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Highland Co. Festival features all things maple

Monday - 3/12/2012, 10:44am  ET

Rexrode fire (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)
A fire heats a large pan of maple syrup at one of the sugar camps in Highland County. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)
  • Gallery: (39 images)

Editor's note: Colleen Kelleher managed to get away for the weekend and thought the trip to the mountains was worth sharing with you. The views below are solely hers.

Colleen Kelleher, wtop.com

MONTEREY, Va. - Sometimes you just have to set off on an adventure and play tourist.

In my case, I just wanted a weekend away, somewhere in Virginia I'd never visited. At the same time, I wanted to help my husband work on his goal of running in every county and city in Virginia. Looking at our schedules, March would be the month.

The Highland County Maple Festival sounded quaint. How often do you get to see maple syrup produced?

Held in tiny Monterey (population roughly 150), I figured this would be one of those really "local" events. Little did I know how popular this event is. The fact it's been held every year since 1958 should have been the hint.

Tiffany White, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, in an email, describes it as the "county's biggest event."

Known as "Virginia's Little Switzerland" for its mountains, sheep and cows, Highland County -- population roughly 2,500 and Virginia's least populous county -- attracts tens of thousands of people the second and third weekends of March every year. This past weekend and next weekend were each expected to attract 25,000 people.

People come by the busload: Abbott Trailways brought a busload from the Roanoke and Lynchburg areas. And, people come by car. You can't get around this agricultural county in the Allegheny Mountains, on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, without one.

FYI, if you plan to go, be ready to walk and to walk up hills. My pedometer estimated we walked about 4.4 miles Saturday, from where we parked through Monterey and up to the county's combined elementary and high school, one of the arts and crafts and food venues. Highland County is so small all of the children go to school in one building. By the end of the day, we logged almost 5.2 miles, up and down the hills where the maple trees sit.

Is it really maple syrup heaven? Yep.

  • Pancakes with maple syrup. Check. Hubby had them at the Bolar Ruritan Club after a run. $8.

  • Chicken with maple syrup. Check. Sadly, the chicken folks at the festival sold out on Saturday before we could get to them.

  • Maple donuts. Check. Sweet and worth trying once in your life. $1.

  • Peanuts or walnuts coated in maple syrup. Check. We went for the peanuts, but haven't eaten them yet. $3.

  • Maple popcorn. Check. Purchased but not eaten yet. $3.

  • Soft maple ice cream. Check. Worth the drive just for this. $4.

  • Maple milkshakes. Check. We opted for chocolate. This $3.50 shake sale benefited the high schools.

  • Granulated maple sugar. Check. Purchased but not eaten yet. $3.

  • Maple fudge. Check. A sample from the Frontier Culture Museum Store in Staunton and my $6 was gone.

  • Maple lollipops. Check. No purchase, but they were only 75 cents.

  • Maple syrup. Tiny containers to gallons of it. Check. We opted for small samples for gifts, one 8-oz. container and one pint. From $2 to $9 a container. Folks were buying by the gallon ($58), but really would we ever use that much maple syrup?

Good tourists that we were, we spent $64 on maple-related products, $32.50 of that on maple syrup.

Making all of that maple syrup takes a lot of effort. A good year requires the trees to freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw to get the sap running between the end of January and early March.

Each maple tree is tapped, and the sap or sugar-water from it collected. The sugar-water is then evaporated, filtered and bottled.

The process may sound easy enough but for every gallon of maple syrup produced, it takes 50 gallons of sap to make it.

We visited two maple syrup operations with completely different modes of operation.

At Southernmost Maple Products, down a narrow, two-lane road in Bolar where the speed limit is 15 mph, the sap is collected in buckets from individual trees.

Once collected, the sugar-water that's a milky-clear color is funneled through a high-tech, piggy-back evaporator and filtered twice to remove the things we don't realize end up in the buckets -- things like moths and flies.

The operators say about 450 gallons of sap makes 9 gallons of maple syrup in an hour, a process that is fast compared to other operations.

On the other side of Highland County, down the 3,880-foot Monterey Mountain, Rexrode's Sugar Orchard taps into 600 trees, many of which are more than 200 years old.

Rather than collect the sap from individual trees, an elaborate system of tubing runs from the trees to central collection tubs. The vats are gathered and the sugar-water is processed the old-fashioned way, using two 50-gallon open pans over a fire.

The sap is boiled for six hours. The syrup is then filtered twice with cheesecloth at the family's home before being bottled.

The operators say this process makes 6 to 8 gallons of syrup. In a "good" year, Rexrode's makes 300 to 400 gallons of maple syrup. It had produced about 350 so far this year.

"This year was a very good year for maple producers. We had warm days and freezes during the night which is ideal for syrup making," said White, of the Chamber of Commerce.

For more of the sights of the sugar camps and maple syrup festival, click through the photo gallery on the right.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)