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