First of all, my apologies to anyone born in the month of March, but to me the month is symbolized by cold, damp, sometimes blistery, gray days. The only bright spot is when the weather warms up in the 30-degree mark signaling it is maple syrup time.
I first caught the bug when I was in country school and the whole school (there were eight grades with two or three people in each grade) went to Mickolatcher’s Sugarbush for a field trip. By the way, sugarbush is slang for a maple syrup farm.
Being a kid and seeing all the buckets hanging on the trees and going in the sap shack where they were boiling the syrup down seemed pretty spectacular to me. But, what really hooked me, was that first bite of maple candy. That was heaven in a one-inch square!
I remember that field trip like it was yesterday, and I vowed that someday I would tap our trees and boil the syrup, even if I ended up with only a cup. I say this because, as a rule of thumb, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Perhaps that is why this project is still on my bucket list.
However, I did learn some interesting facts while preparing for my venture. In a nutshell, maple syrup is made from xylem sap of sugar maple, red maple or black maple trees. When the weather turns cold the trees store starch in their trunks and roots before winter sets in. When the weather warms the starch is converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring.
Trees are tapped by boring holes in the trunks to collect the sap. Contrary to what many believe, this tapping does not permanently hurt the trees. On an average, each tree will produce between nine and 13 gallons of sap a year. These days, plastic bags with metal hangers are usually used to collect the sap, but I still remember the old tin buckets of all shapes and sizes hanging on the trees.
Photo: iStockphoto.com/Matt Brenner
Boiling the sap is what intrigues me because you have to get it just right. The concept is pretty elementary, you boil the sap to evaporate the water, leaving the concentrated syrup. Syrup boiled too long will crystallize while not boiling long enough will result in watery syrup that will spoil. I, myself, am quite a fan of boiling it a little longer because that is what yields maple cream, maple sugar and maple candy.
Vermont is by far the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States. The standards are set there for the various grades of syrup. Syrup harvested earlier in the year is lighter and milder whereas syrup produced later in the season is darker and is used more for baking and cooking.
On a trip to the northeast a couple years ago, we visited Vermont, and maple syrup there is big business. The sweet, amber-colored liquid carries a pretty hefty price too. What we found was around $20 for a pint. Naturally we brought some home for the family to try.
I was so excited to have our grandsons over for their favorite breakfast of pancakes and bacon. What a treat to serve pure maple syrup. They would love it, right? They tried one bite and asked where the Log Cabin syrup was. Guess they are just too young to appreciate the finer things. What do they know anyway!