On one of those warm March days last week, I had an opportunity to visit Fay's Sugar Shack along the Berwick Turnpike, just north of Big Pond. As I walked into the sap house, it was warm and steamy. But it was the sweet earthy smell of maple syrup that caught my senses that afternoon.

On one of the walls I read an interesting ad cut out of a magazine: "Reach for the real maple syrup. Before your next pancake breakfast, consider this: Maple syrup contains more than 20 antioxidants reported to have anticancer and anti-diabetic properties, says Navindra Seeram, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island's College of Pharmacy. That's not true of low-cal or 'pancake' syrups, he says, which tend to have no maple. At about 50 calories a tablespoon, there's no reason not to use '100 percent pure maple syrup' - check the label for those words - on your flapjacks. Sweet!"

Maple syrup is a natural food product and Fay's Sugar Shack has been busy collecting the sap and boiling it down into syrup; real natural 100 percent pure maple syrup.

Doug Fay and his brother Greg Fay head the operation that their grandfather began years ago. Their father, Duane Fay was the one who turned their farm into a maple sugaring business. Greg's son Jeff Fay, and son-in-law Zane Morgan help out in the sap house. They now tap over 50 acres of maple trees. At least 4,000 tap holes are put into about 2,000 maple trees. They also receive sap from neighbors and other land owners.

On their east hill they have three main trunk lines connected to a large "spider web" network of sap lines which run by "gravity flow." Another set of trunk lines are across the road, and in flat areas they collect the sap individually in buckets set on each tree. In the case of individual buckets, a metal spile is driven into the tree to tap it. The sap drips through the spile into the bucket. In the case of the trunk lines, plastic spiles, which are a little different, are used.

The trunk lines flow into a holding tank. From this tank, an underground pipe line transports the sap into the main holding tank which holds about 5,000 gallons. A "float system" brings it in to the natural gas fired evaporator at a controlled pace. Once the sap is in the stainless steel evaporator it goes through a "steam away" process, which is the first step in boiling the sap. The steam that comes off the evaporator goes through a pipe and distilled water comes out. This distilled water, at the boiling temperature is used for cleaning equipment. Any excess goes out to keep the creeks flowing.

"This water has a little sweet to it," explained Greg Fay.

From the evaporator, the sap, which is now considered syrup, goes into the finishing pan. It boils again, where it is checked constantly with a hydrometer for specific gravity, or the ratio of the amount of sugar to water. When it is "done" the syrup runs through a filtering system before it is bottled for sale.

Maple syrup is bottled and graded. The grade depends on the quality of the sap and the time within the season. Usually, the earlier in the season, the lighter the grade because the trees haven't fully come out of their winter dormancy yet. In the earlier lighter syrups the sugar content is higher. Once there are buds on the trees, the season is over because the trees are using their sugar completely for growth and the sap is too bitter for maple syrup.

Fay's utilizes all grades of syrups. The lighter grades of syrup are used for candy and creams. The medium and dark grades are bottled for sale as pure maple syrup. The real dark stuff is put into drums and sold to food industries where imitation type maple syrups are made.

According to Morgan, his wife, Michelle uses maple syrup for baking year round. She prefers the dark syrup for a stronger flavor and usually freezes a two quart jar of it. Since maple syrup doesn't actually freeze in a solid state, but turns to a molasses like consistency, she can measure out the amount she needs for her recipe.

Most of Fay's syrup and other maple products - candy and cream - are sold right at the sugar shack.

Real maple syrup makes a big difference on real pancakes!

And speaking of real pancakes, the Big Pond Lions are getting ready for their "Pancake Days at Big Pond." This "all you can eat" pancake breakfast will be held from 8 a.m. until approximately 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24 at Fay's Sugar Shack.

"We'll fill you up," said Phillip Eiffert, one of the Big Pond Lions. "All the pancakes you can eat!"

According to Eiffert and fellow Lion, Dilmon Dunbar, there is usually a line waiting to get in at 8 a.m. and the building fills up fast. The building they are referring to is an old dairy barn which Fay's converted into a hall used for dinners and other events. It works out perfectly for Pancake Days at Big Pond. Prior to the conversion, Duane Fay had the Lion's pancake breakfasts in the sap house which soon became too small as the pancakes grew popular.

The menu includes pancakes made from New Hope Mills pancake mix from Smithfield Country Market, sausage patties from Bryan's Meats, scrambled eggs, coffee, chocolate milk, and of course real maple syrup from Fay's. John Huntington from Huntington Motors in Wellsburg is supplying place mats. That's a lot of breakfast for your bucks!

The Lions and their wives, along with other helpers will be starting at 5 a.m. with preparations. Volunteers from the Bradford County Humane Society from Ulster will be helping, as they do every year.

"We couldn't do it without them," said Dunbar.

On Saturday, Wiggle 100 will join the festivities.

"We bring them all in," said Eiffert, who added that Larry Colton will be making a new sign for the breakfast pricing.

Eiffert and Dunbar, along with Duane Fay, were charter members of the Big Pond Lions, starting the organization in 1952. Now, in their 60th year, Eiffert and Dunbar remember back to their beginnings. The Troy Lions sponsored them, but the Big Pond Lions' schedule was a little different. Lions that met in town usually got together for lunch. But out in the country, the Lions were farmers who worked through the lunch hour. So, their Lions started as, and still are a supper get together at 6:30 p.m. And back when they first started, their meetings actually didn't start until 8 p.m. when chores were finished.

"If those guys could do it, we could do it, anywhere, in any location," said Eiffert. "It doesn't have to be a noon time get together."

Eiffert, Dunbar, and Duane Fay were instrumental in keeping the Lions going, always helping the community in some way - from fish fries and other benefit dinners to having Bingo with the Bentley Creek Fire Department and collecting eye glasses for the needy.

"We're always doing something different," said Eiffert.

So, come out and join the Lions and the Big Pond community for this special breakfast event at Fay's Sugar Shack.

But what about the anticancer and anti-diabetic properties cited by Seeram? According to researchers from the American Chemical Society, maple syrup may have some of the same anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds as other well-known foods such as blueberries, flax seeds and green tea. They have also found that compounds found naturally in maple syrup may help keep blood sugar levels in check. This research team in Rhode Island said they found maple syrup to contain a wide variety of polyphenols, five of which are unique to the syrup. One particular polyphenol is of particular interest as it is only created during the process of boiling down maple sap into maple syrup.

In addition to this finding, Montreal dietitian Hélène Laurendeau has found that food that undergoes little to no processing provides greater health benefits.

"Hundred percent pure maple syrup is a natural, non-refined product, which gives it an edge over other sweetening agents," said Laurendeau.

Real natural 100 percent pure maple syrup - it's really good for you!