As we approach the end of March, there are signs of spring everywhere -- a lingering light in the evening sky, the thickening of buds on trees and a stirring in the earth as daffodils and crocuses appear.
One of the biggest markers of spring for me, though, is not something you see much of around Cincinnati: Maple sugaring. Back East where I'm from in the flinty hills of New England, thick clouds of steam billowing from myriad sugarhouses emphatically proclaim the arrival of spring.
Feeling homesick, a few weekends ago I stopped by Clough Valley Maple Syrup in Anderson Township to check out their sugaring operation. It's operated by the Motz family, who've lived in the Clough Creek Valley for five generations.
I was lucky; the day I picked to go in late February was the very last day of their sugaring season.
Sugaring in southern Ohio comes and goes quickly, generally running from Feb. 1 to March 15. It halts when the trees bud and the sap becomes bitter.
I've always thought that there is something magical about maple syrup. To me, it's like eating the concentrated lifeblood of trees. Sample sap straight up and it barely tastes like sugar water, with just a hint of metallic sweetness. Boil it for a couple hours (it takes about 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup) and it turns into the thick, dark sweet elixir that is the stuff of waffle-eaters' dreams.
When they're boiling sap in the Clough Valley sugarhouse, clouds of thick, fragrant steam rise through a hole in the roof. As the syrup reaches the right consistency and sweetness, it's pressure-filtered and bottled hot by hand. I returned home from my visit bearing a still-warm bottle of freshly made maple syrup and stood in my kitchen, drunkenly slurping it by the spoonful. Knowing it was coaxed out of a grove of maple trees on a rocky hillside just a few miles from my house made it taste even better.
With buds already forming on the trees, it's too late for this year, but mark your calendar for 2007. When late January rolls around and you're getting sick of winter, call the Motz family. They love visitors, and watching the sap boil is a great way to get a jump on spring. 5531 Clough Pike, Anderson Township, 513-265-2130.
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