Amber waves: National Maple Syrup Festival

March 8, 2012

The final weekend of the National Maple Syrup Festival will in fact be held this coming Saturday and Sunday. This despite deadly tornadoes that touched down just 40 miles away last week. So close that festival host and owner of Burton's Maplewood Farm, the one and only Tim Burton, served a free pancake breakfast to survivors and clean-up volunteers. Tim left this morning at 2 a.m. with family and friends, an hour he's used to seeing on the road. He delivers regularly to Chicago's best restaurants and farmers markets, from Medora, Indiana about a five hour drive south and slightly east.

Yes, maple syrup from Indiana.

And not just any maple syrup, but some of the finest maple syrup in the world right now, Quebec and Vermont included. This new amber wave is led by my beloved BliS, Noble Tonic, and Burton's. Tim's grade A and B syrups retail at $20 per 12-ounce bottle. His three new barrel-aged rum, bourbon, and brandy infused syrups at $35. They are liquid gold. 

Tim's not just blazing the maple trail up from Medora; chefs are following it down too. Stephanie Izard, Paul Kahan, and Café des Architectes' Greg Biggers are among the many using it, but they're also collaborating on custom-finished barrels. This past weekend, I saw Sable Top Chef Heather Terhune; Spiaggia Pastry Chef CeCe Campise; and Atwood Café Chef Derek Simcik. We were all judges at the Sweet Victory Challenge.

This coming weekend, judges include Publican Chef Brian Huston; Hoosier Mama Paula Haney; Nightwood Pastry Chef Matthew Rice; and the Breakfast Queen herself, Ina Pinkney of Ina's, where I first met Tim last summer.

On the farm, you see where it all starts, with a covered bucket attached to nearly every tree, or in some cases, three buckets.

It takes on average 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The season just started and this early sap will become the lighter, delicate Grade A syrup. Later in the season, the sap tranforms into the darker, stronger Grade B.

Native American historical re-enactors show how sap was boiled in a big pot over burning wood, then finished in a small pot to make maple sugar. Now it's done in volume, by machine, in a sugar shack.

While pancakes with sausage and syrup are served all day, at lunch the grilled maple BBQ pork chops and beans are ready. The chops are good, but the smoky, tangy, and subtly maple-sweetened mix of legumes—from a secret recipe by Angie Burton, Tim's wife and co-owner of the farm—really steal the show.

The festivities start at the Medora Community School, gym/auditorium the site of the Challenge. Each recipe was required to use maple syrup and King Arthur flour, in three categories: Breakfast, Dessert, and Savory—with Adult and Youth divisions. I was a judge in the Youth Savory challenge with Chef Simcik; my friend and Greater Midwest Foodways co-founder Catherine Lambrecht; food writer Jane Ammeson; and the mayor of Story, Indiana, Richard Hofstetter. We tasted Maple Pork En Croute with Maple-Garlic Sauce, Maple Sriracha Pulled Chicken, and the winning dish, Curried Chickpea Stew.

Montreal chef Martin Picard, infamous for his foie gras poutine smothered in foie gras gravy, just released his gorgeous new book, Cabane à sucre (Sugar Shack) Au Pied de Cochon. His seasonal sugar shack restaurant is the northwoods Next of the cabane à sucre world, booking up immediately for the season. Picard has argued for years that maple syrup is for more than just pancakes. His pancakes are deep-fried in duck fat.

At the festival donate one canned food item and get $2 off admission to the farm. All donated canned food will now be diverted to local tornado affected food pantries. All proceeds benefit the Heads Up!!! Foundation, which helps "support the efforts of the health care organizations caring for children with craniofacial abnormalities", a personal mission for Tim and family. 

After a day on the farm, we stayed at Story Inn. Story was once a logging town, founded in 1851. Now the entire tiny, unincorporated town is collectively a charming bed and breakfast. After waking up around 3 a.m. to drive down, we crashed, in the Wheeler cottage, once home to the owner of the general store across the road. The store building now houses the restaurant, tavern downstairs, and a few rooms upstairs—reportedly haunted.

With the Burton and Hofstetter families' hospitality, and finely crafted local food, my spirit wants to linger in Indiana too.