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Mother Nature's Candy

Chicago chefs venture to an Indiana maple tree farm to see some magic get made.

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Tim Burton
  • mike sula
  • Tim Burton

Bearded, burly Tim Burton assembled a small crowd around a tall, moss-spackled hard maple tree just outside his log-walled sugarhouse, in southern Medora, Indiana. He dipped a cup into the tin bucket hanging from the sunlit south side of the tree and ladled out some cool, clear sap, sloshing a bit on the ground in the process, and then stuck a hydrometer into it to measure its sugar content.

"Holy cow, wait a second," he said, squinting at the scale. "That can't be right. Oh my god. That's really good. That's over 4 percent. Hold on a second." He leaned over and planted a smooch on the rough bark. "Keep going, girl."

That Saturday in early March was the midpoint of the annual six-week sugaring season, and conditions were ideal for tapping the tree, one of some 700 maples Burton has on his farm, or "sugar bush," about two miles outside of town. The temperature had warmed from a frigid night (22 degrees) to the low 50s under a brilliant afternoon sun-perfect freeze-thaw conditions to get the trees' sap flowing. This also happened to be day one of the second annual National Maple Syrup Festival, which Burton hosts at the farm and at the nearby Medora Community School. Earlier in the day bluegrass bands had played onstage at the school and John Young, the world record holder in the vertical pancake toss (28.5 feet), had griddled flapjacks. Along the "sugar trail" Burton had cut through the woods, reenactors demonstrated how Native Americans and French settlers boiled sap down to sugar in kettles over open fires (sugar is easier to store than syrup, which can ferment and go bad). There'd also been a maple syrup cooking contest, judged by Chicago chefs Jason McLeod and Danny Grant from the Elysian Hotel, Paul Kahan of Blackbird and the Publican, Publican chef de cuisine Brian Huston, and me.

Reenactors at the National Maple Syrup Festival
  • Mike Sula
  • Reenactors at the National Maple Syrup Festival

The chefs' reasons for the trip extended beyond gauging the merits of maple cheesecake blondies and baby-carrot-maple cakes—though the 18-and-under competition was high stakes for some (the only local finalist, a young girl, collapsed weeping into her mother's arms when she learned she hadn't won). Though Burton and his wife, Angie, make the five-and-a-half-hour trip to Chicago's Green City Market almost every week during the summer to sell their syrup, the chefs wanted to see for themselves how it's made. Each week at the Publican they go through about two gallons of Burton's syrup, braising meats in it and using it to baste dishes that come out of the wood-fired oven. At Balsan, the Elysian's casual restaurant, they run through about a gallon and a half every week. McLeod eats it every day on his own breakfast, and Kahan says when he searches the fridge for something to subdue his late-night sweet tooth, more often not he reaches for the Burton's and takes a swig.

Volcano 2000 evaporator

If the festival's title sounds grandiose for Indiana—what about Vermont?—consider that up until the 1960s the state produced more maple syrup than any of the 17 others that make it. The Burtons began sugaring about four years ago not far from the land Angie's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jacob Flinn settled in 1810. Three years later he was captured by a band of Potawatomie and forced to haul his sugar kettle north some 135 miles to the area around West Lafayette before making his escape.

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