The Sweet Life Of A Maple Farmer

Here in Nova Scotia, holiday flavor is tapped from the trees.

December 7, 2015
sugar shack
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH CECIL

It’s a chilly December morning and I’m in the farmhouse kitchen, where a fire blazes in the big stone hearth. By my side is a jug of my favorite holiday ingredient: maple syrup. It goes into everything. I pour it in the braise for a hefty pork butt, where it enriches the meat. I whip lashings of syrup into beet and apple soup. I blend it into the batter for a fluffy maple cake, which sits beneath a thick cream cheese frosting that resembles the winter-white landscape outside. 

On the slopes outside the windows, the gray, notched trunks of sugar maples rise from the snowdrifts, lassoed by tubing that collects the sap. Wood for the season is stacked high behind a log-framed shack, where, inside, the huge sugaring vat sits cold, waiting for spring when a wood fire will boil down gallons of sap. It’s not my sap; I didn’t tap it. I’m a city guy, with years under my belt on restaurant lines and a demanding teaching job at a Halifax culinary school. But for more than a decade, this farm has been my home base—for a day or two—while I cook a Christmas feast for my friends Quita Gray and Scott Whitelaw at Sugar Moon, their maple syrup farm and restaurant in the Cobequid Hills of northern Nova Scotia. 

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shoeshoeing
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH CECIL

Sugar Moon makes pure maple syrup, and though the product they create isn’t certified as such, Quita and Scott rely heavily on organic practices. They maintain a diverse forest where no herbicides or pesticides are used, and their tapping practices, using smaller-than-usual spouts, are designed to be gentle on the trees. Tradition is important to them, too; they boil and finish their syrup using an old-style hardwood fire rather than gas or oil. And since they sell their syrup right here on the farmstead and most of their customers live within a 2-hour drive, there’s an uncomplicated sense of trust, of community, about this place. The frosted winter bones of the woods can make the landscape feel bleak, but the farmhouse kitchen is toasty and friendly.   

There's an uncomplicated sense of trust about this place.

Meals at Sugar Moon revolve around organic and local foods from small farms in this part of Canada. Quita and Scott bring in beans from a nearby coffee roaster, the vegetables are from a friend’s farm, and the organic grains are sourced from Speerville Flour Mill in New Brunswick. I use their stone-ground whole wheat flours in the biscuits, where they lend great creamy flavor. 

Related: Sugar Moon Biscuits

maple candy
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH CECIL

Cooking on a maple farm has also taught me about syrup as an ingredient. There’s a seasonality to the maple. The lightest iterations are made in the early weeks of tapping, when the sap is running almost clear. I appreciate the vanilla-like appeal of these golden grades and the brown sugar toastiness of a midseason amber, which is well suited for a treat that Canadians call sugar on snow: You ladle boiled syrup onto clean snow, where it hardens into a knob of burnished maple candy. But for this meal, I cook with darker syrup. Made from sap tapped at the end of the season, it has molasses notes that evoke Christmas for me. It makes me want to play with spices like cinnamon and cloves—flavors I put into a maple-braised pork shoulder. My mother was an expert at braising meats, so this rustic dish spells home to me.   

 

Come nightfall, friends will raise their glasses to the holiday.

The pork works tremendously with the syrup. A deeply brown caramelized sear gives its own dusky sweetness to the meat, and maple lends weight to that flavor, while the resinous notes from fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme round out the slight woodiness of the syrup. At the same time, the syrup can balance out the brightness in the apple-and-beet soup and amplify the depth of red wine in a compound butter I serve with maple-laced biscuits. The maple pairs naturally, too, with the earthy, peppery carrots and other root vegetables that I roast as a complement to the pork. A palate-cleansing pear-and-quince sorbet will round out the meal.

 

Related: Maple-Braised Pork Butt With Roasted-Vegetable Hodgepodge

dog in the snow
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH CECIL

I’m lucky to have hours to spare here, so I finish up my prep work early. As a professional chef, I don’t always have the luxury to enjoy what I do; often, I put my head down and just go, go, go. But at Sugar Moon, cooking is a peaceful, joyful process. I work at my own pace. I relax. There’ll be time before the meal starts to say hello to the guests I’m cooking for. The adjacent dining room is ready for them. Fir garlands weave across the tables and hang over the doors and windows. Come nightfall, the room will fill with laughter, and this group of friends will raise their glasses to the holiday. Light from votives set on the communal tables will spill from the windows out into the snowy darkness. Its glow will have a golden, almost syrupy cast, as, inside, dinner is served and people dig in. 

As told to Melissa Buote