Blessed with an abundance of maples on the farm he bought 13 years ago, Glen Hale took his cue from nature: He decided to make syrup.
But it is his location, in Bucks County - not in Vermont, or in one of Pennsylvania's bountiful maple regions - that has made it unusual.
From 600 trees scattered around their farm in Tinicum, Glen and Cindy Hale will make about 120 gallons of syrup this year.
Pennsylvania is among the top maple syrup-producing states in the nation, ranking sixth last season, producing 66,000 gallons, from more than 100 sugar makers throughout the state.
At this time of year, when the nights are cold but the days start to feel like spring, Hale and other Pennsylvania sugar makers tap their maple trees and collect the watery sap they reduce into the tasty sweetener used by American Indians, colonists - and, more recently, modern-day food enthusiasts.
But when Hale tapped his trees in the time-honored way this season, he was also tapping into a food trend.
McCormick, the spice company, included maple in its 2007 Flavor Forecast, an annual prediction of flavor trends based on interviews with top chefs, restaurant menus, and grocery-store inventory.
"We truly believe maple is on the trendy side," said Laurie Harrsen, McCormick's director of consumer communications. "We see it being used at restaurants with top chefs across the country." Locally, executive chef Matthew Levin at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse has been using fresh maple syrup in his cooking for about a year.
The beauty of maple is its complexity, Harrsen said: "It has a rich sweetness, a brown note, almost a caramelized note. It's not like the yucky straight sweet with just sugar. It has so much more richness and depth." Look for maple flavor in Asian foods, with meats and seafoods and even tea, Harrsen said.
The trendiness of this classic woodland product is a source of great amusement to Bob Hansen, an official with the Pennsylvania State University cooperative extension who assists the state's syrup producers.
"Now the gourmet people are starting to catch on to what us people in the Northland knew a long time ago," said Hansen, who works in Towanda, Bradford County.
Most syrup produced in Pennsylvania is sold in the state, at small roadside stands, farm markets, and local supermarkets, Hansen said.
Sitting on a wooden crate in a steamy little cabin, Glen Hale filled a small glass jug with the sweet amber result of that recent morning's toil and boil.
The Hales own a construction company. Their syrup is more about love than money. They sell it, $8 for a 12-ounce bottle, from the same small cabin, known as a sugar shack, where they boil the sap and bottle their syrup.
The sap flowing out of the trees into lidded buckets is clear as water and contains about 2 percent sugar. It takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. Done properly, tapping does not harm the tree.
Hale capped the latest 12-ounce installment of syrup and placed it on a sunlit windowsill, next to a more honey-colored jar produced earlier this month, for comparison.
"The color darkens each week" throughout the season, he said. The color reveals the flavor - the darker the color, the more intense the maple taste. Syrup is also assigned a grade based on color, with the lightest earning Grade A Fancy.
The color reflects springtime changes going on within the tree that alter the composition of the sap, which is consists of water, sugar and minerals. The sap harvested for syrup is the food the tree uses when making leaves. By the time the leaf buds appear, the sap tastes terrible and the syrup-producing season is over.
The lightest syrup is used to make maple sugar, candy and cream - a spreadable confection with the consistency of peanut butter. It can also be used to sweeten fruit. Grade A Medium is the most common grade for pancakes and waffles. Grade A Dark has a heavier maple flavor and Grade B is so intense that it traditionally was primarily used for cooking.
But these days, people pick what tastes good to them - and tastes are changing.
"The people who buy from us seem to prefer dark to light," Hale said.
Levin, chef at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, uses both dark and light varieties at his restaurant. He makes an extremely light, frothy sauce for a pork belly and octopus seviche dish from a syrup called Blis, which is aged in the oak barrels used to make Maker's Mark Bourbon. In a vinaigrette, he uses a medium amber maple. The syrup "helps to emulsify [the vinaigrette], similar to the way honey does. And it gives a nice background flavor. We use it with a sweet potato salad."
The growing taste for darker syrups is part of the same trend that has made sharper cheeses and darker chocolates more popular, McCormick's Harrsen said.
"The consumer palate is so much more sophisticated now," she said. "One maple syrup is not enough now. You need different maple syrups. The general consumer knows the difference between different levels and grades."
Thom Helmacy, secretary/treasurer of the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council, uses the syrup he produces in Susquehanna County to sweeten his oatmeal, and he pours it over vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate syrup.
His wife, Tootie, uses syrup instead of white sugar to make cookies and apple pies. And she makes a simple maple/soy sauce glaze for salmon. (See accompanying recipe.)
Maple works well in glazes and sauces for meat and poultry because the maple "makes the sauce cling," Hale said. Maple also complements the sweet flavors of certain seafoods, such as shrimp or salmon, Harrsen said.
A certain kind of climate is needed for syrup production, one with large temperature swings, as it's the change in temperature that shifts the pressure inside the tree trunk and makes the sap flow. For this reason, most Pennsylvania syrup production happens in the counties along the northern tier, and in southern Somerset and Bedford Counties, where tall mountains produce the right weather.
While maple syrup isn't usually made locally, it can be produced, to some extent, wherever maples grow. And producing something is important to the Hales.
"We wanted to steward the land instead of just letting weeds grow," Glen Hale said. So through trial, error, and a class in Vermont, he learned to make syrup. They also grow hay in the summer.
In the February and March production season, Glen, Cindy and the neighbors and others who lend a hand spend about 12 hours per day making syrup, so those looking to buy can watch as the boiler shoots sweet-scented steam into the air and heats the sugar shack to a tropical 100 degrees.
The rest of the year, sales are done on the honor system; customers let themselves into the sugar shack, serve themselves, and leave their money in the cash box.
Makes about 1 cup or 8 servings
1/3 cup vegetable oil (may be part olive oil)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1/8 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup sour cream (optional)
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, syrup, mustard, salt, pepper, basil and lemon zest. Taste and adjust flavor, adding a little more syrup or vinegar, if needed.
2. If desired, for a creamy dressing, whisk in sour cream.
3. Bottle and refrigerate.
Per serving: 110 calories, 0.4 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 47 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 1/3 to 1/2-cup
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 to 2 tablespoons white wine (optional)
1. Mix the syrup and soy sauce. If desired, add the wine.
2. Use to baste or glaze salmon or other fish fillets, chicken or pork when grilling, broiling or roasting. Apply near the end of cooking - with fish, 2 to 3 minutes or after cooking one side and turning to the other; with chicken or pork, the last few minutes broiled or last 10 to 15 minutes baked.
Per serving: 40 calories, 0.5 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 170 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes about 4 dozen medium cookies
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup maple syrup
1 large egg
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
2 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup seedless
1/2 cup chopped nuts of choice
1. Heat the oven to 350 to 375 degrees.
2. Beat together the shortening, syrup and egg. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Alternating additions, stir in half of the flour, then half of the milk. Mix well. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir in the oatmeal, raisins and nuts.
3. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls, 2 inches apart, on parchment-lined or lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake until cookies are lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
Per cookie (based on 48): 78 calories, 1 gram protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 61 milligrams sodium, 0.6 gram dietary fiber.