The view up the muddy, puddled, tree-lined lane could be a scene in Vermont. In the 1950s.
But it's northern Allegheny County, this past Sunday morning.
Here in rural West Deer, the still, snow-pocked woods of evergreens and naked hardwoods seems much farther away from metro Pittsburgh than a mere 15 miles.
Hanging on some of the trunks on either side of Tree Haven Lane are curious metal buckets, like things you've seen in old books.
And near the far end of the lane is a rough-hewn wooden shed. Blue smoke pours from a pipe on top, and from an opening in the green metal roof rise puffs of steam.
It is the picture of a "sugar shack" -- a traditional structure for boiling down maple sap into maple syrup.
And that's exactly what's happening on this balmy morning in early March, which, as it has been for decades, is maple syrup season.
"This is prime time," says a grinning Dan Wingard around 10 a.m. Dressed in a down vest over his canvas shirt, blue jeans and hiking boots, the burly 56-year-old is busy stoking a 6-foot-long steel contraption called an evaporator named "The Lightning" with firewood from his 5-acre spread.
Flowing through that machine is some of the 380 gallons of maple sap he collected the day before from his 360 buckets -- those things on the trees -- spread over his property and his neighbors' land (he "pays" them with quarts of syrup).
This time of year, when it's below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, the sap starts flowing from the roots to the tips of the trees.
Some of it drips from taps, or spiles, that he's pushed into the maples earlier in winter (he's done this in snowshoes), into covered buckets that hang from the taps. In a stand with a bunch of buckets, after he's just emptied them, the Ping! Ping! Ping! of the sap dripping is a faint symphony of varying tones, until the buckets begin to fill, and they can fill fast.
He expected to be busy at least into this weekend collecting watery, crystal-clear sap and transforming it into thicker, amber syrup.
Plenty of other Western Pennsylvanians are, too, especially in the northwest corner of the state, north of Interstate 80, and southeast of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands of Somerset County. Maple syrup has been made in these woods going back to the natives and the early settlers; in World War II, when sugar was scarce, farmers made a little extra money making maple syrup and sugar.
Mr. Wingard is one of 95 members of the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Producers Association, but is one of only two in Allegheny County. (His O'Hara neighbor and fellow member Joe Zgurzynski, a master beekeeper and honey producer, is in his third season of making syrup and aims to make 10 gallons this year. He sells his at Cafe Latte in Indiana Township; he also plans to sell at the Fox Chapel Farmers Market; contact him via countrybarnfarm.com.)
They're part of making Pennsylvania the usually fifth maple-producing state, depending on the season. Last year, the state produced 96,000 gallons of the 1,908,000 gallons made in the U.S.
This is not Mr. Wingard's full-time job. It's nobody's full-time job, because as soon as the weather warms up for good, the sap run is done, and that's all the syrup anyone's going to make for another year.
Mr. Wingard's paying job is in the engineering department of West Penn Hospital. He and his family moved out to these woods 23 years ago, and has been making maple syrup for seven or eight years, he says, "four seriously."
He started out just for kicks, boiling sap in a turkey fryer, standing outside his house. His first year, he used $40 worth of propane. His yield: 1 1/2 quarts of syrup, the amount a 10-year-old can pour on his short stack.
Mr. Wingard kept at it, sometimes standing outdoors and tending the fire from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. "It was brutal," he says with a grin. "I was bound and determined to make a lot of syrup."
He gradually improved his equipment, buying the used evaporator and used dairy holding tank and milking buckets, as well as the pre-made shed to hold it all. Using his engineering know-how, he built into his system some modern conveniences, such as a reverse-osmosis filter that removes some of the water before the sap hits the evaporator, saving him time and firewood. He put in some other accoutrements -- a sink and a propane stove -- so he could be licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture office just down the hill. He hasn't gone as high-tech as some big operations, which connect their taps to plastic tubing that flows automatically to their sugar shacks.
"I'll tell you how much I have invested in this," he says, "but I won't tell my wife."
That would be Drucie, who, like most of his family, thinks he's a little -- you know. She stays up at the house, leaving him to soak up the woodsmoke and the faintest mapleness of the boiling syrup in his sweet man cave. "Once in a while, she'll bring me a sandwich down."
Any way you cut it, it takes 40 to 60 gallons of sap (about 8 percent sugar) to make a gallon of syrup (about 67 percent sugar). Especially when you're tapping red maples like he is, instead of the sweetest sugar maples. "I wish they were sugar maples," he says, but he points out that people tap silver and other types of maples, too.
Working around his day job, wearing a headlamp so he can see in the dark, he empties the metal buckets, many of them indeed antiques, into two 5-gallon plastic buckets. Those he empties into a tank on the back of his Kawasaki ATV, and when that's full, he pumps the contents into the big stainless steel holding tank on one side of his shed.
These days he aims to make 50 gallons a year. It's the collecting of the sap that's the work. "It's a good workout, too."
After the sap has boiled down and he's filled several 5-gallon milking buckets with amber syrup, he filters it and heats it and pours it into glass jars, on which he affixes the deer heads-adorned labels he and his son designed for "Deer Creek Maple Products."
Named for a community that's now just a nearby crossroads, and a creek that this time of year gushes with snow melt, this syrup is about as local as local food gets. Especially seeing as how it's carried, for now, by just two little stores: Wagner's Market in Hampton (724-443-3777) and Dave's Country Meats in Valencia (724-898-3280).
Mr. Wingard is not getting rich, even though the price of maple syrup can be rather dear. He sells his bottles for $8 for 8 ounces and $10 for 12 ounces. Besides selling it at work and by word-of-mouth, he goes (with jars of his maple cream and honey mustard and even maple nuts) to some farmers markets and craft fairs, where these days especially, lots of people never have tasted real maple syrup.
Heck, when their kids were at home and they were making pancakes on Sunday morning, the Wingards served Aunt Jemima corn syrup, too. Even now, Mr. Wingard doesn't profess any romance for the taste of maple. He's just smitten with making it. He smiles even when he talks about burning two batches last season and having to clean the evaporator (cocktails were involved).
Many of his customers are surprised to learn he made this maple syrup and made it right here in Western Pennsylvania.
Sometimes, he is, too.
Patting the peeling bark of one big red maple he's tapped for six seasons and plans to tap for many more, he points out each healed hole. From the new one drips sap -- Ping! Ping! Ping! -- as the maple wakes up from winter.
"It's kind of neat," he says quietly. "That you can get something like that from a tree."
Contact Dan Wingard of Deer Creek Maple Products at 724-444-1096 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Salmon with Maple, Orange and Herb Glaze a la Birch Lake
It seems like every year, a new maple book with recipes crosses my desk. This year, it's "Modern Maple" by Teresa Marrone. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, it's the second in a "Northern Plate" series that celebrates "the bounty of the Upper Midwest by focusing on a single ingredient, exploring its historical uses as well as culinary applications across a range of dishes."
Ms. Marrone, who's written other North Woodsy cookbooks, writes, "This dish was born at a cabin on the Gunflint Trail, where we were staying with friends. They had some Alaskan salmon in the freezer, and one night we decided to grill it. Deb and I concocted the glaze in the kitchen using ingredients that were on hand ..."
She notes, "This simple recipe highlights the versatility of maple syrup when it's cooked and tempered with butter," but says you could substitute in other herbs, mustard, bourbon. And you can save the orange zest for garnish, even cut it up into the sauce.
I cooked the salmon indoors on a grill pan on the stove, basting the fish with the glaze, and my family loved it. We enjoyed nibbling on the orange zest, too.
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skin-on salmon fillets ( 3/4- to 1 inch thick)
1 navel orange, well scrubbed
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
Few grinds black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Prepare grill for direct medium heat. Tear off a piece of heavy-duty foil that is just large enough to hold the salmon in a single layer. Sprinkle the salmon lightly with salt and let stand at room temperature while you prepare the glaze.
To prepare the glaze, cut 3 strips of zest, each about 1/2 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long, off the orange. In a heavy-bottomed small saucepan, combine syrup with the zest, rosemary, marjoram and pepper. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, then adjust heat so the syrup foams and boils steadily without boiling over and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter; stir until butter melts. Cut off a chunk of the orange and squeeze the juice into the pan, using your fingers to strain out any seeds; use as much of the orange as needed to get about 2 tablespoons of juice. Pull the zest out of the syrup mixture and set aside for garnish or discard. The glaze is now ready to use.
To cook the salmon, place the foil on the grate, then arrange the salmon, skin-side down, in a single layer. Cover the grill and cook the salmon for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness. Brush some of the glaze (re-warmed if necessary) over the salmon; re-cover the grill and cook for 4 to 5 minutes longer or until done to your preference. To serve, slip a thin-bladed metal spatula between the salmon flesh and the skin, shimmying the spatula under the flesh to gently separate it from the skin; transfer the skinned salmon to a serving platter. Drizzle the remaining glaze over the salmon, and garnish with thinly sliced orange zest if using; serve promptly.
-- "Modern Maple" by Teresa Marrone (Minnesota Historical Society Press, March 2013, $16.95)
Maple Oatmeal Cookies
This recipe comes from Brittany Zehr of Grandma Z's Maple Haus, a Pittsburgh business.
3 cups uncooked old- fashioned oatmeal
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup softened butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 chopped nuts (optional)
1/2 cup chopped raisins (optional)
Combine oatmeal, flour, nutmeg or cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Mix well. Cream maple syrup, butter and vanilla until smooth. Add egg. Blend in dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Stir in optional nuts or raisins. Drop by rounded spoonful onto greased cookie sheet.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake each tray of cookies 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool for 2 minutes before you try to eat them.
Maple Glazed Carrots
6 medium carrots
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon fresh, chopped ginger
1 tablespoon granulated maple sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean, wash and slice carrots, steam until tender in covered pan. Melt butter. Add maple syrup and ginger to melted butter. Simmer carrots in this mixture until glazed. Sprinkle with granulated maple sugar and season with salt and pepper before serving.
-- Grandma Z's Maple Haus (grandmazsmaplehaus.com)
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr. First Published March 14, 2013 4:00 AM