BY ANDREW COPPOLINO
Drizzle it on pancakes or waffles, use it to sweeten whipped cream, roast vegetables with it, or create a hip cocktail, maple syrup is a versatile and truly Canadian ingredient that has captured world-wide attention – all at the same time it also makes for a pretty dynamic food festival in Woolwich Township each April.
So dynamic, in fact, that the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival (EMSF) ranks as the largest single-day maple syrup festival in the world. The event began humbly in 1965, and while the original organizers were hoping to have 2,500 visitors back then, they were surprised – and nearly overwhelmed – when 10,000 showed up. The rest is history: this long-lived event is successful year after year because it relies on more than 2,400 volunteers and 60 sponsors.
The EMSF is part of a dominant Canadian market where there are more than 8,600 maple syrup businesses. As a whole, Canada produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup and includes major production in Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia; Quebec is the country’s major producer accounting for about 90 percent. As for the global gold medal when it comes to maple syrup festivals, the folks from Guinness World Records officially calculated that 66,529 people attended the Festival in 2000. That same year, the Festival estimated that it served its 500,000th pancake. That’s a lot of maple syrup.
“The bottom line at our Elmira festival is that we look at everything as a partnership, from volunteers and sponsors to businesses and organizations like Woolwich Community Services who have been with us for the last 35 years,” says EMSF chair Kim Dixon.
The Woolwich organization, which supports the vulnerable in the community, does its antique sale fundraiser on the Friday night and Saturday of the Festival. “It’s a great community event that fits very well with the Maple Syrup Festival,” Dixon says. “Last year, we gave a total of $55,000 to 32 charitable and not-for-profit community groups.” Along with Woolwich Community Services, EMSF has also partnered with Community Care Concepts for more than 20 years.
When it comes to food, there are usually a few pancakes with syrup floating around the event – “They are the anchor of the Festival,” Dixon says with a laugh – but the downtown “Mall,” the main street venue of the Festival that is an energized and hungry crowd from Church Street to Brubacher Street, features about 150 food vendors, some from as far away as Toronto. “The vast majority are returning vendors each year,” Dixon adds, noting that the dedication is a testament to the solid and robust nature of the early spring pancake-and-syrup event.
And as they have in many other types of festivals and events, over the past couple of years food trucks have started playing a larger and growing role at the Festival, she says. “We have 13 or so already confirmed,” says Dixon. “We had six or seven last year and three the year before.”
Last year’s Festival was estimated to have had 75,000 visitors, so organizers encourage people to take advantage of the new online ordering system on the website to avoid lineups. Both the toy show and the craft show have nominal ticket prices of $2 to $3. “Most everything is free,” Dixon says. Remember that there is no vehicle access several blocks from the Festival and you have to walk in or take the wagon.
As an interesting sidebar, it should be added that there has been a general “sugaring” renaissance in the region and outlying environs, and EMSF notes that you can buy equipment to tap your own maple sugar trees for $10. Then all you have to do is hope for the right weather conditions of cold nights and milder days to get the sap running. It’s the kind of weather that can really make the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival sing too.
“When you have good weather and a sunny day, people come out even if it’s cold,” Dixon says. “The sunnier and warmer, the more people you have coming.”
This year’s Elmira Maple Syrup Festival is Saturday, April 7. For more information, visit www.elmiramaplesyrup.com .