Even though maple syrup is associated with New England (where the Native Americans first taught settlers about this sweet delicacy), sugar trees grow in the Midwest an in colder parts of our state of Virginia, most notably Highland County. The region's higher elevations contribute to a late winter and early spring weather pattern of warm, sunny afternoons and crisp, freezing nights-a perfect combination for maple production! Monterey which is in the Allegheny Mountains, in the jutting northwestern tip of Virginia near the West Virginia border holds their Maple Festival in March. It is the southernmost region where maple syrup is collected.
This year the Highland Maple Festival was held March 13-14 and March 20-21. Take a step back in time to Highland County, "Virginia's Switzerland." Travel back roads and see meandering mountain byways to the annual Highland Maple Festival held on the 2nd and 3rd weekends of March. The Maple Festival has been an annual event in Highland County, Virginia, since 1958. It began when the Highland County Chamber of Commerce decided to stage a small "open house" at a maple sugar camp to promote the county's quality maple syrup, drawing an attendance of 600. Subsequent years saw demonstrations of open-kettle maple syrup production, the crowning of a Maple Queenn, the showing of Tol'able David, a 90 miute silent movie filmed in Highland County in 1921, a six-mile run, and in 1983, the opening of a Maple Museum.
Today, more than 60,000 visitors to the Highland Maple Festival observe the entire syrup-making process, starting with the collection of "sugar water" (maple sap) and unspoiled, rural region of Virginia to celebrate the "opening" of the trees and observe the process of maple syrup-making. Sugar camp tours provide a unique and educational experience that portrays a rapidly vanishing way of American life. They enjoy regular and buckwheat pancakes smothered with Highland-produced maple syrup served by local restaurats, schools, and Ruritan Clubs, buy additional treats (maple-flavored donuts, funnel cakes, apple dumplings, barbecued chicken, locally harvested trout dinners) from local church and line dancers perform and attend a craft show representing 130 artists and craftspeople from nearby states and buy anatiques and listen to Blue Grass music. The Highland County Maple Festival has become as important to the county's cultural heritage as it has to the survival of the area's maple sugar industry.
Here's a rundown of syrupy facts:
Many of the county's syrup producers still gather syrup the old-fashioned way - by drilling a hole in the tree, inserting a tap and hanging a bucket to collect the drips.
The modern technique of tubing and vacuum extraction is another common way to collect sap. Some sugar camps use both methods.
Sap is boiled for hours in a flat pan called the evapaorator. Water evaporates from the sap, leaving behind srup. It takes almost 40 gallons of pure sap to make one gallon of syrup.
I have been to the Highland Maple Festival several time. I've visisted several sugar camps, Puffenbarger's Sugar Orchard, Rexrode's Sugar Orchard and Sugar Tree Country Store and Sugar House. The two Sugar Orchard are near each other but are very different. The Rexrodes use the old-fashioned "open pan" system of evaporation as well as the newer wood-fired evaporation method wth miles of plastic tubing to gather the sugar water. Puffenbarger's operation was more modern. The Puffenbargers have rebuilt their sugar camp following a devastating fire in 2008. Puffenbargers uses a vacuum pump to increase the flow of sugar water and miles of plastic tubing to make it easier to gather. The process of maple syrup making is started by reverse osmosis and finished by oil-fired evaporators. Sugar Tree Country Store is located in McDowell. You step back in time in this authentic mid-ninteenth century country store with brass cash register, pot-bellied stove, and other antiques. They specialize in pure Virginia Maple Products produced on the premises. These include maple-covered nuts, maple sugar candy, and maple cream as well as maple syrup. They use a modern reverse osmosis concentrator and oil-fired evaporator to make their maple syrup. I listened to the talk about maple syrup and how they make it. Then we found out that it was going to take an hour to get a dozen hot maple doughnuts so we decided to get the few that were left. We rushed to eat them while they were still hot. Next time the first thing I'll do is order the doughnuts!!
I couldn't bring home any extra maple doughnuts this year but I did bring home Virginia Highland Maple Syrup for myself to enjoy and some jugs to accompany our other Virgina gourmet treasures in our gift baskets.
I hope to return next year when Highland County comes alive once again for the Maple Festival.