In the final days of winter, Garrett County’s woods sound like a leaky faucet. An ever-present drip begins slowly at dawn; by mid afternoon, it’s a persistent staccato. Ice slips from branches, mountains of snow compress and recede, and streams turn into rivers. In this rush of solid becoming liquid, a quieter metamorphosis emerges. It is the song of the maple trees.
Sunshine coaxes sweet sap to rise, while frosty nights send it back into hibernation. It’s this ephemeral cycle, the run of sap, that lures generations of farmers in western Maryland to trudge through the chilly woods with drills in hand to embrace the season of sugar.
The tools may be different these days—cordless drills replace hand-turned augers; metal spiles are sturdier than those once carved from elderberry branches; plastic tubing, not wooden buckets, now transports sap—but what the trees offer remains the same: a watery nectar that, when boiled down, expresses the taste of terroir.
Garrett County’s maple syrup has its own distinctive flavors, depending upon whose stand of trees is tapped and how the sap is flowing each day. Syrup from Oakland’s Steyer Brothers Farm, in the southern end of the county, has deep, woodsy notes; up in Friendsville, the Enlow farm makes a brighter, more delicate product.
Farming families relish the annual tradition, which comes during a magical time to be outdoors, when the end-of-winter light catches the crystals of melting snow.
“When the sun comes out, it’s so beautiful,” says Annetta Enlow. “It means spring is almost here.”
Enlow and her husband, Charles, began making syrup for commercial sale in 2010. Theirs was the first new sugar camp to be licensed in the state in decades.
When Charles was young, his family made syrup for personal use, boiling the sap from their grove of ancient maples in a big outdoor kettle as they’d done for 10 generations on this farm.
“Charles’ great-aunt Mary grew up on the farm and used to complain about her dresses getting wet when they gathered the sap buckets by horse and sleigh,” recalls Annetta. “It was a lot of work back then.”
Which is why, for decades, the trees sat untapped until the Enlows built a modern facility that took away the need for a 24-hour patrol to stoke the fire and watch the sap.
The Steyer family, which has been in the maple-syrup business for more than a century, modernized in some ways by using plastic tubing for collecting and a reverse-osmosis process of evaporation. But the farm’s sugar camp still has earthen floors, and the sap is boiled by firewood.
It’s a place for extended family to gather and reminisce in the sweet warmth of simmering sap. This tradition has shaped the landscape for hundreds of years, from the time when Garrett County’s mountains were home to some of the largest maple-syrup operations in the United States.
A handful of families still tap trees for their own use, but the heart of the nation’s syrup production has since moved northward to Vermont. Still, the seasonal alchemy of turning sap to syrup remains enchanting—ripe with memories for older generations, and so sweet for the youngest.
“When the sap is running and we’re boiling, it’s a family adventure,” says Annetta. “We have a cot in the sugar shack for the kids to take naps and we bring games to play. It’s just a nice time to all be together.”
For more information on the Steyer Brothers Farm, call 301-334-2900. Contact the Enlow farm at 301-746-5234. And to learn about the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual maple-sugaring events, visit www.dnr.state.md.us.
Recipe - Maple Quick Bread
A not-just-for-breakfast treat
Maple syrup’s no stranger to the morning meal, but add it to this quick, simple bread, and it’s transformed into a delicious any-time-of-day treat!
Maple Quick Bread
1/3 c. milk
1 c. plain yogurt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 c. pure maple syrup
1 lemon, juiced
2 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the milk, yogurt, egg, maple syrup, and lemon juice. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, spices, and nuts. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the milk mixture until combined. Do not overbeat. Pour into a greased 5x9-inch loaf pan. Bake 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
*Adapted from allrecipes.com.