March is Massachusetts Maple Month according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. This organization of professional and amateur maple farmers is headed by Tom McCrumm of Ashfield. I figured I couldn’t visit a more appropriate farm than his to kick off my maple recipes this month so I headed recently to South Face Farm.
The sugarhouse at South Face Farm looks exactly as a sugarshack should. It sits on a quiet road, not far from Route 116 in Ashfield. Its low ceiling provides eaters with a sense of intimacy, and its décor is old fashioned. Old food tins and antique cooking implements line the walls. Large windows (many of them sporting a jug of amber syrup) look out on the farm Tom and his wife Judy Haupt steward.
The sugarhouse restaurant is open only about 12 days a year, on weekends during maple season. Nevertheless, Tom told me, those 12 days are vital to his sugaring enterprise. “The only way you can make a living in this business is to have a roadside sugarhouse and sell,” he told me, characterizing what he does as “agriculture as entertainment.”
“You’ve got to cut out the middle man. You’ve got to produce a good-quality product and sell it directly to the customer.”
Tom invited me into the kitchen to watch Skylar Abbatiello of Ashfield make one of the sugarhouse’s signature foods, corn fritters. Skylar is a lanky, genial high-school student who is in his fourth year at the sugarhouse but his first year of cooking. He sounded proud of having worked his way up through the ranks at South Face Farm. Tom told me that this pattern is common among the restaurant’s staff members, who are both local and loyal.
The kitchen definitely had a family atmosphere. Skylar was confidently and carefully supervised by the sugarhouse’s head cook (and kitchen designer), Bonnie, an Ashfield resident who preferred not to supply her last name. Bonnie explained that she and Tom McCrumm had developed the sugarhouse recipes to emphasize scratch cooking and local ingredients. The blueberries, eggs, milk, and ice cream served at the restaurant are all local—not to mention the maple syrup!
I asked Tom McCrumm about the ice storm in December, which damaged a lot of New England sugar maples. He informed me that his losses were moderately bad. “I lost ten to 15 percent of my taps,” he noted. “I put in a lot of time and labor for cleanup and replacing pipeline. It was a big expense.”
Nevertheless, he added, he perseveres. “I did what farmers have done for centuries. You put your head down and plow ahead and hope that next year is going to be better.”
1 cup flour
3/4 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup corn—fresh, canned, or frozen (if using frozen, thaw and drain; if canned, just drain)
oil as needed for frying
lots of South Face Farm maple syrup
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper. In a separate bowl, beat together the milk and egg. Stir in the corn; then stir in the dry ingredients. The batter will be stiff.
Preheat the oil in a deep-fat fryer (or preheat a frying pan with at least a couple of inches of oil) to 350 degrees. Using a small scoop or a spoon, gently place quarter-cup blobs of batter in the oil. Do not overfill your pan; if it is too full the oil will cool off. Do not make larger fritters, or they will not cook through and will be doughy in the center.
Cook the fritters in the oil for 6 minutes, gently shaking them from time to time. Carefull remove and drain them. Drizzle maple syrup over the fritters. Makes about 10 fritters.