A Year in Review

CranesJanuary was spent trying to finish my thousand cranes – a resolution I make every year and never quite finish.  I figure a couple more years and they will be done.  I do recommend this to any and everyone.  It’s simple to do and is one of the most meditative things I have ever done.

130227(5)The weather was wintry and exquisitely beautiful.  Each and every storm left behind a landscape that screamed to be walked through on snowshoes and photographed.  The quiet that goes along with weather is restorative and I always look forward to a snowstorms aftermath.

corned-beef-cabbageSt. Patrick’s Day will be one of the most important days of the calendar year to me now, not because I’m Irish but because it was the day I talked to Scott for the first time.  Given up for adoption in 1972 I had come to regard this moment as something that may never happen.  I had left information on a website and through a convoluted chain of events was contacted through an intermediary.  The rest of this year has been spent with each of us getting to know our new family members, a blessing in so, so many ways.

130407 Sugar (3)Sugaring this year was amazing although the snow was rather deep in the beginning.  A lot of work gathering those buckets without the aid of snowshoes.  It makes up for it when we boil and smell that hot maple goodness wafting through the sugar house.

IMG_20130511_104220Spring came in its normal time this year, no hot spells or odd cold snaps and the pear tree was happy.

130609 Throw (2)I made my first overshot throw in wool and discovered a passion for weaving that far and away exceeds any other handwork I have ever done.  My grandfather had wanted me to weave I think, I have a faint recollection of receiving a small, plastic kids loom when I was very young but without someone to teach me.  This has been a special journey with a connection to just about every member of my family.

131225 (4)Every morning the weather cooperates this is what I look at as I drink my first cup of coffee.  There is nothing like walking out the door in your pajamas and sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking your land.  Day to day the view is different, each having its own beauty.  I feel very, very blessed to have this be such a big part of my life.  It’s grounding.

130817 Heath Fair (3)The end of summer brings with it the fairs.  I took full advantage this year.  Heath Fair is one of my favorites with something for everyone.  I also had some validation with winning a blue ribbon for my weaving.

130818 Wood (4)Wood, wood, wood, we cut and split a lot of wood.  It’s best when it’s like this – family all gathered to make it all go quicker and easier.  It’s also more fun.  Everyone pitched in and Chester thought is was awesome.

130818 Percys PointChester started swimming this summer.  He is a very hot dog when the weather is warm but loves playing fetch more than anything.  This was the perfect solution.  He was a bit of a panic swimmer the first day but after that he looked forward to coming to this spot each and every day we were in Rowe, sometimes twice a day.  He is an amazing animal.

130915 (2)My garden had its issues this year but my popcorn, the experiment of the year was a complete success.  There is no better feeling than finding out there is something new you can grow that’s beautiful and functional.

130904 (1)I went to Belfast, Maine to Fiber College this year and spent quality time with old and new friends and ate lobster every day.  It was a fiber weekend for some but for me it was more about photography.  I need to be alone to do my best work and I came away with images that were everything I wanted them to be.  It was also a time to reminisce about childhood, we spent many summers up this way while I was growing up and I hadn’t been here in a good 30 years.

Red Tree

This autumn the foliage was more beautiful than I had seen it in years.  So many of my friends shared exquisite images of scenes right out their front doors that were breathtaking. Photography slows me down and forces me to look at the details.  The photograph above of the red tree was taken almost at dark.  I drove by it in the center of town, said wow to myself and kept driving.  By the time I got to the bottom of the hill I turned around to capture this.  In my head I initially said “Oh, just take it tomorrow” but a few hundred feet down the road I realized that it wouldn’t be there.  Those are the best photographs, the ones that catch that fleeting moment.

131114 SunsetThis fall I saw some of the most amazing sunsets ever.  Enfield never looked so good under these vibrant skies.  This particular evening it seemed that everyone I knew posted a photograph from a different place.  It was like the sky made everyone stop whatever they were doing to watch.  It’s comforting to know that the people I love were all looking at the sky at almost the same time and then sending what they saw to others.

131129 Bonfire (2)Thanksgiving weekend was about family, our immediate family.  What is usually a crowd was just Bill, me and the two girls, our nuclear family.  It was the first time in so many years that it was just us and it was wonderful.  It’s probably the most difficult thing to experience – the loss of your children to adulthood.  The best time of our lives was raising our girls and they have both turned into amazing, remarkable women.  It was good to have the opportunity to have them all to ourselves.  For a treat Bill built an amazing bonfire to share with them and a couple of their cousins.

131225 (3)Christmas has come and gone, although the remnants are still in the house.  A few decorations will return to their boxes in a week or so and life will begin its new cycle.  There aren’t any resolutions this year for me other than to absorb the gifts around me.  The time seems to go by so fast each year it leaves me breathless.  I will spend the winter months planning the garden, weaving and cooking for the people I love.  I will follow in the rhythm of the seasons and work the way I do for each year.  It may seem a little dull but planning my life around what’s growing or the weather is the most comfortable way for me to live at this moment in time, you just roll with it.  I take every moment spent with the people I love and savor it like a fine wine.  Those times of love and laughter are what sustains me through any other trials that come along.  The simplicity of it is all I need.


Bacon Jam

Bacon JamThis holiday season we will be attending a wine and cheese event given by Bill’s cousin.  He is kind of a foodie so I decided to make a batch of Bacon Jam to bring along with a bottle of wine.  I can’t imagine this not going well with cheese – or a cheeseburger or an english muffin or toast or your morning waffle or pancake.  This stuff is gold.

It all begins with a trip to Pekarski Sausage in South Deerfield.  They don’t have a website so I added a link to the reviews on Yelp.  This is a wonderful family owned business that makes artisan smoked meats and sausages.  We always have a stock in the freezer and somehow something makes it’s way into one of our meals on a weekly basis.

This is what I picked up – bacon, beautiful, lean bacon. One and a half pounds.  I picked up a smoked Cornish Game Hen as well for dinner with sister Sue.

Bacon Jam (1)The bacon was cut into one inch pieces.

Bacon Jam (2)

And cooked in a large skillet until the fat was rendered and it started to brown.

Bacon Jam (3)Meanwhile I diced two medium large yellow onions and smashed and peeled 4 cloves of garlic.  The recipe called for three but they were small and who ever heard anyone say “Wow, too much garlic”. Never happens in this family.

Bacon Jam (5)When the bacon was done I took it out of the pan with a slotted spoon and let it drain on paper towels.  Can you just smell this?  Awesome, as bacon always is.

Bacon Jam (7)The fat was drained (to be used for other cooking) and the onions and garlic cooked in about a tablespoon of fat left in the pan.  This smells pretty heavenly too.

Bacon Jam (8)The rest of the ingredients were assembled as the onions cooked to a translucent golden color.  Maple syrup, brown sugar, cider vinegar and coffee all go into the mix.

Bacon Jam (9)The pan is deglazed with the liquids and once it comes to a boil the bacon is returned to the pan.

And then it simmers slowly.

And simmers.

And simmers, filling the air with the complexity of all these ingredients.

It simmered through dinner and 6 rounds of Yahtzee with my sister.

It cooked for almost two hours until the liquid was reduced to a thick syrup consistency.

Bacon Jam (11)It then cools until lukewarm and is put into a food processor until chopped very fine.  All those ingredients melded together into a spread just waiting for your imagination.

Bacon Jam (12)This made a little less than three cups.  I filled two canning jars and one will be staying in the refrigerator for our holiday enjoyment and the other will travel as a gift to the host.  The recipe can be found at Leite’s Culinaria – my go to for great recipes of all kinds.

Now onto the Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies – don’t turn up your nose, they are spectacular!










130615 BlueberriesThe rain has stopped – for now.  In doing my morning walk about I noticed how well the fruit on the property was doing.  The blueberry bushes are loaded this year, last year I didn’t get a single berry.  It warmed up to abnormal temperatures in February 1012.  A week or more of 70’s and 80’s fooled every early flowering plant, tree and shrub into thinking spring had arrived early.  The temperature then dropped to below freezing (where it should be that time of year) and froze every blossom on the fruiting trees and shrubs.  It also completely messed up our sugaring season.  In 2011 we made well over 100 gallons of maple syrup, in 2012 maybe 30. Our pear tree had 3 pears, the deer ate two and my sister picked the last one.

Losing your entire fruit crop is distressing in many ways.  You’ve already made plans for what you are going to put up based on previous years and suddenly you realize there will not be any fruit of any kind.  This year the pear tree is loaded once again and I’m making plans for what to do with the hundreds that will be available (barring any extreme weather event from now until frost).  I often wonder about people who plant 5 or 6 of a kind of fruit tree.  This one tree, in a good year, produces enough for a few families to eat fresh and preserve. I find that at times it has really stressed me out because I feel like I’m wasting good food by not putting more up but honestly you can only do so much.  The deer eat the drops and the ones hanging from the lower branches. I try to give them away.

I have to say that one of the favorite games for the dogs involves that pear tree.  When the fruit starts to drop onto the ground we go down to the tree and I toss the pears as far as I can in rapid succession in different directions.  Buddy will chase a couple, then settle down to eat one.  Sophie will run after one, tag it and run back.  Chester will fetch them all day long, every so often taking a bite out of it but always bringing it back and dropping it at my feet.  The only problem is he likes the game so much that he continually goes out in the field and brings pears up to the driveway and the lawn.  A lot of fun when you’re mowing the grass.

130615 PearFruit is always a long term endeavor.  I planted a row of raspberry plants that Carmen had given me last year.  I got a couple of berries in July (I probably would have picked more but caught Chester picking them, apparently he finds them tasty as well).  This year the patch is twice as large – raspberries propagate readily sending shoots up all over the place once the plants get going.  I will probably have enough berries for a couple of pies and maybe a small batch of jam.  I transplanted more canes this spring doubling the number I had.  I’m looking forward to a crop large enough to put up for the winter.  Now that I can see the potential for this patch of fruit I’m happy that I did it.

Growing these types of long term crops can be a difficult decision to make.  You always have to create a new bed for them and put it in a place that you know will be dedicated to that fruit.  Trees are the same way and even longer term considering how slowly they grow and the years it can take before they bear fruit.  Once that tree is planted it has to stay there, that’s a commitment.  I planted a bed of asparagus this year at the end of my vegetable garden knowing full well that it will effect how I till for years to come.  I will not be able to eat anything from this bed for another two years but once it’s going I could potentially have a healthy asparagus crop for another thirty.  I’ll take that and leave it to my kids.



Season’s End

130407 Sugar (1)Bill, Carmen and Russell gathered sap Saturday morning on what turned out to be a very nice day.  The estimate of sap was over 700 gallons.  The RO was started and the waiting began.  Russell was firing up the rig when we arrived around 3:00.

Boiling sap requires a lot of waiting and watching with moments of intensity.  Russ has a lot of new electronic gadgets that we whine about but in reality it does make boiling easier.  This year was a stack thermometer that lets you know when you need to stoke the fire.

130407 Sugar (3)At the top of the above photo is a piece of equipment that is the automatic draw.  This opens a valve on the pan that lets the syrup out into a pail when it’s the right sugar content.  A lot of testing goes on when you first begin the process.  Once you know the specific gravity of the syrup for that particular day the temperature is set. Russell tweaks it most of the afternoon always going for the best syrup possible.

130407 Sugar (4)Bill doing his job as fireman.  Poking and stoking.  We burn slabs from a local sawmill – it looks like it’s mostly pine and hemlock – don’t quote me on that though.  It is HOT in that sugarhouse once everything has been going for a while.  The stack thermometer was over 1,000 degrees a number of times.

130407 Sugar (2)Waiting and watching.  As the syrup is drawn off it is filtered and put into a holding tank.  The tank holds about 12 gallons of syrup and has a gas burner underneath it that enables us to heat it up for canning.

130407 Sugar (5)Russell is putting the fire out at the end of the boil.  There is a stainless tank in the sugarhouse with a clear hose so you can see when you are coming to the end of the sap.  You need to get that fire out and stop the process before your sap runs out or you will burn your pan.  I always feel it’s a little bit of a panic at the end, you want to boil all you can but not enough to wreck your equipment.  Tensions always begin to rise as boiling comes to an end.

As the filtering is done and the holding tank is filled we begin to put the syrup in bottles.  It’s not until you’ve canned every drop that you tally up what you did for the day.  The old record was 22 gallons in one day, Saturday we did a little over 23.  It is also some of the nicest syrup we’ve ever produced.  While Carmen and I canned Russ cleaned up.  Everything is washed down at the end of the session, it’s kind of a sticky mess but the sugar just melts away with water.  We finished everything at 8:15.

130407 Sugar (6)Any one interested?  Think pancakes, waffles and french toast, yum.  Quarts are $16, pints $10 plus shipping.  Once you’ve had this you will never go back.  We consider ourselves pure maple syrup snobs.


Boiling Sap

130331 First Boil


I wish I could send the smell of boiling maple syrup to everyone reading this post.  It is truly my favorite part of making it.  You are engulfed in maple steam the whole time, it’s wonderful.

Easter Sunday was the first day Bill and I boiled sap with Russell.  Bill and Russ had gathered the buckets the day before and the reverse osmosis machine had done its thing while we shared an Easter dinner with family.  We lit the fire at about 3:00 and finished at 5:30 making 8 gallons of syrup.  Russ says he needs more taps now that he has the r.0.  I think he’s right.  Having so much of the water removed from the sap before we start to boil has cut the time to make syrup in half.  We talked about how boiling used to take us hours.  We’d start at 2:00 in the afternoon and maybe, just maybe be cleaning up at 1:00 in the morning.

There have been so many improvements in the equipment over the years that just make it easier than it used to be.  When we sugared years ago the men that boiled could tell when it was ready by how it flowed off of their scoops.  Now there are so many different ways of measuring the sugar content of your syrup I think the art of making syrup may be lost, now it’s manufacturing.  Well, almost.  It’s still a lot of work.

So after canning up our hot syrup and taking it away we got a call from Russell telling us he’s picking up all of the syrup we’d brought away with us – factory recall.  It was cloudy so it would have to be heated and re-filtered.  We were running blind in the filtering department with vague instructions Carmen had left behind when she went to work (she’s the expert).  So back it went and our anxious customers will have to wait another week for their dose of fresh maple syrup.

Gathering Sap – First Day of the Season

130309 Gathering (22)

We gathered sap for the first time this past Saturday.  The day was gloriously warm – over 50 degrees.  As you can see by the muddy road spring suddenly sprung.


130309 Gathering (2)

Bill is pouring the sap gathered from the buckets on the trees into a tank behind the tractor (driving the tractor was my job).


130309 Gathering (5)


We started gathering just as the sun was going down.  I’m not sure how many taps there were where there were buckets.  Most of Russel’s sugarbush has pipeline.


130309 Gathering (13)

This gather was particularly difficult because the trees were tapped before the last snowstorm so the walking was difficult.


130309 Gathering (12)


Especially since the town had winged back the snow banks.  Does this look like fun?!?  Although Russell wearing his florescent hunting gloves gave us fodder for ridicule.  You always need something to laugh about when you’re doing something this tedious.


130309 Gathering (6)


The buckets were only about a quarter full on every tree so you didn’t really feel like you were accomplishing a lot.


130309 Gathering (9)


It was getting darker and I was wondering if we would be doing this in complete darkness before long.


130309 Gathering (11)


But as we continued to say, many hands make light work.  If we thought about how long it would have taken with two people doing it this didn’t seem that bad.


130309 Gathering (16)


The photo of the tractor doesn’t really tell you how dark it was – there should be complete darkness with the headlights showing.

The tank was probably a quarter full when we finished but Russ and Bill pumped the sap from the other storage tanks on the pipeline into the sugarhouse and it was enough to fill the rig and check for leaks.  The first boil is a little more stressful than the rest because you don’t really know what kind of issues will crop up.  The equipment is only used for maybe a month once a year, stuff happens.

Sunday was even warmer than Saturday but the sap still isn’t running strong yet.  It may be that the snow is really insulating the feet of the trees, so as the snow melts the sap will run more.  We’re looking forward to a nice long season this year.


Sugar House on Fort Pelham Farm (2)

The forecast for the weather today is very mild – they say in the 40’s.  When that happens in January I always start thinking about maple sugaring.  Bill and I sugar with our friends Russ and Carmen in the next town over.  We do it because it is a really fun time (most of the time) and gives you a real sense of accomplishment.  Russell and his son started laying the pipeline last weekend.  Things will be ready when the time comes to tap the trees.

The photograph above was the sugar house that was in the back of the house in Rowe.  There are still remnants of the metal equipment that they used out in the wood lot  although I confess I personally have not seen them. I’ve walked to that area a few times but what was once a sugarbush is now over grown with huge pine trees.

In the middle to late 1800’s there was a lot of maple sugar made on Fort Pelham Farm.  The first record of it was in the 1860 Farm Census where 700 lbs of sugar was recorded for that year.  1860 holds the record for the most maple sugar ever made in the U.S.  One of the reasons being this was the ramp up to the civil war and people were boycotting cane sugar due to slavery.  They replaced a lot of that cane sugar with maple.  In 1870 they produced 300 pounds and in 1880 they produced 450.  I am assuming that pounds of sugar was both syrup and sugar but it may have all been sugar.  Until 1860 there were only wooden spouts to tap the trees and iron pots to boil the sap in.  The process involved a number of pots at various stages of boiling so instead of having an automated draw down to syrup as we have today they were manually transferring sap from pot to pot until it reach the sugar stage that they were looking for.  When I read that 700 lbs. of sugar was made it came as a huge surprise just considering the amount of work that is involve.

So I decided to do some math.

On the average, it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of pure maple syrup.  One tap hole in each maple tree gives 10 gallons of sap in an average year. So, 4 maple trees, 40 to 200 years old, are needed to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.  Some trees have more than one tap but all should be over 10 inches in diameter.

Maple sap is 2% sugar and weighs 8.35 lbs. per gallon.

Maple syrup is 66.9% sugar and weighs 11 lbs per gallon.

One gallon of maple syrup makes 7 lbs of maple sugar.

All I can say is wow.  The best year we ever had was 2 years ago because it was a long season.  We made 130 gallons of syrup.  We had 1,000 taps on pipeline and about 200 buckets.  We used a reverse osmosis rig to take a lot of the water out of the sap before we even started to boil it.  We burn slabs from a local sawmill and the fire is stoked every 4 minutes – yes, every 4 minutes.  I’m not sure how much wood we burned.

They were just using buckets to catch the sap.  Each bucket had to be emptied at least once a day by a person, stored and boiled.  They must have been boiling 24 hours a day everyday throughout the season.  At the time on the farm they had two oxen which I’m sure were worked gathering sap.  Fortunately the season is short.

Then I remembered a conversation Bill and I had a couple of weeks ago about the amount of wood it would have taken to heat the house.  We figured anywhere from 15 to 20 cord a year.  Add to that whatever they needed to make maple sugar and these men had to have been doing nothing but cutting wood year round – with saws, axes and mauls and those oxen. This is why they tell you that you could see to the ocean from Western Mass.  Every tree had been cut down and burned by the time 1880 came around, that’s when people began burning coal.

People always ask me why the price of syrup is so high and I always tell them how much work is involved in it.  I don’t think we even get enough to justify any of our time, we do it because we love it.  I can’t imagine thinking it was fun half way through the season in 1860.

Sugar Orchard at Fort Pelham Farm (2)