Ten Trees

Pro­duc­ing pure liq­uid gold is a sweet spring pas­time for this cou­ple

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Ardith Racey, Tweed, Ont.

This On­tario cou­ple pro­duces jars of pure liq­uid gold, the old-fash­ioned way.

March. The view out­side the win­dow, now that the snow has mostly gone, is a study in de­pres­sion— the world seems grey, wet and muddy. The sky is over­cast, the colour of dirty snow. March is that month that is nei­ther win­ter nor spring. It is, quite sim­ply, dreary. Many Cana­di­ans book es­capes to Caribbean is­lands. Oth­ers bury them­selves in work, work­ing out or watch­ing TV. But there are still oth­ers who visit lo­cal su­gar bushes.

There are about 16,000 maple syrup pro­duc­ers in North Amer­ica. Make that 16,001. Re- cently, my hus­band Hugh and I, who are lucky enough to live on 100 acres of prop­erty that boasts a few su­gar maple trees, de­cided to make maple syrup— from scratch.

Our woods have a va­ri­ety of trees, in­clud­ing ash, cherry, elm, birch and one huge old maple tree that’s likely the mother of all the other smaller maples—the tree with the tire swing. I like to be­lieve that we were not the first peo­ple to col­lect its sap.

But I di­gress. Given the high­tech na­ture of the in­dus­try to­day, we de­cided to keep it sim­ple. Ten trees. Tra­di­tional bucket col­lec­tion. A ba­sic wood-fired stove.

Af­ter some ini­tial pur­chases and prepa­ra­tion of buckets, hoses and spiles, we were ready. We— re­ally he— drilled a hole into each tree and in­serted a spile, which es­sen­tially taps into the sap that is flow­ing from the tree’s root to its up­per branches. Hence the term tap­ping, which is also in keep­ing with the slow, con­stant drip, drip, tap, tap of the sap into the buckets.

We checked hourly to see if it was run­ning—and were awed ev­ery day by how much sap there was. The buckets were filled to the brim when the days were warm and the night tem­per­a­tures be­low freez­ing. The sap is about 98 per cent wa­ter and con­tains about 2.5 per cent su­gar, along with a host of other good­for-you trace amounts of cal­cium, potas­sium and mag­ne­sium. You can buy bot­tled sap; it’s sud­denly trendy and mar­keted as maple wa­ter, which seems gen­er­ally true.

Indige­nous peo­ple un­der­stood the ben­e­fits of sap as a spring tonic and passed the con­cept on to early set­tlers, who cel­e­brated the sea­son be­cause it was a har­bin­ger of spring af­ter long, lonely snow­bound win­ters. There is less clear in­for­ma­tion as to how the process of re­duc­ing the sap to syrup came about. How­ever, this is the next step.

Hugh set up an old wood­stove in­side ce­ment blocks. It looks prim­i­tive, but it works. In no time, we were “boil­ing down,” which is the process of re­duc­ing the sap to syrup. It takes ap­prox­i­mately 35 to 40 litres of sap, which is a fair amount, to pro­duce a litre of syrup. The process in­volves heat­ing the sap so that the wa­ter evap­o­rates—noth­ing else is added—which is why the ini­tial prod­uct is called pure maple syrup. No ad­di­tives. No preser­va­tives. Liq­uid gold.

Given our ba­sic op­er­a­tion, and fear of burn­ing the sticky stuff, we de­cided to fin­ish the re­duc­tion process in­side the house.

Se­ri­ous syrup pro­duc­ers would likely scoff, but then se­ri­ous syrup pro­duc­ers to­day use vac­uum sys­tems to suck the sap out of the trees, which in­volve oil­fu­elled fur­naces and re­verseosmo­sis fil­ters.

Our op­er­a­tion re­sem­bles those im­ages on the “Cana­dian Pure Maple Syrup” con­tain­ers where there’s an idyl­lic log cabin, trees, horses pulling a sled, and a male with a yoke on his back. Granted, mak­ing syrup re­quires a lot of work. And for­ti­tude. Af­ter the ini­tial ex­cite­ment of gath­er­ing the sap and the first and sec­ond days of boil­ing down, it be­comes a labour of love. The evap­o­ra­tion process is rather like watch­ing a big pot of wa­ter steam out­side for hours, un­til deemed al­most ready. It takes a cer­tain kind of pa­tience. And faith.

But, back to bring­ing it in­side. We fin­ished each batch on the stove, which meant boil­ing it for a few fi­nal min­utes un­til the bub­bles were uni­form and slow to form. The aroma of maple filled the house. Sud­denly, breath­ing was like in­hal­ing candy; smelling pu­rity; be­ing in­side a child­hood mem­ory. Like float­ing on spring.

Cana­di­ans get ex­cited about maple syrup. Vis­i­tors from other coun­tries of­ten take home a small sam­ple. It’s quin­tes­sen­tial Cana­di­ana in a jar. But the re­ward of mak­ing it from scratch is more dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. Of course, it has some­thing to do with tast­ing the stuff. Pan­cakes and maple syrup are syn­ony­mous with Easter and hope and spring. We smoth­ered French toast with our own syrup and thought it tasted heav­enly: earthy-maple-caramel that’s im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe. And, there is the row of jars on the kitchen counter filled with am­ber- coloured liq­uid. The first har­vest of the sea­son. Re­ward­ing in it­self.

But there’s more. Indige­nous peo­ple called March the “su­gar month.” They were right. Mak­ing maple syrup—tap­ping, trekking through the woods, boil­ing it down— is el­e­men­tal. Ba­sic. Sim­ple. But that sweet­ness in our house each evening when we fin­ish an­other batch is ac­knowl­edge­ment that it will soon be April and then May—sweet. ■

From far left: a sap bucket; the “boil­ing down” process us­ing a prim­i­tive wood-fired sys­tem; the fin­ished prod­uct—jars of liq­uid gold.

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