Let’s talk maple syrup. I shouted it last week in my column, but now that my whole house is steamed up from the syrup evaporating and boiling, I have no choice but to talk about it!!
So far I haven’t damaged any pots or pans, and that’s a good thing. Last year I ruined my favorite cooking pot, but this year my watchful eye (and best knowledge) won’t let that happen. With those cold nights and hot days, the sap just runs into the buckets. Because the buckets are heavy, I drag my little red cart down the street, pour the day’s sap into the empty bucket, then bring it home. The sap is beautiful… clear, sweet and full of promise. Who knew it could turn into maple syrup?
There are so many stories and legends about how and why this sap was found. I mean, have people tried oak sap or beech sap? Poet Thomas Fessenden once wrote, “My charmer’s lips are soft as a lumberjack’s head of maple molasses.” I’m not sure this poem is about romance. (In other words, I wouldn’t try that line on someone you’re courting!) I’m sure at that time it could have been considered very romantic.
Native Americans were the first to find and use this sweet, sticky sap. They have big names for it. The Algonquins called it Sinzibuckwud, which means “drawn from wood”. The Ojibways called it Ninautik, which means “our own tree”. The sap has been proven to go unnoticed until Europeans set foot on this land, but stories, art and folklore tell a different story. In Robert Beverley’s 1705 book, History and Present State of Virginia, he spends much time discussing honey or the sugar tree. Here is a line from his book, “The sugar tree yields a kind of sap or juice which, on boiling, is converted into sugar. This Juice is extracted by wounding the Trunk of the Tree and placing a Receptor under the Injury.
There is a beautiful legend of the Iroquois. One of the chiefs went hunting in March and pulled his tomahawk out of a tree. Ah, with the warm sunny days of March, the sap started flowing. His wife thought it was water and filled a bucket and took it home for cooking. Imagine his surprise when it turned out to be such a sweet liquid.
The first collection pots were made of birch bark or even clay. Making a birch bark container must have been a lot of work. An account by an Englishman that eventually appeared in the Vermont Agricultural Report wrote: “In the spring, birch bark was gathered, cut into seven-inch strips, folded, sewn, and shaped into a basket. A woman would own up to 1,200 to 1,500 birch bark containers for making sugar. What?! I am perfectly satisfied with my Rural King buckets of which I have two.
Buckets and chutes have been perfected over the past hundreds of years. The exit from the maple grove has also changed. It was carried by hand, then by a wooden yoke over the shoulders with a rope to hold each bucket in place. It eventually evolved into oxen, horses, bobsleds. When we were on the farm with my boys, we used our pony, Easter, to help carry the buckets of sugar. Modern sugar farms use plastic tubing from the trees through the woods to the sugar shack.
However, the beautiful part of it all is that even without birchbark bowls or teaming of oxen, the process is the same. A small plug is drilled (it doesn’t hurt the tree!!), the tube is tied in a bucket or through the woods in a tub, and the sap is boiled in evaporating pots or pans. The process cannot be rushed. It still takes 40 gallons of sap to make a nice gallon of syrup, and it’s a slow process.
To me? I bring the sap home in my Rural King bucket via my little red cart. I carry it to my kitchen where the boil begins. I love watching the colors change from clear to pale yellow and the deep gold of the sap. How do I know it’s ready? It might be like kneading bread… after a lot of experimentation and failure, you know.
Special thanks to Nate and my neighborhood!