Monday, March 31, 2008

Be nice to America

I guess that's a threat, not a promise?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Earth Hour

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fry the Planet

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beer and pubs

When my parents first came to visit me in the US back in the early 90s we did some travelling around the northeastern United States. Everywhere we went, my dad asked what the local beer was. He was often greeted with a blank look. The only beer anyone ever seemed to suggest was Sam Adams. He was rather disappointed.

Last summer when they came to visit he had much more choice. There are far more microbrews available now - we have not one but THREE brewpubs practically within spitting distance. (Well, within a reasonably short drive anyway.) The Beer Advocate says:
Brewery and brewpub-wise, rough numbers show that ...

- Connecticut has 5 breweries and 12 brewpubs
- Maine has 14 breweries and 16 brewpubs
- Massachusetts has 18 breweries and 18 brewpubs
- New Hampshire has 6 breweries and 9 brewpubs
- Rhode Island has 3 breweries and 4 brewpubs
- Vermont has 14 breweries and 11 brewpubs

What's really cool is that these 130 breweries and brewpubs (give or take) in New England are making upwards of 2,000 different beers, within roughly 90 different styles of beer!
DH loves the fact that I do all the driving when we go to the UK. Having one beer with lunch and driving is not usually a problem for him - but when driving on the 'wrong' side of the road it would not be a good idea. He buys the latest version of the Good Pub Guide and spends a lot of time planning our itinerary around where he would like to have lunch and dinner. There was a wonderful place we had lunch the very first time he came to the UK with me. I was the one who had researched it that time as back then he didn't even know that such a thing as the Good Pub Guide existed. Sadly, we will probably never manage to find it again. He was convinced I was nuts as we drove what appeared to be miles out of our way to a tiny village that didn't look as though it could possibly support a decent pub, only to have an extremely enjoyable lunch. (Come to think about it, it was one of those pubs where children are absolutely not welcome, so it'll be years before we could go there again anyway!)

On our last trip we had dinner at The Mole and Chicken in Buckinghamshire which was a lot easier to find, even in the dark. They had fairly recently won the Buckinghamshire Dining Pub of the Year award, and we were not disappointed. The menu was excellent, the beers good, the attention to detail outstanding, and they were definitely a child-friendly place early on a quiet Sunday evening. Although obviously the designation of "Dining Pub of the Year" is likely to ensure that a pub is very busy, it's one that we will look for on our next trip to the UK.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sugar shack

This one is on my drive to and from work. A real sugar shack! The first picture doesn't show the classic sugar house roofline very well, though you can see the chimney. Even when there's no steam hiding it, the roof's not particularly obvious. It was only when they started boiling that I realized that it wasn't just another run-down farm building. It's clearer in the second, taken from the other side of the farm. I'd never actually noticed the wrecked vehicle until I stopped to take these pics.



Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Making maple syrup on YouTube

Not for those of you with slow internet connections I'm afraid as these are quite long videos . . . YouTube has more information than you ever needed or wanted to know about maple syrup.
This is from Wisconsin - some slight differences to the way I see farmers doing this in New England, (I've never seen plastic bags for collecting the syrup) but not that different overall. There are other videos at YouTube of more amateur setups. (Although I said don't do this in your kitchen at home, apparently some people do - though perhaps their kitchens were not that wonderful in the first place . . . ?)

Wordless Wednesday - trees on life support?


Monday, March 17, 2008

Maple syrup and sugar houses

banner: text Sugar House ahead
I'd been living in the US for years before I went to a sugar house. I'd vaguely heard of them, but didn't really know what they were. Finally, I was visiting a friend in northern Vermont and she took me to a sugar house near her home. Some sugar houses are not open to visitors, but many encourage them, indeed depending on them for much of their business. The one I visited in Vermont had a store attached where you could buy all kinds of Vermont souvenirs, especially ones that were maple syrup related. Others have restaurants where you can buy pancakes or waffles served with, of course, real maple syrup. Some have both. The one we visited last week had a restaurant, and they sell jugs of syrup. The one we visited this week has a restaurant, and a store. They were offering (ok, charging extra for) rides on a horse-drawn wagon and they have a small petting zoo of farm animals. In the summer they sell homemade ice cream. I doubt if anyone makes a living producing maple syrup alone.

Basically, the sugar house is where they boil the sap they have tapped from maple trees, and boil it, and boil it (hence the steam) . . . until it turns into maple syrup. The evaporators are often (but not always) powered by a wood fire, so there is smoke coming out of the chimney as well as steam. I have now learned to tell if our local sugar houses are boiling or not by looking to see if there is smoke as well as steam. Most people just look for the steam, but sometimes the sugar house will run out of sap if the temperatures are not right for the sap to run well, and then the touristy places will just boil water so it looks as though they are boiling sap. Part of the pleasure for me is walking into the evaporator room and being able to smell the syrup in the air, so I am always disappointed if they are just boiling water!


On my first visit to a sugar house, I really didn't know what to expect and was really surprised to find that they were serving small cups of warm maple syrup right from the evaporator!


I had had syrup on pancakes before, and just didn't find the idea of drinking that sticky stuff terribly appealing. I failed to factor in a couple of things though:
  • Firstly, I don't think I had ever actually had REAL maple syrup before. It is NOT the same as the maple syrup flavoured brown sticky stuff that many places serve with pancakes. Most brands of 'pancake syrup' contain precisely 0% maple syrup. Some might contain as much as 2%! You'll know if it's the real thing though - it will (of course) say so on the bottle, and the price will make you wonder whether it's worth it. If you're still wondering, don't. Just buy it! It is worth it!
  • Secondly, the stuff they were serving was warm and runny, not thick and sticky as I had imagined it would be. Fortunately my friend persuaded me to try it - MMMM, was it good!!!!! Somehow, it was slightly buttery and definitely moreish. We circled the evaporator a couple of times and persuaded my friend's DH to take a couple of cups of syrup that he didn't really want so we could have more! This weekend I set a good example to the kids and we only had one sample each.
I have learned a lot about maple syrup since then. There are different grades of syrup. The so-called 'best' syrup is quite light in color and has the lightest flavor. Sometimes I prefer the darker, stronger flavored syrups. They happen to be slightly cheaper too. If you see 'cheap' maple syrup at a warehouse store like BJs or Costco, check the quality - it's probably a darker syrup than you would see at the supermarket. Well, either that, or it's not 100% maple syrup. (See above.)

The native Americans were tapping maple trees and making syrup before the Europeans got here. Their methods were much more intensive though. Rather than boiling the sap, the native Americans dropped hot rocks into the sap to get rid of some of the water! Given that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, I would guess it either took them a really long time, or what they ended up with was very different from today's maple syrup.


After the Europeans learned the technique from the native Americans, they switched to using wooden buckets.

wooden bucket

Later they switched to metal buckets and taps as the wooden ones tended to leak. (The buckets usually have lids on them to keep debris out, but the lid had blown off the one in the photo below.)


The metal buckets are obviously very labor-intensive to empty, so there is now a more modern way of collecting sap from the trees. In an area where there are lots of trees, there are often trees that look as though they're hooked up to life-support with a series of tubes coming out of them. The tubing runs from one tree to the next, carrying the sap downhill to a collection tank, often situated next to the road.


The farmer then pumps the sap from the collection tanks into a larger container on the back of his truck to get it back to the sugar house. The buckets still feature prominently near many sugar houses though as a form of advertising, and on smaller properties where it's not worth running the tubing. Some people who have a bunch of maple trees on their property will have a farmer tap them, and in return they get a portion of the syrup that is generated from the sap from their trees. That would be cool - to have enough maple trees of our own that we could have someone make syrup for us!


Making maple syrup is not something you want to try at home. People I know who have tried it had to redecorate afterwards. By definition, it requires the production of large quantities of steam, and turning your house into a sauna when it was not designed to be one is really Not A Good Thing! (Note the large vents in the roofs of the sugar houses - they are there for a practical reason!)

The photos are all links to Flickr, where they are posted with more comments.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

On the wrong continent again

Once again, a blogthings survey result says I'm living on the wrong continent.

You Belong in London

A little old fashioned, and a little modern.
A little traditional, and a little bit punk rock.
A unique soul like you needs a city that offers everything.
No wonder you and London will get along so well.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Coming soon

Well, next weekend sometime anyway: an explanation of what a sugar house is, and more about maple syrup than you probably ever wanted to know.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Spring - season of rising steam

The only flowers in bloom around here are the cut daffodils on my kitchen table that were imported from Ireland, but nonetheless it is feeling like spring at last. I see sap buckets on maple trees, and steam rising from sugar houses on my commute to work, and DS and I had breakfast at a sugar house this morning. I'm thinking we may do it again next weekend - hoping DD will have learned from her experience this morning and will get herself ready on time to come with us! (There's no point in turning up at a sugar house too late, as you just end up having to wait forever for a table.) DS requested a trip to a different sugar house as there is one that has a small collection of farm animals that the kids can visit. I think the pancakes at this morning's location were bigger though!



More signs of spring: The potholes are still getting bigger, and the DPW is finally getting started on roadwork projects that were abandoned for the winter (but not, of course, the potholes.) The kids played outside in glorious sunshine this afternoon, even riding their bikes for a while. Admittedly, after an hour they were ready to come in, but we got outside and away from the television! The clocks changed last night, and this afternoon I finally got all the paperwork ready for the accountant to do our taxes. Yay! Spring is truly almost here!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Caught short?

It's been a long time since I was a newcomer in the US, but I vaguely remember a time when I felt awkward going into an establishment where I had no intention of buying anything simply in search of the toilets. In the UK, the toilets are only for the use of the customers. With the demise of the public convenience, this is becoming a problem which some local authorities are well aware of as people (mostly men I am sure) choose to urinate in the street. Westminster City Council estimates that thousands of gallons of urine a year are peed onto its streets and alleyways! Apparently, in Twickenham places like KFC are being offered 600 quid a year to put a sign in their window announcing that their toilets are open to non-customers, and last November, Westminster City Council launched the "SatLav" mobile phone service which alerts people to the nearest public toilets. Texting the word "toilet" to the number 80097 prompts a quick-response text with details of the nearest facilities and their opening times. (This is telling of another cultural difference - cell phone users in the UK are far more likely to use their phones for texting than American cell phone users. )

So what kind of places would you go into to find the toilets, with no intention of buying anything? A fast-food restaurant? A pub? A restaurant? Would you go into a city building - city hall?
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