Maple Sugar!

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.

Giving blood

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!

6 thoughts on “Maple Sugar!

  1. I am reminded of certain things you smugly insisted about spinach, asparagus, peanut butter, tomato sauce, and the like when I was but a maple sapling. 😀 Glad to hear they hold as true for you as they have for me!

    • I watched David Attenborough on The Life of Mammals the other day. “The Opportunists” (i.e. omnivores) never pass up anything edible. Eventually, I think we humans begin to own the gastronomic opportunity to eat anything we damn well can!

  2. I often muse on how the very foods I detested most as a child (spinach & beets) are foods I seek out in great quantities now. I know that there are minute amounts of phytotoxins in many vegetables which make them intolerable to children, and that it is natural to grow out of those aversions when the body matures to the point that those levels of phytotoxins no longer pose a threat. I think also that when I stopped eating meat my body adjusted my tastes to crave foods that provided nutrients I was no longer getting.

    Carrots are the food that I have traumatic childhood history with — a choking incident that I don’t remember but reportedly involved the fire dept’s rescue team — and even though they are nutritious and pretty ubiquitous in vegetarian cuisine, I could take ’em or leave ’em. This is a change from an aversion on the spinach & beet level, but not a complete 180 turnabout. (Carrot juice, on the other hand, is delicious!)

  3. It’s Reading Rainbow!! Thanks for your fun, informative, well written essay, and your gorgeous maple photos!
    Here’s my favorite recipe involving maple syrup. It was created by Madonna’s personal chef:
    3 tbsp olive oil
    1 cup coarsely chopped onion
    1 cup peeled, cored and coarsely chopped Granny Smith apple
    1 cup peeled and coarsely chopped turnip
    1 cup peeled and chopped butternut squash (seeds discarded)
    1 cup coarsely chopped carrot
    1 cup peeled, chopped sweet potato (I prefer this over a “yam”)
    5 cups vegetable (or chicken) stock
    1/4 cup maple syrup
    Cayenne pepper
    1 small whole-grain baguette
    3 oz goat cheese
    1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

    For soup, heat oil in a large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add apple, turnip, squash, carrot, and sweet potato; season with salt, then sauté 5 minutes. Add stock, bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add syrup, then cayenne pepper to taste. Cool slightly. Puree with a handheld mixer, food processor or blender. For toast toppers, cut 6 slices bread and toast them. Spread 1/2 oz goat cheese on top of each; sprinkle with chives. Pour soup into 6 large bowls; float toast on top.

    (Special lazy notes: 1/ I doubled the recipe, using 1 lb of each vegetable instead of 2 cups; 2/ I cut the vegetables very coarsely and skipped the saute step. This saves a TON of time, but sacrifices flavor by about 10%; 3/ Used goat cheese, substituted croutons and green onions for baguette and chives; 4/ I always use chicken stock or fake-chicken stock.)

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