Without a doubt, some of the most prized maple syrup coming out of Keene is tough to buy commercially. Made high up on the shoulder of Spread Eagle, Kerry Whitney - assisted by his nephew Patrick Odell, family and friends - produces more than 400 gallons of syrup in the maple bush first purchased by his great-great-great-great-grandfather Levi Lamb, a Civil War soldier sending home his earnings with instructions to his father to buy land - the land where approximately 2,500 trees are now tapped.
You can taste Whitney's syrup by ordering a plate of pancakes or French toast at the Noonmark diner, Christy's famed maple cake and other delights at Cedar Run in Keene, and various dishes served up at the Ausable Inn, but to take a jug home, well, seek out his brother Wes at his woodworking shop on Beede Road or go to McDonough's Valley Hardware. Could be Noonmark and Cedar Run sell jugs as well, but you get the idea, the good stuff requires a road trip - and is worth it.
Good news though, Kerry isn't the only local putting out a great product. Nor is pouring syrup over pancakes the only way to enjoy it. In the United States, New York is one of the largest producers of maple syrup, and the North Country famed for its flaming leaves in the fall also has a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its syrup.
Kerry Whitney, a sixth-generation maple sugar maker, at his sugar shack in Keene Valley (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
This year, thanks to the combined visionary efforts of Mike "Twig" McGlynn, master distiller for Lake Placid Spirits, Mike Farrell, Uihlein Maple Forest director for the Cornell Cooperative Extension on Bear Cub Road, and Chef Dave Hunt, of the Hungry Trout, a High Peaks Tri-Lakes Adirondack Maple Weekend was launched March 2829.
"We have been doing Maple Weekend for a long time," said Farrell. "Last year, we decided to make it more of a communitywide thing. We discussed how we could make it a bigger event for the Tri-Lakes so it is not just visiting sugarhouses but would include a tasting event here at the conference center and other activities with a maple theme. The VIC hosted a Maple Sap 5k run, Whiteface held Sugar Slalom races, St. Agnes served a pancake breakfast, and local chefs came up with menus to get people thinking about maple for more than just pancakes."
"I was out at the Cooperative Extension picking up 15-gallon kegs of syrup, which we use to make our Alpenglow vodka," said McGlynn. "Mike and I got talking about what other areas are doing at this time. We thought if any festival is going to go well, it needed music and food. I wrote the town, the village, ROOST, ORDA, everybody and we had a meeting. The key guy in the restaurant part was Dave Hunt. We planned events all over, and I think this is a good first trial."
"We partnered with Maple Weekend and the New York State Maple Association and started creating maple menus and maple events," said Hunt. "We decided we wanted to create a similar weekend to the Holiday Stroll held in the springtime, which is kind of off-season. We partnered with a local sustainable product, which is maple syrup, and the local producers. Restaurants were available to do some special things because it is slower, so it is a win-win effort. The food was great, we got a lot people, and it's turned out to be an outstanding weekend."
At the Lake Placid Conference Center, Carly Brittan and her brother Wes from Rochester tried a pork belly lollipop made by Generations Chef Ryan Preston from reduced maple syrup with ginger and cayenne powder served with vanilla bean ice cream.
"We think it's fun because it is savory and sweet and it works for breakfast or dessert," said Carly.
"We are serving a maple egg cream and a maple, bourbon bacon jam with brie and tomatoes. It's good, really good," said Ryan Babcock assisting Freestyle Cuisine's Chef Richard Brosseau. "We render off some bacon and saute some onions in the left over bacon grease, then we add the bacon back, add some maple syrup, vinegar and pepper for a little spice, and then cook it down until it is a good texture, puree it up a little bit and then it is all set."
Equally impressive was The Cowboy Chef Vicki Breyette's roast parsnip chipotle and maple soup, maple ginger orange cheesecake, maple cornbread, and maple marshmallows that had people coming back for seconds and thirds. Meanwhile, Michelle Privett from Albuquerque, N.M., was falling in love with a maple creme brulee tart served up by the Whiteface Lodge's Executive Chef David Hick. "I came all the way from the Southwest just to attend this event, absolutely," Privett said. "Maple is amazing and worth it."
The Cottage's Alex Hudson was plating salads with local greens and cheddar cheese served with a homemade balsamic maple vinaigrette dressing, Chuck Brucculeri of the Dancing Bears had concocted cherry wood-smoked trout with baby greens, cabernet pickled shallots and a sherry maple vinaigrette. Hunt served smoked maple trout.
"We start with a bit of a spicy eggplant relish mixed in with the maple syrup. The trout is then marinated, smoked and topped with a horseradish and maple sauce," Hunt said.
Later, back up on Spread Eagle, after showing me how they grade their syrup, Odell said, "I like sugaring because it is a family tradition. I help my uncle Kerry make it, my uncle Wes sells it, and my parents come up and help out. I'd have to say, though, my favorite part is the finished product."
"I got sugaring in the blood," said Kerry Whitney. "I've been talking to my neighbors about taping some of their trees, and my sister and brother in law bought some land. Might be able to get another 2,000 taps, first we have to clear out some of the junk softwood. The ratio is between 30 to 40 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup. We use oil to boil the syrup. We shifted from wood to oil about 12 years ago. We don't use reverse osmosis to take out most of the water. I think the slow cooking approach tastes best."
Because of craftsmen like Whitney and many local chefs testing new recipes, coupled with all the fun activities already being planned, make sure you are in the Tri-Lakes at the end of March next year, and in between when you go into a local restaurant ask for their maple specials and pick up a jug of maple syrup to take home.