Maple syrup is the light at the end of the tunnel, the mud-season reward for a winter we’d rather forget. Sugaring season is a little late this year — “the trees are all froze up,” as one sugar man put it — but with any luck, that means it will linger all the longer. The ideal temperatures for maximum sap run are 40s during the day and 20s at night. The warm-cool-warm-cool cycle works like a pump to send sap up the trunks. Most sugarhouses opened this month and should stay operational into mid-April. That means pancake season is upon us, an outing on which the whole family can agree.
If your kids want to see how maple syrup is made, a good bet is Parker’s Maple Barn Restaurant in the middle of the woods in Mason, N.H., just a few miles west of Nashua. On one corner of the property stands a 19th-century sugarhouse replete with wood-fired galvanized sheet metal evaporator pans. It’s often in operation, especially on the weekends. Just look for the little shack next to the huge lean-to stacked high with slabs of wood.
The restaurant is a soaring space with rough-sawn tables and benches that appear to have been dipped in polyurethane and should outlast the mountains of the Granite State. If the weather’s cold, wood-pellet stoves are positioned around the main room and the porch to warm the place up. In addition to foods that you can bathe in maple syrup (pancakes, French toast, waffles), Parker’s also has some breakfast options for heartier eaters, including maple baby back ribs with eggs, as well as a side dish of maple baked beans.
The folks who run the Littleton Diner in Littleton, N.H., may not make the maple syrup, but they are committed to local products. Their pancakes are made with flour from nearby Littleton Grist Mill. There’s hardly a more iconic place to order pancakes than a real American diner, and this pale-yellow and red-trimmed 1940 Sterling Diner (manufactured in Merrimac, Mass.) is the real McCoy, with 12 counter stools and eight wooden booths. Diner regulars tend to favor the whole wheat pancakes, while travelers often order a stack of nuttier, earthier buckwheat out of curiosity. Whichever you choose, they are at their best with pure North Country maple syrup (a 50-cent surcharge).
Over at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, N.H., all pancakes come with a tray of granulated maple sugar, pure maple syrup, and Polly’s own pure maple spread. As the menu explains, “The fake stuff, fruit syrup, fruit spreads, and diet syrup are available on request.” Selecting a maple topping is only the last of many choices at Polly’s, which features five batters (plain, buckwheat, whole wheat, cornmeal, and oatmeal buttermilk) and four add-ins (walnuts, coconut, blueberries, and kid-favorite chocolate chips). Since the pancakes are only three inches in diameter, it’s feasible to order a sampler of two each of three styles.
The eggs, steak, hash, toast, and other breakfast goodies are all made in the kitchen — hidden away from view. But depending on where you sit, you can watch the waitstaff cook the pancakes on a long griddle. An ingenious batter dispenser ensures that every pancake comes out the same size.
If size really matters to you, some of the biggest pancakes in New England are served at the Dutch Pancake House in the Grey Fox Inn in Stowe, Vt. The skillet-cooked 12-inch hotcakes are more like a crepe than a doughy flapjack, and the restaurant gives diners a choice of Vermont maple syrup or the darker Dutch “stroop” that is so thick it can be spread like butter. (You can also buy stroop to take home.) A huge assortment of ingredients can be added to the batter and baked into the pancake — everything from shredded potato to toasted coconut to ham and cheese. The restaurant has come up with some surprisingly tasty combinations, like the Rembrandt (apple, shredded potato, pineapple, raisins, ham, and cheddar cheese all seasoned with curry) or you can concoct your own. One of the best variants is one of the simplest: a plain pancake spiced with candied ginger. These substantive pancakes should keep you going all day if you’re trying to stretch the season with some spring skiing.
The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge also makes a very big pancake variation that they call the Berkshire Apple Pancake. It takes advantage of two of the greatest natural resources in the Berkshires, delicious apples and the elixir of golden maple syrup from Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. The cakes are made in a 10-inch skillet, with lots of apples chopped into the batter. They cook up like a cross between pancakes and coffee cake — thick enough to cut into wedges for eating. If you’d prefer more conventional griddle cakes, the menu also offers malted buttermilk or blueberry pancakes. The syrup, of course, remains the same.
Maple syrup is made on the eastern side of the Berkshires as well. We’ve always felt that the willful rusticity of Gould’s Sugar-House Restaurant on the Mohawk Trail in Shelburne Falls makes it a classic example of Yankee Americana. The restaurant is open only for sugaring season in March and April and then again for foliage season in September and October. (This time of year you might see the crew making syrup.) In addition to French toast, waffles, and (of course) pancakes, Gould’s also serves corn fritters with maple syrup. Every plate comes with a pickle (also made here). Take a bite — it makes the maple taste even sweeter.
If you and the kids want to be part of history, plan on attending what the organizers call “The World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast” on May 10 in Springfield. Launched in 1976 to celebrate the founding of the city, it’s been an annual event since 1986. Area businesses donate the materials, and volunteers slave away at 40 griddles to prepare pancakes for 8,000-10,000 people. Purists may be disappointed that the syrup isn’t unadulterated maple, but by the time the pancakes have been slathered with 4,700 pounds of butter and 450 gallons of syrup, there are a lot of smiling, sticky faces on Main Street.