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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fiddlin Around at the Vermont Maple Festival

Did you know that 1 of every 4 trees in Vermont is a maple tree?  Maybe it's not so coincidental, then, that Vermont is known as the home of the maple sugaring industry.  The industry is alive and well today, in thousands of family farms throughout New England.

Maple trees provide maple sap, which is made into sugar and syrup. Several food products -- including maple syrup, maple sugar, maple cream (also known as maple butter and maple spread), maple bars and doughnuts, maple liqueur, maple cookies, and maple taffy --  are created from the sap harvested from maple trees; and maple sugar and syrup are incorporated into various foods and dishes. The sugar maple, one of the most important Canadian trees, is (along with the black maple) the major source of sap for making maple syrup. Other maple species can be used as a sap source for maple syrup, but some have lower sugar contents or produce more cloudy syrup than these two.

Little St. Albans, a town of 7,000 people, located in northern Vermont just east of Lake Champlain, is home to the Vermont Maple Festival, held annually on the last weekend of April for 52 years to celebrate the first maple sap harvest of each spring. 

It may interest you to know that Vermont often votes Democratic in Presidential elections, and St. Albans, not unlike most of its neighboring municipalities, cast most of their votes for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.  This intrigues us, because Vermont (and perhaps much of New England) represents a rural, farming region that, despite sharing many of the problems of other farming areas of our country, has not found itself jumping chest-deep into the Republican version of the populist stream we see flowing so lustily these days.  It wouldn't surprise us, though, to see strong support for Bernie Sanders in these parts.

Chartered by a colonial governor in 1763 and settled during and after the Revolutionary War, St. Albans is also the unlikely site of the northernmost engagement of the Civil War:  the St. Albans Raid of 1864.   It was a controversial raid from Canada by Confederate soldiers meant to rob banks to raise money and to trick the Union Army into diverting troops to defend their northern border against further raids.  In groups of 2 or 3 a day over 10 days, Confederate soldiers out of uniform came to town from St. John's, Newfoundland, pretending to be in town for a "sporting vacation".  They staged simultaneous robberies of the city's three banks, identifying themselves as Confederate soldiers and stole $208,000. During the robberies, several Confederates held the villagers at gunpoint on the village green, taking their horses to prevent pursuit. Several armed villagers tried to resist, and one was killed and another wounded. The Confederate leader ordered his men to burn the city, but their bottles of "Greek fire" failed to ignite, and only one shed was destroyed by fire.  The raiders escaped to Canada. In response to US demands, Canada arrested the raiders, recovering $88,000. However, a Canadian court ruled that, because they were soldiers under military orders, officially neutral Canada could not extradite them. Canada freed the raiders, but returned the $88,000 to St. Albans.  As an unintended consequence, the raid served to turn many Canadians against the Confederacy, since they felt that Canada was being drawn into the conflict without its consent.

But we digress.  On to sweeter topics.

We thought it would be fun to attend the festival on Saturday, April 28, in order to enjoy all things maple, understand the industry, and get to know our Vermont neighbors a little better.  When we arrived in the center of St. Albans, the party was already going full-tilt:

Music was provided at all of the venues, including on Main Street, where a very talented local rock band did a great job of playing crowd favorites:

Right away, David felt his Oregon lumberjack genes vibrating in sympathy to that cold maple-sugaring culture:

We wandered around the main square a bit, taking in the local architecture, which is quite distinctive:

Our first stop was to pick up tickets to the BBQ dinner and the fiddle show.  We wandered over to the festival headquarters which, not incidentally, was also located in the Exhibit Hall where we could enjoy maple food products and walk the vendor room to admire all sorts of local crafts:

In the Exhibit Hall, we were treated to some local bluegrass melody: 

Time is fleeting, however, and we had an appointment for a maple beverage tasting at the local 14th Star Brewing Co., so we strolled up Main Street, enjoying the carnival sights, the food vendors, the puppies and the kids.

The maple beverage tasting was both interesting and disappointing - interesting because, indeed, there were some beers, liqueurs and wines made with maple (even a honey mead) --

-- but disappointing because many of them didn't really have much of a maple flavor, and there weren't as many different maple things to taste as we might have expected.  Indeed, most of the sips on offer weren't even maple flavored.  However, David made the most of the occasion and shows off his sample of 14th Star's Maple Breakfast Stout (ABV 5.5%), which receives an average rating of "Very Good" (3.79 on a scale of 5.0) from Beer Advocate:

To illustrate our disappointment however, the event advertised the availability of Founder's Brewing Co.'s Canadian Breakfast Stout (ABV 11.70%, and a Beer Advocate rating of 4.66 out of 5.00), and none of it was to be had.

Nevertheless, our 14th Star bartender was very friendly and helpful, and was even willing to pose with a photo of their Maple Breakfast Stout:

This is not to say that we abstained in protest:

In fact, the event introduced us to our new favorite sparkling water drink, tretap's Maple, which (along with three other flavors - blueberry, cranberry and cucumber) is made in Vermont by seventh generation family growers.  Tretap's sparkling water uses water boiled from Vermont maple trees infused with organic flavors such as our favorite maple and naturally sweetened with a touch of anti-oxidant rich, organic maple syrup.  We're going to purchase a big supply before we cross the border into Canada next week!

But that wasn't the end of our adventure!  We still had the BBQ dinner and the fiddler show.

As it turned out, the BBQ dinner was more an awards dinner for the festival participants, than it was an event for tourists.  But we still enjoyed some great grilled chicken, potato salad, beans, and -- oh, yes -- vanilla ice cream with maple topping!  There were something over 100 people in attendance, mostly representative of the many family farms that participate in the festival. 

We were told that over 170 handmade maple syrups were entered into the maple syrup competition!  Unfortunately, we weren't certified to do the tasting or judging, so we just had to imagine how good they all were.  Awards were handed out to the best recipes for cooked products using maple --

-- and for the "Best of Show" winning maple syrup:

We had to hustle over to the fiddle show just as the BBQ dinner presentations ended.  After some difficulty finding the fiddling venue (this festival is DEFINITELY for the maple farmers and other locals, and not for visitors, because it was very difficult finding the locations of some of the venues).  Persistence paid off, though, because we were treated to THREE hours of some of the best fiddling we have ever heard live.  Listening to the performances, we were transported back over 250 years, throughout which we imagine people on these farms shared their fiddle music.

The music was of English, Irish, Scottish and French origins, reflecting the diverse cultural heritage of these local families.  Many fiddling styles were represented, but our personal favorites were Catherine Rooney, a young fiddler whose technique was superb and tones were sweet --

-- and Bill Campbell, who is the President of the (Vermont) Old Time Fiddlers Association, who took Catherine's skill and made it smooth as maple syrup!

The "biggest character" award goes to the MC, Franklyn Hayburn, whose classic fiddling style you can sample here.

The two oldest fiddlers were Guy Fortin and Gaston Provost, each of whom made it down from Quebec to participate in the concert.  As Franklyn Hayburn observed, it is said that the best soups are made in the oldest pots, and these two old pots served up some mighty tasty fiddlin'!

The fact that they are French Canadian and ventured down here for a fiddle context is not as remarkable as one might first assume.  Since we've been in the Burlington area, we've noticed a significant French-Canadian influence in place names, and possibly -- very faintly -- the accents of some of the people we've been meeting.  It turns out our impression was accurate.  French-Canadian emigration to New England began as a trickle in the 1830s, Burlington and Winooski being the first communities to receive sizeable populations.  The French-Canadians started to establish a presence in 1839 when they began publishing a French-language newspaper, the Patriote Canadien in Burlington. Although that venture was short lived, another, more successful paper, the Protecteur Canadien, was started in St. Albans in 1868.  The trickle became a floodtide after the end of the Civil War, with the majority settling further south and east, in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. When the Great Depression put a brake on the exodus, some 900,000 French Canadians had made the journey and stayed.  Geographic proximity was a driving force of this exodus. The impoverished farmlands of the St. Lawrence Valley sat cheek by jowl to industrializing and urbanizing New England towns and cities. And railroad and road access between the regions, including the Central Vermont Railroad which linked Montreal to St. Albans and Burlington and points south and east, made it relatively convenient and inexpensive to make the trip.  Today, nearly 1 in 4 Vermont families trace its ancestry to French-Canadians!

So, there you have it:  a fulsome tour of the culture of Northwestern Vermont, maple sugaring, and fiddling.  Just in case you'd like a little deeper video dive into what the festival is like, here is a 1974 news video showing highlights of the Vermont Maple Festival of that year.

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