Maple syrup is at once simple and extravagant: simple, as it's made from the purest ingredients available; extravagant, as it's an expensive luxury.

Two elemental ingredients combine to create maple syrup: sugar-maple sap and fire. Sugaring season slips in between northern New England's long winter and short spring; it usually lasts around 4 or 5 weeks, typically beginning in early to mid-March. When warm and sunny days alternate with freezing nights, the sap in the maple trees begins to run from roots to the branches overhead. Sugarers drill shallow holes into the trees and insert small taps. Buckets (or plastic tubing) are hung from the taps to collect the sap that drips out bit by bit.

The collected sap is then boiled off. The equipment for this ranges from a simple backyard fire pit cobbled together of concrete blocks to elaborate sugarhouses with oil or propane burners. It requires between 32 and 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and that means a fair amount of boiling. The real cost of syrup isn't the sap; it's in the fuel to boil it down.

Vermont is the nation's capital of maple syrup, producing some 550,000 gallons a year, with a value of about $12 million. The fancier inns and restaurants serve native maple syrup with breakfast. Other breakfast places charge $1 or so for real syrup rather than the flavored corn syrup that's so prevalent elsewhere. (You may have to ask if the real stuff is available.)

You can pick up the real thing in almost any grocery store in the state, but I'm convinced it tastes better if you buy it right from the farm. Look for handmade signs touting syrup posted at the end of driveways around the region throughout the year. Drive on up and knock on the door.

A number of sugarers invite visitors to inspect the process and sample some of the fresh syrup in the early spring. Ask for the brochure, "Maple Sugarhouses Open to Visitors," available at information centers, or by writing or calling the Vermont Department of Agriculture (116 State St., Montpelier, VT 05620; tel. 802/828-2416). The list is also posted on the Web at

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.