it has been one of our spring pleasures since my college years. We would come out for the maple brunch that runs on weekends through the sugaring season and sit on wooden benches, sharing half a dozen side orders of tiny corn muffins with maple butter.
It was a ritual. No one else makes maple butter like that, I swear. They have maple cream too, rare and thick and fudge-like. My mom gave me a jar of it, and I’ll savor it — I’ve been known to go through large amounts on fresh-baked bread with butter. But the maple butter is a local legend. My friends and I would tell stories about it.
And we would look up at the muddy, slate-blue hills and the light on the melting snow, and we would talk, the way my parents and Joan and Mark and I were talking now about the figures we had just learned — they make 8,000 gallons of syrup in a good season from some 18,000 trees. That would come to 320,000 gallons of sap.
We considered the work it takes to collect that much, even with tubing, as we read the expanded menu. It’s a third generation farm at least, and the family is holding on. We all honor that. And this place is so essentially part of the Berkshires, for me.
The cafe is growing, I think. The coffee comes in light or dark roast now, and the pancakes can come with additions — blueberries, pecans, apple or chocolate chips. Mine was dense and tender, the texture I’d make on a griddle.
Between us we assembled waffles and side orders of bacon — it comes crisp and lean and looks local — and home-made apple sauce. And the mini corn muffins with maple butter are still here. We shared them around the table.
Ioka offers maple butter in jars too, to take home, and maybe I will someday, but there’s something to be said for waiting too and keeping that flavor for these raw days at the beginning of spring, when the twigs are budding and the hills are bare and another storm is shaping up for tomorrow. It’s good to have a sweetness that belongs to this time of year.