Friday, April 04, 2008
Maple Sap to Syrup: Forty to One
Forty to one. That's the golden ratio for maple syrup. Invented long ago by Native Americans, they found that if you tap a sugar maple tree and collect the sap you can boil it down to a wonderful syrup unknown anywhere else on earth but North America. OK, I haven't looked that one up, but I know the Native Americans didn't have barley or rice syrup and doubt they could have anticipated the construction of refineries to make corn syrup. But I digress.
As we all know in late winter and early spring trees in cold places start to come back to life. This is what Spring is all about. Deciduous trees have created sugars in their leaves through photosynthesis and circulate in a water solution called sap through non-living cells which are tubes of hollow non-living cells. Sap is generally stored down low in their roots and used all over the tree as anti-freeze. As the trees sense the arrival of Spring in the form of warm days and cold nights and changes in sunlight that sap starts to flow up. The tree is getting ready to create leaves which some of us use for shade in the coming months. The Native Americans found that if you bore a small hole down low on the trunk of any adult tree, you could collect gallons of sap every day. If the tree was big, you could make two holes. If you collect all that sap and put it in a pot over a fire and let it boil, you would get something sweet and wonderful. You would get a time machine, so when you put some on your tongue you were instantly brought back to a place where you were a year ago, eating a warm comforting breakfast with people you love. Think about it, long ago this was probably something seasonal where you made the syrup and had it over just a few months. You literally could use the tree (both wood and sap) to make food and energy just as your winter reserves were running out.
Lately I've been looking at those buckets attached to local maple trees at the side of the road with envy. Maybe we have those trees here on the property? Near Lily's school a small tanker truck collects the sap from the trees which line the main street, I see them every day or two. In an answer to my prayers, I was given a gift of five gallons of maple sap. I got this through an offer on Freecycle. Those of you used to Freecycle, which is just an email list offering free stuff will find that here in the Pioneer Valley, there will be odd things like maple sap, country things like roosters (free animals are actually against the rules), common things like bags of stuffed animals and old couches, and oddball things like "a bag of mints" (that offer is sitting there right now in my email inbox). Did I digress again?
I picked up the maple sap in three large pots. It was left on a stoop across town in one of those big orange picnic jugs. I filled my pots and put them in the back of the car and drove home verrry slowwly. I could hear them sloshing around at stops. As soon as I got home I put one pot on the stove to boil. Usually sugaring, as this is called, is done on a wood fire either outside or inside a sugar shack. Around here you can visit the sugar shacks and watch the sap boiling and smell the sweet steam and buy yourself a nice breakfast. Steam pours out of special trap-door vents in the roof of a sugar shack, so you can see when they are sugaring from afar.
The pure sap really had no flavor or color. It seemed like water from a pond, as if there was something in there that I had yet to find or notice. I soon had my two gallon pot boiling on the gas stove in the kitchen here. (I always start to get tired at the end of a blog entry like this - if I got paid, I'd definitely give the end more attention.) After about two hours half the sap was gone, but aside from a little foam, the contents looked the same. I added more from another pot and let it continue. Boiling something like this creates steam, so I made sure to keep the fan over the stove turned on. The sap creates a faintly sweet odor which reminds me of Halloween. I couldn't stick around the house the whole time - you know, a watched pot and all - so I turned it off and started it up the next day. Sap can go bad, so it's best to boil it quickly or refrigerate it. After about four hours of boiling I had lost 2/3 of the volume, but as the title of this entry suggests I had a way to go. Maple sap must boil down to 1/40th the volume to make syrup. My five gallons would eventually make one pint. On the third day I boiled some more. I was quite excited when I had only the stuff in one pot now. It hardly tasted sweet by this time and not very maple-y. It wasn't even brown. But when I stirred it, it had a little give. Something was in there now. A few hours later I had something that seemed like watered down maple syrup. Nothing you'd notice if it was on pancakes. But another hour later I had about a quart of something I thought was maple syrup. It was hot and brown and maple-y. I put this in the fridge, but by the next day I realized that the cold stuff needed to boil some more.
The math said it should be a pint, but I had a quart - and some fear of burning the stuff after maybe seven hours of boiling. I put my quart into a small pot and boiled it some more, tasting it occasionally. Of course a little while later it boiled over and whatever spilled burned and created a mess. Not much was lost, but what was left in the pot - here I feel like the guy who discovered Teflon - was very good maple syrup. It was concentrated maple sap boiled down forty-to-one. One pint. I had it this morning on French Toast. It was great.