To many Canadians, sap buckets and tubing slung between trees are as much a sign of spring as melting snow and birdsong. In my household last year’s supply of maple syrup has usually run dry by the time March rolls around, and we start looking forward to the next harvest. This year my wife and son and I refilled our stores at the Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival, and took in the weekend’s attractions while we were at it. The Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival typically happens on a weekend in early/mid March each year, and there are plenty of other festivals and experiences throughout March and into April – you can find all the details here.
Dennis Gebhardt, Chair of the Festival Committee, told me we’d managed to catch the fest a third of the way towards its centennial. Now in its thirty-third year, the festival attracts thousands each spring. Most attendees hit the town to check out the themed attractions before taking a shuttle bus to nearby Sandy Flat Sugar Bush. Warkworth is a charming place year round — not every small town can boast an award-winning chocolatier and fair trade organic coffee roaster — but the festival ups the ante with maple-inspired menus in the restaurants and kid-friendly events like mini golf and a petting zoo. “Last year they sold over 33,000 pancake breakfasts in two days,” Dennis told me. “For about seventy-five percent of the people on the buses it’s their first time going to a sugar bush so we do draw from all around.”
Considering that’s enough to feed the local population many times over, I was curious what makes Warkworth such a draw. For Dennis, being off the beaten track is part of the appeal. “In a lot of small towns the main highway goes through the centre of town, whereas [to get to] Warkworth you have to turn off the main highway,” he said. The end result is a rural community that comes together with creative ways to attract visitors. “We have a really true community,” Dennis said, adding that the Maple Syrup Festival was only the start of a busy season: “This year we have twenty-one events coming up.”
He recommended we visit the Warkworth Town Hall Centre for the Arts, an historic building from 1884 where twenty-six different artisans were selling their wares. Afterwards we hit the Ah! Arts and Heritage Centre and stopped in on The Bakery before making our way to Sandy Flat. Five kilometres from town over gently rolling backroads we found the sugar bush.
Sandy Flats is a 150-acre property covered, naturally, in handsome sugar maples. It was a short lineup to the outdoor kitchen, where volunteers from the Warkworth Community Service Club ladled the syrup on generously with a side of sausage. We heard music coming from the pancake house as we brought our plates inside. The setting taught me to imagine something charming, but I didn’t expect the most lively sugar shack this side of Quebec. An older couple were playing the Tennessee Waltz on fiddle and piano, and an impromptu dance had started up between the tables. The walls were wood panelled and decorated with farming bric-à-brac. I grabbed us coffees and hot chocolate from a side table and sat down to eat.
The syrup was exceptional, not merely sweet but with real depth and character. It essentially proved the slogan on the staff’s shirts that read “Life’s Too Short for Fake Maple Syrup.” Owners Chris and Robin Clark were running the sales counter and I complimented them on their setup. When I did Chris gave me another pleasant surprise — the music was provided by the original Sandy Flat owners George and Alice Potter, who’d helped found the festival over three decades ago.
When George and Alice started tapping trees in 1977, there was no pancake house on the property. Since then the operation has grown to accommodate indoor seating for 90-100 guests, walking trails, and a historical installation so visitors can compare the modern evaporator against the old-fashioned method. When not in use for the festival, the sugar bush serves as a wedding destination and field trip hotspot for schools. I asked Chris for a little primer on what made his product so appealing.
“It takes approximately 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. Pure maple products contain no preservatives, artificial colour or flavouring,” he told me. A trained palate can learn to distinguish nuances much like a sommelier comes to understand terroir. “Maple syrup is like wine; it’s distinguishable bush to bush. George Potter used to compete on a regular basis with the syrup he made. He’s biased, mind you, but he claims the best syrup is made here and he’s won several world championships with the syrup he’s made. Some of that is craftsmanship, and some of that is the soil structure and the trees on the property here. I believe everybody in Ontario makes really good maple syrup. We all like to try and stand out a little differently, and I think that’s why we compete as well.”
The other major factor influencing maple syrup is weather — fluctuations between cold nights and warm days are optimal. The variety of factors ensure no batch is exactly the same. For me personally, that’s reason enough to check out the Maple Syrup Festival again next year.
There are more ways than one to experience maple syrup in Kawarthas Northumberland.
You can click here to get details on all the sweet sap-to-syrup experiences across Kawarthas Northumberland.