by Kristin Cleveland
As light returns to our region and cold nights alternate with warm days, sap runs in the trees and maple sugaring season begins. On Saturday, March 16th, the Saratoga Farmers’ Market celebrates this sweet time of year with Maple Day! Vendors throughout the market will offer maple-inspired samples and recipes, and Gina Willis, manager of the maple production at her family’s Slate Valley Farms, will introduce a new spin on this traditional treat: maple syrup infusions.
Willis grew up learning about making maple, honey, and other farm products with her parents Pat and Susan Imbimbo. She earned a degree in Agricultural Business and Horticulture at SUNY Cobleskill and then returned to help run the family farm.
This decision makes Willis unusual in the maple industry, as most maple operations are run by men. Willis is excited to take up the family tradition and also innovate. Last summer she attended classes at the Maple Producers Convention to learn about naturally infusing a variety of flavors into maple syrup. She has since tested over 30 infusions in her commercial kitchen, and on Saturday she’ll bring samples of four (vanilla bean, blueberry, Ceylon cinnamon, and coffee bean) plus a bourbon barrel aged maple syrup. In addition, she’ll offer samples of all of the grades of syrup made at Slate Valley Farms during the 2019 harvest.
Willis is also continuing a project, started by her grandmother, of sharing a wide variety of maple recipes, from sweet to savory, salty to spicy. Instead of a traditional cookbook, Willis is developing a cooking video web series. She’ll provide a sneak preview at the market, giving out recipes like Maple Apple Sheet Cake and Savory Maple Rice and Beans, which she loves because it combines “northeast sweet flavor with southwest zest!”
Willis is thrilled to devote her life to both the beloved traditions and new possibilities of maple. She enjoys having a connection to her family’s woodlands and managing them year-round to ensure a great maple season. She explains, “Being able to have an occupation that allows me to be in tune with nature is a wonderful perk.”
Also at Saturday’s market will be an opportunity to try an old New England sugaring tradition, sweet maple syrup drizzled over a sour dill pickle, plus some local vendor creations like maple-vanilla Italian cream sodas, real maple lattes, and maple cheesecakes.