Never let me get dogmatic about anything. (That word again….one of Steve’s most over-used!) I had resisted the excitement around the Wehr Nature Center surrounding the upcoming Maple Sugar festival because I just don’t care for the taste of maple. I had a bad experience as a candihapped kid. My parents were strict about candy. We didn’t have it just lying around in big, glass jars on the kitchen counter like my best friend did. We weren’t allowed to eat our fill out of pillow cases at Halloween like my best friend did. We weren’t allowed to chew bubble gum like my best friend did. So where did I hang out? At my best friend’s house mooching as much candy as I could. And then, a miracle occurred. My parents brought home Maple Sugar Candy from a trip, or maybe it was a gift or a find at a specialty shop. Somehow, these little leaf-shaped, brown, sparkly candies were available IN OUR HOUSE, and I went berserk. I probably yanked one without permission and gobbled it up to destroy the evidence in a matter of seconds. My wise friends at the Nature Center told me this morning that the only way to consume maple sugar is in tiny, slow doses. Maybe that’s where I went wrong. My overdose at a young age left a very bad taste in my mouth about the whole maple business. I’ve avoided it for years on pancakes, French toast, spice cake frosting, bacon, you name it. Somewhere along the line, the real maple sugar and the imitation corn syrupy stuff that’s advertised as “maple syrup” got blurred together in my memory. It was all bad. Well, today, I got to go back to the source and re-learn everything I knew about the taste of maple.
This is a new tap in a sugar maple. The spout is called a spile. You can see a previous tap above it to the left that has healed over. Some of the kids think these look like bellybuttons. The sap drips out and gets collected in a bag. I tasted a drop of sap that I captured on the back of my hand. It was just like water with a very slight sweetness.
A stand of sugar maples is called a “sugar bush”. Tapping trees have at least an inch of sapwood under the bark. They are the more mature trees, ones about 45 inches in circumference. You can get sap from any tree, but not every sap will make a syrup that will taste good on pancakes. Pine sap can be made into turpentine. Birch sap can be made into root beer. Oak sap can be made into tannins for tanning leather. Maple sap has a sugar content of about 2.5%. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Remove even more water, and you have maple sugar. It’s very sweet, but it doesn’t make me sick in tiny amounts. You know what does make me sick? Imitation maple syrup. That’s really the stuff I loathe. We do a taste test with the kids. They get a drop from bottle A and one from bottle B to see if they can tell the difference. Bottle A leaves a trailing thread of stickiness wherever it goes. It looks like a hot glue gun. It tastes super sweet and leaves a tinny bitterness in your mouth. Yuck! It’s imitation maple flavoring, MAYBE a smidgeon of real maple syrup, and mostly corn syrup. Real maple syrup is not as harsh; it’s sweet, but with a lower viscosity.
I looked at these bright, vulnerable blue bags hanging in plain sight in the woods and asked, “Don’t you get animals coming after this sweet stuff?” Oh, yes. Weasels. Gnats. Snow fleas. Raccoons. Squirrels. They get wise to what we’re doing out here eventually. So they tell us to replace any bags that have holes, and we strain the sap before we start cooking it. I haven’t seen that part yet, the cooking. They save that for the big festival in late March.
So now I have a better understanding and appreciation of maple syrup and maple sugar. I do not hate the taste of it; I do hate imitations of it. I still prefer honey on my pancakes, though. I can’t wait to see and taste the Wehr Nature Center’s version of that, too!