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Tag Archives: maple sap
HADLEY, Mass. (Mass Appeal) – No plate of pancakes…or waffles… is complete without a helping of syrup. But how is this sticky goodness made? Well we went to the North Hadley Sugar shack to find out.
After we headed inside we met up with owner Joe. He told us to start the syrup making process you first need, obviously, a tree. Then with an electric drill you make a hole in the tree that is about 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep. After drilling into the tree the next couple steps were simple. Put a spout in and wait for the bucket to be filled with sap.
After the buckets are filled with sap Joe and his Crew gather the pales and put the liquid in huge holding tanks. The tanks are used so they can move the large amount of sap easily.
After the sap is put into the holding tanks, Joe showed us a very complicated looking machine called a Reverse Osmosis machine. He said the machine squeezes out the water in the sap; which makes the final product sweeter.
After the sap goes through the Reverse Osmosis machine during the boiling process Joe keeps the evaporator working by creating a real log fire. The fire heats the sap and boils the water out of it, which creates the syrup. To test if the syrups ready Joe uses, whets called, “an old fashioned scoop.” This tool helps to test if the syrup is thick enough. After a couple more density and temperature measurements the sap is officially maple syrup.
There is an upside to March and it sounds like this: drip, drip, drip. At a time of year when nature offers so little hope, maple trees produce a clear, unassuming-looking liquid which tastes like barely-sweetened water. But weeks later, after much boiling and sweet steam evaporation, a golden amber syrup appears. Maple syrup season is, without doubt, the best part of March in Maine.
My husband, John, and I are what you might call small-time home syrup makers. We only tap a half dozen or so maple trees scattered around our property. The ritual of cleaning out the taps, the old tin buckets and thin lids (which we have gathered over the years at yard sales, farm foreclosures and country stores) is actually something I look forward to. During this time of year, the closest I actually get to growing food is to fantasize about it while I gaze at seed catalogues piled up on my desk, luring me with sexy pictures of tomatoes and basil and squash popping out of warm fertile earth. So, getting outside and starting to “make” food thrills me.
Maple season means working with the weather to make something delicious and truly of Maine (you need warm days and below-freezing nights for maximum sap flow). When the sap really starts flowing, we spend hours outside, straining it into buckets and getting ready to start the long, slow boiling process.
It’s 10 p.m. and John is missing. I’m in bed, feeling my eyes droop, exhausted from this not-quite-winter-and-not-quite-spring limbo we’re in. I call out to say goodnight and there’s no answer. Then I hear him outside clanging around in the dark. This is not a man prone to disappearing or making strange noises in the dead of night, but it’s maple season: he takes the dog and the newspaper out to the barn where he spends hours pouring the day’s sap into huge metal pans. We used to cook the sap inside on the wood stove, but the sweet condensation started building up on the beams above the stove and we thought we saw ants appearing. Suddenly, there was nothing romantic or smart about boiling syrup indoors, so John rigged up a strange outdoor maple cooker system. He sets the low metal trays (like high-sided lasagna pans) on top of a large, gas-fueled camping cooker and sits there watching the sap evaporate slowly.
When I use the word “slowly,” I’m talking about Zen slowly. The kind of slowly where you sit for hours (and hours and hours) watching sap go from watery thin to kindasorta thin. Hours go by, and nothing appears to be happening. Well, nothing that the untrained eye can see. It takes forty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. It’s all about PROCESS. It takes almost a week (sometimes two) of diligent boiling and adding bucketfuls of new sap each day for this subtly sweet, water-like substance to resemble anything even remotely like syrup. Once the sap hits the final stage (meaning the texture is thick enough to coat a spoon), it needs to be filtered through cheesecloth to remove any particles that might cloud the finished syrup.
Make me some gorgeous syrup, and I’ll cook you some gorgeous food.
The first few days of maple season I feel compelled to throw on my down jacket and head out into the cold, dark night to keep John company. He’s generally pretty friendly and polite, but after a while I can tell that this barn/boiling time is a solitary kind of thing. A man, his dog and his sap. I think the entire experience — the tapping of the trees, the putting up the buckets, the collecting of the sap, the boiling — is all a meditative exercise for him. And I say: go for it! Make me some gorgeous syrup, and I’ll cook you some gorgeous food.
He comes inside the house and climbs into bed at all hours of the night, mumbling sweet nothings into my ear: “We’re almost there! Looking good! Almost syrup time.” I roll over, fantasizing about all the wonderful things I’ll cook when the syrup is finally done.
And then, after nights of climbing into bed alone, I’ll wake up one fine March morning and see that first jar of syrup, the color of topaz. Pale topaz. He always leaves a few tablespoons in a bowl on the table for me to taste. Every year I swear it’s the best syrup we’ve ever made. About that point of ownership: I like to think of it as our syrup, from our maple trees, made at our house. But there’s no doubt in John’s mind that it’s his syrup. In all fairness, I guess, since he’s the one who stays up late on all those cold, March nights, he should be awarded the title of “Master Syrup Maker.”
We’ve learned a lot over the years. Turns out that maple syrup, like wine, has good years and bad ones — years when the sap flows like water from the tap, and others when it’s just too rainy and the sap gets diluted with rainwater. Then there are days when it turns warm too early and the sap clouds over and gives off a slightly sour smell. Every few years John insists on giving the trees a year off, like they’re athletes in danger of being over-trained. He claims he doesn’t want to overtax them, but it’s hard to give up a year of maple syrup. I guess I’m just not Zen enough to let it go.
The first batch of syrup, what we call First Run (and which would be called “Grade A” or “Light Amber” if it were sold commercially) is a pale golden color. The flavor is light and subtle, with a pure maple essence. It’s the texture that’s really extraordinary. A thin-ish syrup that coats your tongue with its subtle sweetness and smooth, buttery feel.
I am simply wowed that anything can be so sweet, so buttery and naturally rich.
The notion of terroir, coming from the French word terre, meaning “land” or “earth,” refers to the impact a specific piece of land lends to food that’s grown or made on it. It’s a term wine makers like to throw around, but it also applies to the making of cheese (think Roquefort or Parmesan) and coffee (Kona or Blue Mountain) or even beef (Kobe). But I think it’s also an appropriate term to consider in the making of maple syrup. If my land and trees and old farmhouse could be distilled into a single taste, I think this First Run maple syrup would express it well. Clean, sweet, complex and deeply pleasing.
We try to save the precious, small First Run batch for really important meals like pouring over the first blueberry pancakes of the year or drizzling over locally-made yogurt. Sometimes I sip it by the teaspoonful directly from the jar and am simply wowed that anything can be so sweet, so buttery and naturally rich. I have come to think of this First Run syrup as “Liquid Gold.”
I’ve been experimenting with the second and third runs — the darker, stronger, more molasses-like syrup (labeled as Medium, Dark, and Extra Dark Amber) as much as possible, and not just in the standard breakfast kind of dishes. I glaze nuts — walnuts, almonds, pecans, and pistachios — in syrup and serve them in salads or as a snack. I like to spoon a few tablespoons of syrup on top of sautéed slices of thick country ham, chicken breasts and salmon filets (it creates an almost instant caramelized glaze if you add it to a hot sauté pan). I also drizzle it over thick slices of winter squash or sweet potatoes and roast them until they’re soft and sweet and practically melt in your mouth. Extra dark amber syrup makes extraordinary full-flavored maple ice cream.
The combination of sweet syrup, fiery chiles and fatty pork is unforgettable.
One of my new favorites is maple-glazed bacon. Take a few strips of thick country bacon (from a good butcher, not those pitiful, water-injected thin slices you find suffocating in plastic at the grocery store) and place them on a broiler tray or baking sheet. Liberally brush the bacon with maple syrup, sprinkle on some chile power, and place the tray under the broiler for a minute or two. Flip the bacon over, brush it again with syrup and chile power, and broil it on the other side until it’s cooked through, crisp and caramelized. The combination of sweet syrup, fiery chiles and fatty pork is unforgettable. Eat it for breakfast, crumbled on salads, or serve the bacon with cocktails, like grown-up candy.
When you’re involved in making your own food (even if it’s simply a matter of collecting sap from a tree and boiling it down), it becomes precious. I am aware of every tablespoon of syrup I use, thankful that I’m married to a man crazy enough to spend long, freezing hours in an icy, dust-filled barn watching thin water turn to magical amber-gold syrup. Mostly, I’m just grateful for the miracle of the syrup itself, with all its natural sweetness, and the way it lets me know that the seasons are finally changing.
Unlike last year, the cold nights and warm days this winter are prompting one of the best maple syrup-producing seasons in recent memory, said a Valley farmer who has been tapping maple trees for about nine years.
“Compared to last year, we’re having an outstanding sap run,” said Joe Sharp, of Shade Mountain Maple, near New Columbia.
Sharp taps about 1,000 maple trees — including this year, for the first time, those on Bucknell University’s golf course — and collects about 500 gallons of sap a day.
“The weather this year has been super for tapping maple trees,” Sharp said Friday. “Normally, our season doesn’t get started until the first or second week in February. I was making syrup this year in January. We made our first batch on Jan. 25. So, a week or two extra has been a bonus. If the weather pattern holds up, cold at night, in the 20s, and maybe in the 40s during the day and sunny, that’s ideal. You have to have overnight freezing, because if it doesn’t freeze at night, the sap won’t run during the day with warmer temperatures. It is a freeze-thaw combination.”
The weather last year didn’t cooperate with Valley syrup producers.
“It was very cold and we had a lot of snow,” Sharp said. “The sap freezes and it obviously doesn’t run. If you try to tap, all you get is ice. No doubt, we had a short season, but ultimately, the product was good. The year before, 2010, was a terrible year.”
Typically, Sharp will produce about 250 to 300 gallons of finished product a year.
“This is absolutely looking like a very good year,” he said. “After today, we probably will have about 100 gallons of syrup. At this time last year, we had none.”
With a proper combination of cold and warm, Sharp said, syrup can be made until buds begin to form on the trees. It’s also possible to make syrup in the fall in the Valley, but there are never enough continuous days where temperatures are cold at night and warm during the day.
“As this season goes on, who knows?” Sharp said. “We could make it to late March.”
Sharp makes about $12,000 a year selling his syrup locally and said he might expand his product line to include maple candy and maple sugar in the future.
“I’m not a mass producer,” he said. “You need more than 1,000 taps. And you need many more maple trees in the area, which we don’t have — at least compared with the Northern Tier, New York or Vermont.”
Sharp has also just purchased 100 acres of land near Cortland, N.Y., where he intends to set up a maple syrup producing operation next year, he said.
Meanwhile, Sharp is even tapping into maple trees on Bucknell’s golf course — with their permission of course.
“I know someone who works on the grounds and he said, ‘Why don’t you tap some of our maples?’ I worked it out with Bucknell and now I’m tapping about 400 of their maples. They have all kinds: Norway, black and sugar maple trees on campus.”
Bucknell did not charge him to tap its trees, Sharp said, but he intends to make donations to the university.
“When I’m in a tapping mode, I’ll be driving down a road, see some maple trees, stop and ask the owner if I can tap,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll pay them a little or give them some syrup. I guess I’m just totally fascinated by the whole process of making maple syrup.”
Pennsylvania is among the Top 10 producing states, but U.S. production doesn’t compare with that of Canada, which produces almost 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup.
The best producing areas in Pennsylvania are in the northwest portion of the state, near Erie, and in the northeast.
A quick phone call to Martyn Angstrom’s family businesses near Carbondale, north of Wilkes-Barre, confirms much of what Sharp said about the past few years.
Angstrom said he had a weak year in 2011, when he made only a few hundred gallons of syrup.
“This year, so far, so good,” Angstrom said Friday. Like Sharp, he agreed that “Sugar maple trees thrive when you have that good combination of cold weather and warm and that’s exactly the weather we’ve been having this season. I hope to see sugar around 2 percent — the amount of sugar in sugar maple trees. Last year, when it got down to 1.8 or 1.5 percent, that concerned me. It’s all about quality, you know.
“A lot of the old-timers that have been doing this for 50 years or so say the only weather that matters when you tap for maple syrup is the weather during the season,” he said, laughing.
That’s not the only worry. If it stays too warm outside, the sap coming out of these trees won’t be clear. Instead it will be a yellowish color, which means it’s collected bacteria and won’t make high-quality maple syrup.
“The quality will be down then you start making commercial grade,” Angstrom said. “Which is not the stuff that you sell retail. I’m hoping for the best this year.”
Maple syrup is one of the few things that still carries with it a feeling of nostalgia in America.
People have been making maple syrup in America for hundreds of years, and Grandma Moses, a woman who started painting when she was 76, immortalized it in some of her paintings the better part of a century ago. Moses, by the way, died in 1961 at 101 years old.
You can still witness people making maple syrup. Just a few miles down the road are maple groves, and every winter the owners head out and tap the trees for their sap and boil it down into the thick stuff we’re all familiar with.
Maple syrup is a Northern tradition, though. When I was a kid we always used jars labeled just “syrup” for waffles and pancakes. It was made out of corn, and we used it because it was a lot cheaper than maple syrup. I remember the first time I tried real maple syrup. It was way too sweet for me.
That doesn’t mean you can’t still feel a fondness for it and wish on days in the dead of winter that you could just sneak out and watch people working in the woods, tapping trees and stirring big vats of watery sap with oars and watch it boil down into liquid candy.
To make maple syrup requires the sap of not just any maple but of sugar maples.
It’s easy to spot silver maples, whose leaves have a silverfish underside, and red maples, but to tell the truth, I’m not sure I can really tell a sugar maple when I see one.
These days, it’s easy to identify ash trees, though. They can be recognized by the big white dots city workers have sprayed on the trunks, a signal to tree crews that those trees are dying the result of the emerald ash borer and it’s time to cut them down before they fall on someone’s house or car.
The city will be cutting down thousands of ash trees this year, leaving a lot of neighborhoods looking denuded, but a fair portion of those trees will be replaced.
Sometimes I wonder, why can’t they replace them with sugar maples? Imagine that, a whole neighborhood populated by sugar maples, just standing there all season long, pumping out sap that will descend into the trunk and accumulate there, waiting for spring – or for someone to tap the sap.
Just think. If a forest of sugar maples were planted in place of the forest of ash trees that line the city streets, neighborhoods all over the city could become sugar maple groves.
Neighbors could come out in the dead of winter, when they usually stay locked up in their homes, tap the sap in the trees. The community activity of making maple syrup would come alive, just like in those nostalgic scenes captured in Grandma Moses’ folk art.
Not every tree that the city cuts down will be replaced. The city just doesn’t have the money to replace them all. Residents, though, can opt to foot the bill for trees themselves, and they could request sugar maple trees. It’s on the list of dozens of species – besides ash – that residents can choose.
The time to place an order for a hand-picked species runs from April to July, though, so if you want a sugar maple you’ll have to wait until the spring to order it, and then until the fall for it to be planted.
Then you’ll have to be patient. Sugar maples get big, but they grow slowly. It could be a generation before the trees were ready to be tapped for syrup.
But then, the city would probably put up a hue and cry about people tapping the sap of its trees, even if some residents had paid for them themselves.
Oh well, there goes the neighborhood sugar maple festival idea, but there’s no harm in daydreaming about communities coming together and trying to create traditions.