Breakfast with the Branons - it's all about the sap
Gene Branon will tell you: It's tough hosting a party when you're overworked and underslept. Today Branon, his enormous extended family and their crew will throw a 350-person Sunday brunch in their Fairfield sugarhouse. Tree sap doesn't take weekends off.
The brunch officially kicks off at 9 a.m. By that time, Branon and his dedicated 10-man sugaring team will have produced 110 gallons - two metal barrels' full - of "fancy"-grade syrup. But this 31-year-old sugarer, whose soiled Carhartts and weathered sweatshirt attest to an inspired vigilance, still has enough energy to smile as he works. "This is typical. It's how we run," he says.
To an untrained eye, the entrance to the Branon Sugarhouse  looks as rustic as any other - antlers over the archway, tasting trophies in the corner, an old saw on the wall. Behind the scenes, though, Branon is adjusting a Springtech Elite 4000 Reverse Osmosis machine - "R.O." to syrup pros. The $60,000 contraption, which streamlines the boiling process and reduces fuel costs, is the latest energy-saving gadget designed for an increasingly tech-savvy maple-syrup industry.
In another room stands the Branons' steaming 6-by-18-foot sugaring "rig" - a mutant cousin of the backwoodsy, mom-and-pop model. Longtime employee Tim Hubbard, 45, stands beside the beast, stirring a cauldron of boiling syrup-to-be with a wooden pallet. "The R.O. helps take water out of the sap," Hubbard explains. "But only some of it."
Having adjusted the R.O., Gene Branon stops to check in with Hubbard before heading back into the woods, where he'll check for leaks in the sugar lines. "One barrel in 27 minutes, eh, Tim?" Branon asks.
Hubbard looks up through the steam and grins. "Twenty-four," he corrects.
The sugarers aren't the only ones running ahead of schedule. Around 8:30, a gaggle of guests converges on the griddle to grab a pre-emptive batch of pancakes. And bacon. And eggs. And baked beans. And rag muffins. The spread - which is no-frills-y, but not shabby - could feed a forest full of of lumberjacks. After a while, maple flavor begins to overwhelm the senses. Of course, that's partly the point.
Sonja Hull, one of the first in line for the buffet, has never heard of that particular maple delicacy - buttermilk biscuits slow-cooked in syrup. But it's an easy sell. Hull, a former schoolteacher, drove up from Bakersfield with her father Wayne, whose Enosburg insurance firm used to insure Gene Branon's father. Father and daughter have "heard the brunch was great," they enthuse. Sonja says of the Branon operation, "As modern as it is, it's very much steeped in tradition."
You can say that again. Though it sounds a little . . . sappy, the Branon family motto -"Generations of Tradition" - seems to mean a whole lot. From Gene's 56-year-old father Dan to his 16-month-old son Kaleb, family connections abound in the town of Fairfield. Gene's uncles Tom and Tim Branon own a nearby sugar bush. So do his second cousins, Pat and Bruce. And his other second cousin Damian. And his other uncle Ned. Dan Branon remembers sugaring with his grandfather. All told, Gene estimates that his extended family operates between 150,000 and 200,000 taps - nothing short of a maple empire.
Maple sugaring "is in my blood forever," says Danielle Landry, as she collects tickets next to a pair of syrup barrels. Landry, Dan's niece, wears a sparkling tiara and a sash that reads "Maple Queen." It's no gimmick: Landry is a certified public advocate for Vermont's maple-syrup industry. Two days ago, she served as an honorary delegate at Governor Douglas' tree-tapping ceremony in Montpelier. Landry's life isn't exclusively about maple, though - next year she'll study physical therapy at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine.
Around 10:30, seven women dressed in red felt hats and boas stroll in. "I love maple!" boasts the group's leader, Donna Win. "I knew they'd be doing this."
Win and her entourage belong to the nationally affiliated "Red Hat Club," a social organization for women over 50 who also regularly attend the Enosburg dairy parade. Win says she chose this maple breakfast in part because it brings back memories of her childhood. "When I was a kid on a farm in Barnet, we had the horses and buckets," she recalls. "It's just such a tradition in Vermont."
Gene Archambault, who came to the Branon Sugarhouse straight from church, agrees. A field representative for the St. Albans Dairy Cooperative, the 33-year-old says, "I've known the Branons all my life." While he came here for "a nice outing," Archambault also recognizes the event's larger economic and cultural implications. "Maple breakfasts are good for the industry - they give people an idea where the syrup comes from and how it's made," he suggests.
Apparently word of the Branons' breakfast is spreading around the world. "We've seen snow before in Australia, but never on trees like this," says Russell Savage. He and his family are here in the States to visit his sister. His brother-in-law Shane Pearo suggested they come along to the Branon breakfast for a taste of small-town Vermont. Between rag muffins, "boutique breweries," and the residue of snow, the Savages' collective appetite for "Vermont" is insatiable.
"If we didn't have a local contact," Savage explains, "we wouldn't have known about this. We're lucky to be here."
After breakfast, Savage pauses in the foyer to buy a half-dozen jars of maple syrup from Gene Branon's wife, Desirée. He walks away carefully, as if holding a bag of precious jewels. Shane Pearo and his 10-year-old son Caleb wait in the parking lot.
For Caleb, a maple-breakfast veteran, today's affair feels oddly similar to last week's. Yawning, he reflects, "The bacon was OK. But it had too much fat in it."
By noon, the incessant flow of people - and sap - has eased up, so Tim Hubbard takes a break from his boiling duties to eat in the prep kitchen. All around him, young women from Lise Gates' Enosburg Dairy Center Catering Company are removing fresh trays of baked beans and rag muffins from the oven.
"We're caught up for a minute," Hubbard says over his pancakes, bacon and eggs. "But the tanks down the road are filling up fast [with sap]."
Meanwhile, patriarch Dan Branon grinds ice, packs it in a tray and drizzles it with syrup. An inquisitive girl in a pink jumpsuit wanders over, and he helps her twirl the taffy-like product around a fork: "Sugar on snow." A smiling, white-haired woman stops to twirl one for herself. "The best part about sugaring," he observes, "is having the younger generation alongside this lady here, who's 97."
Dan Branon's grandson Kaleb, incidentally, has already gone home for a nap - the downside of the maple high. "But he'll be back," Branon insists.
Kaleb's dad Gene has big plans for his little boy. Sugaring aside, Branon says he hopes Kaleb will eventually take an interest in the family's recovering dairy operations.
Maple sugaring may be a Branon family tradition, but it's only the most recent one. Dan Branon produced milk full-time until his barn burned down in 1998 and he made the switch to sugaring. Now, Gene owns one of three family herds, which together have nearly 1000 cows. He says he'd like to go organic someday.
"People tell me I'm stupid for [staying] in dairy," says the young father. "But that's how I want my kids to be raised."
Today, though, Kaleb is snoozing through the hard work: His dad and the rest of the crew still have 50,000 gallons of sap to process.
At 1 p.m., the buffet closes, and caterer Lise Gates steps outside to call her office in Enosburg. She assesses the morning's damage: 100 pounds of potatoes, 130 pounds of bacon, four 18-pound hams, four pans of baked beans, at least 1000 pancakes, 12 loaves of homemade bread, 120-dozen eggs, and a boatload of rag muffins.
"It's my grandmother's rag muffin recipe," she explains. "Younger folks don't know what they are - but the older folks do!"
The Branon Sugarhouse sits atop a gentle rise, and the morning fog has already burnt off to reveal a sweeping view of the Green Mountains. Spring is here. And, for all their concerns about global warming, Vermont's sugar makers have high hopes for this year's run.
Lise takes a deep, calming breath. "We enjoy working with the Branons," she reflects. "My girls want to come back every year, which tells you something."