As far as Holly Hardwick is concerned, there is nothing that can’t be improved with the addition of maple syrup.
From popcorn to pork roast, walnuts to whoopie pies, it’s all fair game if it’s edible.
“People tend to think maple syrup is just for pancakes,” Hardwick said recently as she packed up some of her creations to mail out to customers. “I try to find unique ways to get people away from that.”
Hardwick operates Northwoods Nectar with her husband Steve Hardwick out of their Eagle Lake homestead. The couple tap about 3,000 maple trees every spring, gathering enough sap to produce 750-gallons of syrup — pretty much in their spare time.
Steve Hardwick works full time as a lineman for Fairpoint Communications, while Holly Hardwick is employed at Bouchard’s Country Store in Fort Kent.
“It’s a team effort,” Holly Hardwick said. “Steve is the one who set up all the [sap] lines and takes care of them.”
The sweet life
Steve Hardwick may have the engineering and mechanical skills, but when it comes to culinary creativity Holly Hardwick is the master.
To date, she has used the maple syrup to create maple popcorn, maple-covered nuts, maple brittle, maple lollipops, maple whoopie pies, maple ice cream, maple cotton candy, maple sno-cones and the more traditional sugars, taffys, creams and butters.
“My inspiration often depends on how hungry I am,” she said with a laugh. “Today I am roasting a pork roast with maple, sage and other herbs.”
Inspiration also comes from treasured childhood memories.
“I’m a kid at heart,” Holly Hardwick said. “I make my own [maple] sugar and from that created the cotton candy.”
She got the idea for a summertime maple sno-cone — flavored shaved ice served in a paper cone — when she was expecting visitors from Texas. She was also able to use the sno-cones for another purpose.
“I love maple taffy on the snow,” Holly Hardwick said. But sharing the popular winter treat in which the syrup is boiled down to a thick consistency and then — still hot — drizzled over the snow and scooped up using a stick or spoon for a sweet, sticky treat, during the summer presented a challenge.
“I have a snowmaker,” she said. “So in the summer I was able to create ‘snow’ in the sno-cones, heat the taffy and the folks from Texas could roll the taffy on top of the sno-cones.”
In northern Maine the maple tree tapping season usually begins in early March and runs as long as the nights drop below freezing and the days warm up, often through the end of March into early April.
“We sell out of our maple syrup every year just before the new season,” Holly Hardwick said. “So every year what we have is brand new and fresh.”
The Hardwicks have 6,000 trees available to tap on their 60-acre homestead and use plastic pipes to run the sap from the trees to a central location for boiling.
“We run 25 main lines over 60 acres,” Holly Hardwick said. “That’s 15 miles of line. Each mainline connection between 120 to 490 trees.”
All that sap and those lines make for a dizzying maple syrup math problem.
“When we start the season, the sap is 1.25 percent sugar,” Holly Hardwick said. “At its height, the sap is just above 2 percent sugar.”
Depending on the time of the season, the Hardwicks need between 35 and 60 gallons of water to get 1 gallon of syrup. Multiply that by what is needed to get that final 750 gallons of syrup and it’s easy to see how the couple can, at times, feel overwhelmed.
“There are times the sap is running so fast out of the lines we can hardly keep up,” Holly Hardwick said. “We look like that scene out of the old ‘I Love Lucy’ show at the candy factory.”
Maintaining that line is up to Steve Hardwick, whom his wife credits for keeping things flowing all season.
“The biggest problem is a hole in the lines and tracking it down when there is one,” she said. “So Steve put a gauge and shut-off valve at the end of each mainline and checks the pressure every day. If there is a hole, we can just bypass that line with the shutoff.”
And the major culprit behind any holes?
Critters, according to Holly Hardwick.
“The most problems are with squirrels chewing the lines,” she said. “They will actually push a line down until it’s under the snow so they can chew on it.”
Fishers, mice and even a bear have also taken a bite or two out of the main sap lines.
“There is no question our [northern Maine] economy should be based on the assets we possess,” Alain Ouellette, planning and development division director at the Northern Maine Development Commission, said. “No. 1 is all of our natural resources and number two are all the creative people we have. When you combine those you get something that is really unique and wonderful.”
The Northwoods Nectar products, Ouellette said, are a perfect example of a value added marketing idea.
Ouellette was at Bouchard’s store to pick up some northern Maine-themed items for a gift basket and said he is a fan of the Hardwicks’ products, and of the memories they trigger.
“I remember my [grandfather] Ouellette tapping trees when I was a boy,” Ouellette said. “Of course, at the time it was a ‘task’ and not the highlight of spring. I remember my [grandmother] using a wooden paddle to stir the sap that was poured into this huge cast iron kettle on the wood stove.”
Holly Hardwick said she and her husband have watched their business grow from the moment they tapped their first tree.
“The first year we tapped 1,000 trees and during our open house I served 100 taffy-on-the-snow sticks,” she said. “Last year we tapped 3,000 trees and I made 600 taffy-on-the-snows.”
Her creations are available at Bouchard’s store and online and Hardwick said she has no plans to quit dreaming up different combinations to try with her maple syrup.
“My husband was really afraid 750 gallons would be too much for us to try and sell,” she said. “But we keep coming up with ideas and, frankly, in the fall we saw people really wanting it [because] maple is the new pumpkin spice.”
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