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Sugar houses open for Maple Weekend

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ARGYLE — Dave McDougall greeted a visitor to Highland Maple Farm’s sugar house with a sample cup of freshly made, warm maple syrup. Its complex sweetness was the quintessential flavor for the sunny, snowy day outside. The sugar house, on Coach Road just east of the village of Argyle, was one of 24 sugar houses open this weekend and next as part of the Upper Hudson Maple Producers annual Maple Open House.

Grandson Nick Bain explained that the McDougalls tapped 1,200 trees on Dave and Marjie McDougall’s property this year. Ten to 11 miles of plastic tubing feed the sap to a holding tank at the sugar house. When the tank reaches its capacity of 600 gallons, the clear, almost flavorless sap goes through a reverse osmosis machine, which concentrates the sugar by removing some of the water, said Marjie McDougall. The machine reduces boiling time by 75 percent and saves fuel for the McDougalls’ natural gas-fired evaporator.

The concentrated sap flows by gravity into the evaporator inside the sugar house where it boils at 212 degrees, driving off more water. The almost-syrup goes to a finishing pan, where Dave McDougall checks the sugar concentration with a hygrometer. Too little sugar, and the syrup will ferment; too much and it will crystallize. When it reaches 66.5 percent, the syrup is drawn off and mixed with diatomaceous earth, a natural product that helps minerals and other impurities settle out, then it’s run through a filter press. The result is pure maple syrup.

Dave McDougall is a fourth-generation sugar maker who learned the craft from his father at the McDougall home farm down the road. He and Marjie bought their land 50 years ago and maintain most of it as a sugarbush (sugar maple woodland).

“This sugar house opened in 1984,” Dave McDougall said. “This is our 22nd year on the maple tour. We were a founding member.”

Marjie McDougall is the taste tester, maple recipe chef, and sales and marketing director, Dave McDougall said. For the open house, she had made a spread of maple cookies, muffins, sweet rolls, maple cream cheese, dips, and maple mustard. Copies of her hand-written recipes were available.

The official names of the four grades of maple syrup, formerly light to extra dark, were changed recently. Marjie McDougall took exception to calling the darkest grade “strong.”

“You never want to call a food strong,” she said. “Dave and I take great pride in our extra dark. It is not `strong.’ It has a fine, mellow, rich, deep maple flavor.”

Highland Maple sells about half of its production at wholesale and half retail, Dave McDougall said. About half of the retail sales of syrup, candy, cream, and maple sugar are at the sugar house. The remainder are at local farmers markets and through mail order.

Daughter Lori Bain said her father made maple syrup part-time while he worked as a contractor. Since he retired, “it’s become a real love,” she said. “For Dad, there really is no off-season. He’s in the woods cleaning lines and tending trees.”

Friends and family members come to help when the sap is running, and he and Marjie go to maple producers’ tours and conferences.

Highland Maple products have won blue ribbons at maple conferences and the Washington County Fair.

“We’re trying to get him to go to the state fair,” Lori Bain said.

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