Growing up, Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth’s were our go-to syrups for pancakes or waffles. An occasional trip to Vermont would yield a souvenir jug or bottle of real maple syrup. Our youthful and non-discerning palates were not impressed, and given the amount of syrup poured onto our pancakes along with the cost of that souvenir from Vermont, my mother didn’t force the real McCoy on us.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps during my years of teenage enlightenment, I learned that these commercially popular syrups were really just high-fructose corn syrup. I always assumed that they were blended with some real maple syrup, right? Nope, no real maple syrup—just maple flavoring and a whole lot of other manufactured ingredients. A little label reading reveals that Log Cabin “All-Natural” Syrup, which hit store shelves in 2010, does not contain high-fructose corn syrup and does contain 4 percent maple, along with caramel color, xanthan gum and so on. Moreover, to avoid any conflict regarding truth in labeling, these commercial syrups are not labeled “maple syrup”; instead they are called “table syrup,” “pancake syrup” or just “syrup.” If your sensibility and taste buds demand actual maple syrup, make sure the label says “pure maple syrup.” Maple syrup has only one ingredient: maple syrup. Period.
There is no disputing that Vermont is the largest producer of pure maple syrup in the United States. Any visit to the Green Mountain State demands a sweet and sticky souvenir bottle or jug. Locals might be surprised to learn that there is a farm in East Setauket that has been producing small quantities of maple syrup for over 30 years. Benner’s Farm is a 15-acre farm and family homestead located on the north shore of Suffolk County. The seventh family to farm this land since the 1700s, Jean and Bob Benner purchased the property in 1978. Benner’s Farm is a real working farm. The Benners, and their children, have been farming organically and raising livestock from the get-go. The farm also serves as an educational center. The Benners run a popular summer camp and numerous workshops focusing on the art of homesteading.
The Benner property was full of maple trees, and in 1979 they began tapping and making their own syrup. The young couple were eager homesteaders with mouths to feed. Maple syruping just seemed natural and, according to Bob, “is a really simple process.” In late winter, when the days start to warm (a bit), the buds on the maples begin to swell. That is the indication that it is time to tap the trees. The days of metal sap buckets hanging from tree trunks are gone. Today most of the Benners’ trees are tapped with plastic taps, called “spiles,” which run through a series of connecting tubes into large plastic containers. The collected sap, which is clear like water and tastes just slightly sweet, is boiled down in large flat pans over an open fire, reducing the quantity of water and increasing the sweetness. It is not maple syrup until the ratio of water to sugar shifts dramatically. So more boiling down is needed, and at this point the Benners bring the operation indoors, over a stove where the flame and temperature can be regulated. When the boiled-down sap reaches a temperature of 219 degrees, it is maple syrup. Boil the sap a little longer and it becomes maple candy. Ever wonder why real pure maple syrup is so expensive? Jean explained that it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. Easy does it on the pancakes!
Each winter the Benners open up their farm for their annual Maple Syruping Day. Visitors can walk through the farm and see everything from the tapping process to the boiling down of the sap and then taste the finished product served over freshly griddled pancakes. Jars of syrup labeled “Taste of Long Island, Maple Syrup” are available to purchase as is their luscious maple candy. Mark your calendars now: Maple Syruping Day at Benner’s Farm is scheduled for Saturday, February 21. Be forewarned, like in Vermont, the sap flows during mud season—wear your boots!