This weekend, Jennie and I sojourned across the hills of southern Indiana to the outskirts of Salem, where the Goering family hosts an annual Maple Syrup Festival. This was our fifth visit since moving to Bloomington in 2004. This was the first year I was able to find it without asking for directions, though we had our new androids at the ready if I got turned around in Salem.
The line of hungry festival goers trying to decide between pancakes, waffles, barbecue chicken, or pulled pork.
Though the fest's popularity has increased since we first went, it's still a family-run operation. They've tightened up a few things to accommodate the larger crowds. It's not all you can eat anymore - but how many times do you need to get a refill on waffles or pancakes loaded with syrup, ice cream, whipped cream and fruit? The popular tomahawk throw is also adequately supervised now.
A view of the grounds from the creek running beside them.
The festival takes place right next to the sugarbush where Leanne and Michael Goering produce their syrup, which is a dark, rich flavor due to the high mineral content in the soil. It's a little less sweet than lighter syrups, but I think it makes it even better. Seriously, once you get a taste of the real thing, you cannot go back to the "maple flavored" stuff. Jennie and I are really frugal people, but we've found that willingness to spend a bit more on things like maple syrup or spices improves the quality of our meals exponentially.
The festival grounds are sprinkled with tents where vendors sell locally made foodstuffs (we bought a jar of amazing spicy mustard from Localfolks Foods and it's raised our veggie burger game a lot), candles, baskets and the like. A local ranch also brings out angola goats and an alpaca who gamely puts up with the gawkers and photographers.
A local member of the Wyandotte tribe, Crooked Paw, is on hand to give demonstrations of the "stone age method" of making maple sugar, using a radically scaled-down version of a pre-Columbian sugar-producing operation (he uses a small log rather than a titanic forty- or fifty-footer a tribe would need to provide for everyone). He fills a cavity in the log with hot maple sap, partially cooked down to speed up the process, and proceeds to boil it down using large chunks of granite which have been heated in a fire.
Crooked Paw fills the log with sap.
Granite is heated in a fire to boil the sap.
Crooked Paw deftly immerses the stone in the sap.
The sap starts to bubblin'...
...until the stones are removed and the sugar crystallizes. Alternately, Crooked Paw said that sphagnum moss can be used to scoop out sap.
Taking place the last weekend of February and first weekend in March, there are some wild cards. Weather can be iffy - even this year, when La Niña gave us an unseasonably warm February, last Saturday was really chilly. But luckily, the ground wasn't soggy with snowmelt or rain this year. But the remoteness of the spot and the cold weather only add to the experience. This festival just wouldn't be the same in middle of summer. You need to be bundled up against the chill to really appreciate that warm syrup, and it makes you feel some small bit of empathy for the Native Americans, pioneers, and farmers for whom maple sugar must have been an even more precious treat.
One thing we've learned is that when we go to the festival, we're not going to be super-productive later in the day. After gorging on mapley goodness and driving an hour and a half back to Bloomington, it's nap-time, so it's best to not expect to get work done. But once that's over, it's time to start figuring out how we want to use up that pint of Grade B Dark syrup throughout the year.