Category Archives: Travel

Sugar Shack

maple syrup bottles

On my recent trip home to Wisconsin, there was talk of cousin Spike’s maple syrup operation, which had started as a small hobby and then expanded into a big hobby with a lot of fancy equipment and a brand new sugar shack in which to house the operation.  Sissy and I eagerly hopped into our Uncle Tom’s truck and set off to see the sugar shack.  I was entranced by the whole idea, partly due to fond memories of reading all about sugaring off in the Wisconsin maple woods in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs…he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hole in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end…Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap.”

Maple Syrup Little House in the Big Woods

When we pulled into Spike’s driveway, we saw the new sugar shack.  The metal building was much larger than I had expected, with smoke coming out of the chimney and a pile of freshly split wood.

Sugar Shack

The door opened, and several guys came out to greet us.  As we went inside, they talked to Uncle Tom about the muddy conditions amongst the maple trees after the recent heavy snowfall and thaw, and how the bobcat had slid into a ditch up there while they were collecting sap the day before.  Spike showed us the little plastic taps he puts in the trees, and the shiny silver mylar bags that the syrup collects in.

tap for maple syrup

“He empties the sap into the iron kettle.  There is a big bonfire under the kettle, and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.”

Maple Syrup (2) Little House in the Big Woods

The sugar shack was steamy warm on the inside, and full of interesting equipment.  Spike showed us the osmosis machine, which removes much of the water from the sap before it is cooked down, saving hours of cooking time.  It takes a whole lot of sap to make a little maple syrup, and much of that volume is water.  The pure mineral water that is removed is drinkable.

syrup 2

Then the sap passed on to a wood-fired contraption that cooked it down slowly over many hours.  A thermostat on the wall showed the temperature inside the cooker.  Several men and a boy were hanging around this machine, and they opened the little doors in the top to let us peek down at the thin, light-colored sap.  They showed us the spout on the side where, when it was the right temperature, the darker finished syrup would pour out into a container.

syrup 3

This step in the process mostly seemed to involve a lot of pleasant hanging around in the warmth of the sugar shack, occasionally feeding the fire and keeping an eye on that thermostat.  Not a bad way to spend a cold Saturday at all.

“Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all year, for common every day.  When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar…He’s going to sugar off again next Monday, and he says we must all come. Pa’s blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for last, and he said to Ma: ‘Hey, Caroline! There’ll be a dance!’”

Maple Syrup (1) Little House in the Big Woods

Uncle Tom had already promised both of us a few bottles of Spike’s maple syrup to take home with us.  After we’d seen the entire fascinating operation and asked a million questions, Spike suggested that we come back later in the day to see the finished syrup coming out.  And maybe have a few beers.

The equipment has changed over the century or two since Laura Ingall’s Grandpa sugared off, but the process is more or less the same, including the camaraderie of working together to produce the syrup, then celebrating a bit–whether with a dance or a beer from the keg fridge in the corner.

syrup 3 keg fridge

Curds

curds

I’m just back from several days in Wisconsin.  The reason for the trip was a sad one–my grandmother’s funeral.  But it was a good trip.  Good to honor my grandmother’s long and fruitful life, and good to be with my large extended family.

You hear a lot about terroir in reference to food products such as tea, wine, or chocolate–that special combination of geography, soil, and climate in a local environment that affects the production of a product, giving it a unique taste.

Naturally enough, I’ve been thinking about my own terroir–the place of origin that has shaped me and given me my own unique flavor.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been home, to gentle rolling fields of snow-dusted corn stubble crisscrossed by snowmobile tracks, the winter-muted scents of dairy barns, and the calm mid-western good sense of aunts and uncles and cousins who work hard and enjoy life as it comes.  But no matter how long I’m away, that is my place, where I touch the ground and gain strength from it.

Whenever I’m in Wisconsin, I eat cheese curds by the bagful.  They are everywhere–bags sitting in heaps on the checkout counter of the grocery store and the gas station, which is helpful when you’re in a pinch, with a late night craving.  Much better is to stop at one of the ubiquitous cheese factories and buy them really fresh–ideally only a few hours old, still damp and milky, salty and squeaky between the teeth.

Arena cheese factory

Curds, of course, are the beginning stages of cheese.  Rennet is added to milk, it curdles, the whey is strained out, and you’ve got curds.  Press these into blocks and age them and you’ve got cheese.

curds 2

My sissy and I pulled open our first bag of them in the car and ate them while driving.  We continued with bedtime snacks of curds.  I brought home more bags of them in my luggage, freshly bought at the cheese factory on the way to the airport, and continued to indulge in the taste of home for as long as they lasted.

I don’t buy curds much here in Seattle.  Not when they appear at the grocery store (heaven forbid) with a good-through date stamped on them that is several weeks in the future.  Not even when they are freshly made at Beecher’s near Pike Place Market.  They aren’t the same, not the same at all.  Maybe it’s the terroir.

The taste of home is different for everyone.  What is yours?

Breakfast at Juniper Lane Guest House

Breakfast on San Juan Island

Packing the right food makes a good trip even better.   Peanut butter breakfast bars provide delicious fuel for travel.

The Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor

What are the necessary elements for a really good girl’s weekend?  First and foremost, the right traveling companion.  Then, enough protein to keep everyone happy.  From there, everything else will fall into place.

When Christie and I set out for a recent long weekend on San Juan Island, we packed the trunk of the car with every item we could conceivably want for the next four days.  There are a few advantages to a road trip over airplane travel, and this bounty of luggage—multiple pairs of shoes, snacks, blow-dryers, toenail polish, full-sized bottles of toiletries and liquids aplenty is surely one of them.

We sang along to John Denver as we drove through a perfect Pacific Northwest morning—cool and bright, with a breeze pushing clouds above us.

The Anacortes Ferry takes about an hour to get to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.  That’s just enough time to claim a window seat, eavesdrop on an excited boy and his father (“Dad!  Dad!  I think we’re moving now!”  “Dad, are you awake?”), marvel at the water and clouds and sky and seabirds, snap a few pictures and venture out onto the wind-whipped deck.

And enough time for a late morning snack.  Christie’s peanut butter bars are truly ideal travel food.  Whether flying, driving, or sailing, these compact protein-packed bars fit the bill.  They are dense, flavorful, and not too dry—just right.

Peanut butter breakfast bars on the ferry to San Juan Island

We nibbled our way through a few while gazing out the windows of the ferry at the million shades of blue in water and sky.  Sailboats scudded by, and we passed little islands—some no more than pine tree-covered lumps barely emerging from the water.  Soon, we were driving off the ferry in Friday Harbor, ready to explore the quaint seaside downtown, find some lunch, and get settled into our rooms at a little jewel box of an inn just outside town.

I love a simple breakfast that I can eat in the comfort of my hotel along with a fresh hot cup of coffee before starting my day.  And we had some wonderful days, started off right with peanut butter breakfast bars.

Breakfast at Juniper Lane Guest House

We had time to rest, and read in hammocks, to nap and dream.  Time to consider carefully the all-important questions: “Where should we go for dinner?  Are you getting hungry yet?

Hammocks at Juniper Lane Guest House

There was a day of sea kayaking.  While Christie steered from the back, I practiced the art of letting go in the front, and realized once again, as I must do over and over, that I do not always have to be in control.  Sometimes it is a relief to just let go of the trajectory and paddle faithfully in an imperfect, clumsy unison with a friend, trusting that we will go where we need to go.  We skimmed over wavelets and beds of kelp, so close to the silvery water, pushed by the currents and blown by the salty wind.

Sea Kayaking along the shore of San Juan Island

And there was a day of desultory sight-seeing that started in the tiny village of Roche Harbor, wending back into Friday Harbor for lunch and bookstore browsing, and culminating in an afternoon of wine-tasting at the San Juan Vineyards, where we made our way slowly through the entire tasting list of reds and whites while sitting on a sun-drenched patio overlooking over golden fields and talking about nothing and everything in the universe.

The right company and the right fuel.  And la dolce far niente.

Wine tasting at San Juan Vineyards

Christie’s Peanut Butter Breakfast Bars

  • 3 cups oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup  flour
  • 1/2 cup soy protein powder
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 2/3 cup peanut butter
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 2 egg whites (reserve yolks for another use)
  • 2 oz applesauce
  • ½ cup chopped fruit such as prunes, apricots, or raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine oatmeal, flour, protein powder and baking powder in bowl and set aside.  Stir together peanut butter, butter, brown sugar and egg whites.  Add the dry ingredients and stir until combined.  Press into a 9×13 pan and bake 20 minutes.  Cut into 12 bars.  Let cool 10 minutes before placing in an air-tight storage container.

Christie’s Notes:

  1. From the start: I double the recipe for 24 bars.  They are a great grab-and-go breakfast.
  2. Butter: I soften the butter for 30 sec in the microwave on high in a glass dish.  It will be less time if you aren’t doubling the recipe.
  3. Brown Sugar: You can pack the brown sugar but I think they are fine with less sugar so I just measure and only press a little, gently, to make the measures tidy (or if doubling you can firmly pack just 1 cup.)
  4. Mixing: This is a pretty thick mix so I like to use my KitchenAid stand mixer.
  5. Baking Pan: I bake the doubled recipe in a 17×11 jellyroll pan (or a half sheet pan).
  6. Bake Time: In the jellyroll pan I bake it for 19 minutes
  7. Keeping Moisture In: Air-tight storage is key.  I let the warm bars sit in the container with the lid askew for about 30 min before closing the lid tight.  There will be some moisture on the inside but by the next day the moisture is in the bars and not on the container.
  8. Storage: These bars will keep in a dark cabinet for several weeks. They also freeze well.