Sap Rising

Yesterday I went to another Maple Sugar presentation training.  This one was a “Living History” demonstration.  A theater veteran of 35 years took on the persona of “Amos” and told the kindergarteners how he would go with his father and grandfather, beginning at the age of 10, into the woods for a month every year to make maple syrup. When the daytime temperatures are above freezing and the nighttime temperatures still dip below, the sap starts rising in the trees.  We’ve had some very warm nights now, and the leaf buds may already be popping, which means our maple syrup season has been shortened by several weeks.  Once the leaves come out, the sap turns bitter.  It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.  You have to keep your fires going continually to boil it down.  One hundred years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a farm to have 700 taps going at once, so collection and boiling was an intense process.  The kids got pulled out of school and lived in the Sugarbush camp while the sap was running; they spent their time making spiles (spouts), tending fires, collecting buckets and stirring buckets of boiling sap.  And they didn’t bathe the whole time!  (Kindergarteners get a kick out of hearing that!)  For extra energy during the work day, they kept a chunk of Jack Wax in their pockets.  This is maple syrup that has been poured out on some clean snow and frozen into a hard candy.  The kindergarteners got to do a taste test, comparing real maple syrup with two different pancake syrups, and sampling maple sugar clinging to a Popsicle stick.  Real maple syrup is not as sweet and sticky as the high fructose corn syrup blends, and it has a more distinctive flavor.  It’s delicious, but it’s expensive because it is very labor intensive to produce.  Here’s another little factoid: squirrels like maple sap.  They climb into the tops of the trees and bite off the end of a twig and just lick away at the running sap.  I have yet to see this, but I’m hoping I might catch my little friend in the sugar maple outside my bedroom window doing just that.

The trails were very muddy out there in the woods, but the moss was very green.  Spring is in the air!

Boiling the sap over a walnut & hickory fire

Just to reassure you, tapping trees for maple syrup doesn’t hurt the tree.  The bark scabs over and the tree keeps producing plenty of sap to stay alive.  Trees that are big enough to hug (36-45 inches in circumference) are big enough to tap…and then to thank with a appreciative embrace!   Enjoy your neck of the woods, wherever you are!

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!