Adventures at the National Maple Syrup Festival
As a New Hampshire native, being invited to attend the National Maple Syrup Festival is like being beckoned home to the mother ship. Held every March in Medora, Indiana, home of Burton’s Maplewood Farm, the festival is a celebration of the start of maple syrup season with the best maple purveyor in the area, and one of the most popular in Chicago. This year, I had the pleasure of once again being invited by maple maestro Tim Burton to attend for the weekend, guest judge at a dessert bake off, stay at a spookily rustic inn, and tour the farm.
Over the past few years, Burton’s Maplewood Farm has amassed an impressive roster of syrup clients in Chicago, who love his rich, artisanal syrups and his creative custom syrups. Burton’s syrup can be found on breakfast items, savory dishes, desserts, and drinks across town, from Little Goat to Floriole Cafe & Bakery. Burton’s syrupy omnipresence in Chicago makes for a large Chicago presence at the National Maple Syrup Festival, and despite being five-plus hours from Chicago in south central Indiana, plenty of city folk make their way to the festival for a getaway. This year, we spent the weekend at Story Inn, a quaint village/inn nestled between two forest preserves near Medora. Established in 1851, the inn completely preserves its 1851-ness, with creaky floors, minimal electricity in the rooms, and even a resident ghost (allegedly). Inn pamphlets even caution guests that their cell phones won’t work. The whole thing sounds like the premise for a Stephan King novel. Fortunately, we did not stay in the “haunted” room, the Blue Lady room. That would have been a little too Paranormal Activity for my comfort. However, the throwback feel of the inn was a welcome escape from city life, and for a couple days, I forgot all about my daily stresses.
The festival itself took place in nearby Medora, a medorable little town surrounded by hills, aka “nobs,” created by glaciers during the last ice age. The center of the fest is held on Burton’s Maplewood Farm, nestled along the windy roads in the hills. Farm animals, reenactments of old-fashioned maple techniques, Dutch oven cookery, and other activities are scattered around the farm. There was even horse-powered maple ice cream! i.e. a contraption that churns ice cream when a horse walks on a machine. Burton’s sugar shack is where the action is. This is where maple syrup is made, and where Burton houses much of his aging maple syrup barrels. It’s also where we go to get maple tea, hot sap poured over tea bags, which is absolutely habit-forming. I love seeing all the characters in period garb along the “sugar trails” in the woods, demonstrating how settlers made maple sugar and syrup in the olden days. At one point, things got abruptly gristly when one demonstrator told onlookers about how a long time ago a child fell into a vat of boiling sap and died. So, umm, stay away from the sap. Another maple delicacy on the farm was the “maple melt.” It’s a fried biscuit glazed in maple or cinnamon, and when asked which one I wanted, I simply replied, “Well, this isn’t the National Cinnamon Festival.” Meow.
Down in the town center at the Medora High School, judging takes place at the King Arthur Sweet Victory Challenge, a series of cook offs and bake offs featuring King Arthur flour and maple syrup. The challenge is divided into breakfast, savory, and dessert categories, featuring recipes submitted by home cooks from across the country. A panel of judges reside over each category, and since I have an insatiable sweet tooth (and a pastry chef partner), I judged the dessert portion. If you’re thinking that this is basically the maple syrup equivalent of American Idol, you’re correct. We tasted five desserts, and awarded reach one points based on appearance, texture, flavor, and use of flour and maple syrup. Entries included maple-blueberry-gingerbread whoopie pies, maple tarte Tatin with maple cloud cream, butter-rum pineapple cake, homemade maple “Twix,” and maple nut sandwich cookies. The latter was my favorite, and also the winner. It was the most maple-flavored by a long shot, with an extremely, almost overly (but who cares), buttery flavor. Medora High School also featured a number of specialty vendors offerings cheeses, clothing, old-timey photography, maple popcorn, and more. Of course, pancakes are essential, and the festival featured a Guinness World Record-holding pancake flipper, slinging all-you-can-eat pancakes.
The rest of the weekend featured a meat-tastic multi-course guest judge dinner at Story Inn, a communal bonfire (campfire smell > dumpster fire smell), and an eerie man sorting twigs outside the inn for hours on end (isn’t this how Blair Witch happened?). All in all, the National Maple Syrup Festival is a fantastic, refreshing escape, celebrating one of my favorite ingredients, and the best version of that ingredient I have ever tasted. Kudos to Tim Burton and family for another amazing event.
Check out my photo journal of the festival weekend here.