FarmLove – Maple Season with the Coutures
Travelers might be familiar with the little foil-wrapped chocolates presented on pillows of some hotel beds. At Couture’s maple shop and bed & breakfast in Westfield near Vermont’s Jay Peak resort, guests will find a different and thoroughly homegrown sweet treat on their pillow: pure maple candy.
But you don’t need to be an overnight guest to sample this sweetness. The Coutures’ maple products are available not only at their bed & breakfast and on-farm shop—where visitors might even be lucky enough to see the maple elves at work crafting the delicious magic from scratch—but also via their online store, which ships the unique taste of Vermont all over the world.
Pauline and Jacques Couture started their dairy herd at Missisquoi Valley Farm in 1970 and built their first sugar house to boil down sap from the farm’s woodlands into maple syrup a year later. Along with the bed and breakfast, it’s just another way that dairy farmers diversify their business, Jacques explains. The couple, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, are both fifth-generation sugarmakers. “We do it partly because it’s in our blood,” Jacques says, “but also because we have this resource on the farm.”
Beyond the 120-acre maple sugarbush, where the Coutures set 7,500 taps each winter, they also use wood from their property to fire the maple evaporator. “It’s all part of our forest management plan,” Jacques details, noting that keeping the woods well-managed makes for healthier maple trees, too.
The Coutures are longtime leaders in the maple community and were named Vermont Maple Sugarmakers of the Year a few years back. Jacques served on the board of the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers for 30 years before recently “passing the torch,” but he has remained involved with the International Maple Syrup Institute. Couture’s Maple is also a repeat winner of regional contests including their most recent awards at the 2018 International Maple Contest in Concord, New Hampshire where they took overall Best in Show thanks to prizes for their Grade A Amber rich and their Grade A Very Dark Strong syrups, as well as their maple cream.
The word sugarmakers, Pauline explains, dates back to an era when the tree sap was boiled down beyond syrup; beyond the Coutures’ luscious, spreadable maple cream; and even beyond the maple candy stage. Back when the first sugarmakers worked the woods they now steward, there was no refrigeration or sterile packing equipment to preserve syrup, so the sap was simmered down until it lost all moisture to create big blocks of maple sugar that were often grated into finer granules for use.
At Couture’s Bed and Breakfast, every morning starts with a hearty, home-cooked breakfast and, naturally, all the maple syrup you want to lavish on Pauline’s pancakes or bowl of steaming oatmeal. “There’s plenty of maple here,” Jacques chuckles. “We let them pour their own.” Over the fifteen years that they’ve hosted guests, the couple has seen plenty of repeat visitors who come back for the beautiful location, proximity to the four-season Jay Peak Resort, and the fun of staying on a working dairy and maple operation. “Most of the time they don’t get up to go out to the barn with Jacques at 4:30 a.m., but they will go out later to the barn or to the sugarhouse,” Pauline notes. “And then they feel like they know the farmer behind the milk.”
An annual opportunity for all to get to know the farmers behind both milk and maple comes with the annual Maple Open House Weekend. This year in Vermont it is the weekend of March 23-24 and, weather depending, the Coutures’ sugarhouse will be sweetly steaming. Every year, no matter what, Pauline cooks up a maple-inspired meal that is served to about 75 people on tables set up in the heated garage. The chili starts with her maple baked beans blended with the farm’s own ground beef plus some mild spices. She also bakes rolls using her staple maple-oatmeal bread dough recipe.
And, of course, there’s always the classic sugar on snow with dill pickles and donuts. Pauline explains the tradition of serving pickles with the soft maple candy that results when you drizzle hot syrup on cold snow: “The syrup is alkaline and the pickle balances it with acidity, so you can do sugar on snow, dill pickle, sugar on snow, dill pickle.”
Some of Jacques and Pauline’s six grown children and their families always come back to help with the busy weekend when a couple hundred people might come through to see the sugarhouse in action and taste the delicious results. Over the last couple years, a pair of young neighbors have played Irish music on their violin and guitar to add to the festive atmosphere.
It’s a joyful time on the farm. “It makes us feel good to have people come here and it’s a rite of spring. We know we’ve gotten through the worst of winter,” Jacques says. “The trees are coming out of dormancy. The sap is flowing. There’s a surge of new energy, a rebirth of your sprit. The soil warms up a little and the smell of the earth is also rejuvenating.”
Many Cabot co-op members are also sugarmakers. If you live in any of these states, check out a maple open house weekend near you, including:
Not close to a sugarhouse? No problem! You can still make sugar on snow. Watch a video of Pauline and Jacques Couture’s daughter, Julie Gizzi, showing you how.