Home-Grown Sugar

April, 2018.

I look forward to maple sugaring season like a child looks forward to Christmas. So pardon me if I wax poetical about the mysteries, the vagaries, the brutalities, the unfathomabilities that are the maple syrup season. For me, the significance of maple syrup season is not, in fact, those jars of sticky gold on the shelf.

It’s about the promise that winter will indeed lose its grip on the world and pass the baton to spring. It’s the thought that comes into your head as you go out into the blustery woods to tap the trees (having pulledĀ on your snowshoes and choppers) that at the end of the season when you go out into the woods to pull out the taps (having pulled on your mud-boots and raincoat), you will be hearing the song of the spring peepers, those tiny frogs that sing to greet the coming of spring. It’s about participating fully in the coming of spring, celebrating each small re-appearance–the slow accumulation of different species of birdsong on the air, the snowdrifts yielding to mud, the upward slanting of the sun, the tiny unfurling of each leafbud.

Besides all that, maple syrup is amazing stuff. When we consume it, we’re slurping last year’s sunshine. All last summer, the leaves produced sugar from the energy of the sun. Come fall, as the leaves of the sugar maples turned yellow and orange, they sent the sugar down the trunk and into the roots to be stored during winter. When the trees begin to awaken in the spring, they haul that sugar back up from their roots, along with water and minerals dissolved from the rocks by the toes of the trees. When we drill a hole into the trunk, we’re intercepting a little of that current. The trees don’t seem to mind, but we make sure to thank them anyway.

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One of last year’s tap-holes, already healed over.

The sap stops running when the trees begin to unfurl their leaves. You pull out the now-dry taps and right about then the woods begin to green up with pale leaves–spring has arrived. You do a whole lot of dishes, listening to the spring peepers through the window as you wash sticky syrup out of buckets and off the counter, then go outside and plant your garden.

But back to winter…

When the days begin to waffle between freezing nights and above-freezing days, we load up a sled with taps, blue sap bags, the drill and rubber hammer, and head out into the woods. J. mans the drill and I tag along behind with the rubber mallet to pound in taps and hang bags. This year we put about 45 taps into 30 trees.

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Here’s a closeup of the tap, banged into the tree with the mallet, and the hanger with blue bag blowing in the breeze, waiting for sap to drip.

After the exhilaration of tapping trees and hanging bags, the woods are quiet again, and we wait with baited breath for drop by drop to accumulate into a bagful of sap.

Making maple syrup is about patience, and paying attention to the rhythms of nature. You can’t make the taps drip any faster by prodding them, or make them run if the conditions aren’t right, and you can’t make the sap boil into syrup any quicker. All sorts of factors contribute to how fast the sap runs: temperature of course, but also barometric pressure, wind, direction of slope, moisture in the soil, and soil temperature. Humans make schemes to foil these natural processes all the time, but personally I relish the opportunity to be under Nature’s thumb, reminded of just how small I am, a tiny creature walking the crust of the earth, among giants.

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My favorite little neighborhood of trees with their unsightly little blue hangers-on. Shallow soil here on top of a rocky, south-facing slope promotes early warm-up of the soil and thus early runs of sap.

Time to collect sap. Being Luddites, we lug five gallon buckets into the woods, one in each hand, into which we pour the sap from the bags. So far, the highest technology we’ve used in this process is our children’s sled, and even that has its drawbacks, like the tippage factor.

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Here I have some willing(?) help.
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Collected sap, waiting eagerly(?) to be boiled. One of the pleasures of maple sapping is plunging a mug into these buckets of ice cold sap and drinking fresh, tree-filtered water, slightly sweetened. The whole process is almost worth it already.

Time to boil! Maple sap is about 2% sugar, so the time devoted to maple sugaring is mostly spent boiling off all that water. Since I’m a potter and potters accumulate firebrick like a rolling snowball collects snow, I have lots of materials for an outdoor sugaring stove, called an “arch.” Ours is a simple coffin-shaped box made of firebrick, with a chimney at one end and a giant (3 foot by 18 inch) stainless steel pan on top.

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By most maple sugarers’ standards, this is a tiny operation. To which I reply, “Why, thank you. It certainly is.”

 

On warmer days this winter I’ve been out in the orchard cutting back thickets of brush that have grown back since clearing it three years ago. I piled the trimmings into a gigantic pile near the maple syrup arch so I could have the joy of burning it. It was truly a joy to bundle up armfuls of prickly ash, blackberry, buckthorn, and Virginia creeper, stuffing them into the glowing maw of the arch. Certainly, they did not want to go, and held on to my skin and clothes with every thorn in their beings, but I would not be conquered. I found it so satisfying to burn weeds and get maple syrup out of the deal that I’m almost embarrassed to admit it.

Here, in case you’re interested, is our system for boiling maple syrup. We have two pans on the arch: the one large pan and a smaller warming pan. We load up both pans with sap and start the fire. When the sap has started to boil, evaporating enough liquid to lower the level in the large pan, we pour the sap from the warming pan into the large pan, then fill the warming pan again with cold sap. This way we can keep the sap in the large pan boiling fast.

Now is the time to plunge a french press coffee pot into the boiling sap and make some bracingly sweet coffee. Another heady pleasure of maple syrupping.

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Smaller warming pan on the left, main pan on the right. Notice how clear the sap in the small pan is compared to the darker, farther-along syrup on the right. Too bad you can’t smell this photo. Imagine the scent of sugar on smoke.

At some point we run out of sap to keep pouring into the pans. We keep on pushing in the wood until we run out of nerve, fearing the level of the sap will sink so far that we’ll burn it. So we pour off the syrup (straining it through cheesecloth) into a stockpot and bring it indoors where we can civilize it over a stovetop burner. Now all that has to be done is to heat it to 219 degrees. This always takes way longer than it seems like it should, and the smell of sugar begins to saturate the house, driving me, almost against my will, to make pancakes for supper. Again.

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We filter it again on the way to mason jars, screw them shut, and listen for the “ping” as they seal. This year’s count is 15 gallons, stacked in quart and pint jars in our pantry. A few other particulars about this year’s sugar season:

A ghost has been showing up in the foam of the boiling sap:

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Your caption here.

And then there’s the weather this spring. A couple weeks after the trees started to awaken and the sap started dripping, the temperature plunged again and snow began to fly in earnest. Somehow a week of January had been accidentally grafted into March.

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You may be able to see the sap half filling this bag, frozen solid, cloudy as a snowy sky.

Spring came again–sort of–enough for the sap to run again. But as I write (let me remind you that by now it’s April) a winter storm is howling outside the window, 8-15 inches of snow in the forecast. After two days of boiling on the outdoor arch, we’ve brought the most recent batch of syrup inside to cook down on the stove. By all accounts, this will be an epic year for maple syrup producers, since winter won’t give up its hold and the trees will linger between asleep and awake for much longer yet.

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This is what a gallon of home-made syrup looks like in a spring snowstorm. Precious stuff–each quart represents 10 gallons of sap brought out of the woods, and hours of boiling.

But I may just have had enough of making maple syrup for this year.

In other words, it’s April and the buds on the trees are still tightly closed, the frogs are still frozen in the muddy pond bottoms, their spring songs a taunting dream. The garden is under piles of snow and the robins are hopping about, looking hungry.

I believe I too am ready for spring.

 

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