Maple, Berries, Pumpkin, and Pine
As winter marches on, I’ve been fending off cabin fever by planning my garden beds, alphabetizing my seed packets, and eating my way through the last of my stockpile of winter squash, canned tomatoes and frozen herbs. Still, it will be months before I can enjoy the bounty of my backyard vegetable patch once again.
But all over Vermont, other people are getting ready to harvest the earliest crop of the season: maple syrup. Trees are being tapped, buckets hung, tubes checked, and as the days lengthen and the air thaws, the sap starts to run. I won’t pretend to know too much about the ins and outs of how this magic elixir is harvested, but if the day comes in my lifetime where we can no longer reasonably import sugar and spice and everything nice from near the equator (I’ll miss you coffee), I feel very lucky to live near people who know how to make maple syrup.
Those people include the family that owns Aither’s Ridgetop Farm just around the way from our house in North Hyde Park. The Aither family sells maple syrup and candies from a little shop attached to their sugar shack tucked into the bottom of a hillside at the top of Ferry Street. At Christmastime they do a small but brisk business selling Christmas trees in their driveway, fresh cut from the acres behind their house. “We just sell what we want to sell until it runs out, and then we close up shop,” Joan Aither tells me. As a lifelong city dweller until plopping down roots here in northern Vermont at age 37, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the magic of having a Christmas tree that was grown in a forest practically in my backyard. Not my metaphorical back yard. My actual backyard.
Last year, after the mud season had finally dried up into early summer, I put my daughter in her stroller and pushed her up the road the ten minutes to the Aithers’ house. Joan met me in the driveway and opened up the maple shop to sell me a half gallon of Grade A syrup which I have been enjoying ever since with everything from oatmeal to waffles to pie. On the way home I checked out the seedlings for sale in another neighbor’s front yard; squash, zucchini, and pumpkin sprouts which re-appeared a few months later as crates of vegetables for sale at 50-cents a piece and some of the largest pumpkins I’ve ever seen peeking out from a tangle of vines near their hen house.
Vermont is fiercely proud of its home grown, home brewed, home crafted goods, as well we should be. We’re home to some of the best beer, cheese and ice cream in the nation, and thanks to the state’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, total local food sales in Vermont has increased from 5% of total food purchases in 2010 to 12.9% in 2017. As an enthusiastic -- pardon the term -- localvore, I’ve come to appreciate the small ways in which I can shop locally even in my tiny village. And it’s not just supporting local businesses, but supporting the land itself and the crops that are lovingly coaxed out of the earth by my neighbors. It’s also shed light on how the “shop local” mantra, while good and important, is an absurd 21st century idea that reflects just how out of balance our economy has become. A hundred years ago, shopping locally was so much the norm that the concept probably wouldn’t have even made sense if you uttered it. Think about that.
But my favorite hyper-local product is the blackberries that burst forth from the thorny hedge in our backyard every July. Daily picking was easier last season with a little helper, my year and a half old daughter working her way down the hedge plucking the low hanging berries and smashing them straight into her mouth, fingers stained purple and juicy. I froze gallons of berries all summer, and now with the berry hedge buried in snow, I’m still enjoying the fresh taste of summer in my daily breakfast along with the sweet maple syrup crafted right up the road. Here’s my recipe for overnight oats, which is like a gift you can give to your morning self that only takes a couple minutes to prepare. Any kind of berries will do, fresh, frozen or dried.
Overnight Oats with Local Sweet Things
½ cup old fashioned oats
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon chia seeds or hemp hearts (for a healthy dose of omega 3s)
1 tablespoon maple syrup
a small handful of frozen blackberries
Combine all of the above in a mason jar. Put on the lid. Stick it in the fridge until morning. Stir, enjoy.